Bolivia Prepares for Presidential Election

A Bolivian woman walks near election posters in La Paz

A Bolivian woman walks near election posters of presidential candidates Evo Morales of the Movement Toward Socialism party and conservative candidate Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga in La Paz, Dec. 16. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

Evo Morales, a former coca farmer, free-trade opponent and highland Indian, is favored to win as Bolivia elects a president Sunday. Morales would be the first indigenous president of Bolivia. His race against a conservative former leader has heightened divisions in South America's poorest country.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

A political shift is under way in Latin America, moving the region to the left. From Brazil to Venezuela to Argentina, left-leaning leaders have gained power. That's due, in part, to popular frustration with failed reforms under conservative governments in the 1990s. The new political trend has frustrated Washington and could affect the US war on drugs.

BLOCK: The move to the left could continue this weekend. Bolivia holds nationwide elections this Sunday. Former coca farmer Evo Morales is seeking to become the country's first indigenous president. From Bolivia, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

(Soundbite of rally; music)

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

Clashing musicians at a recent rally seem an apt metaphor for Bolivia. In this polarized country of nearly nine million, no one seems prepared to give way to the other side. But the country faces a crossroads, having toppled two presidents in the past two years. Ten candidates are vying to lead a country of extremes. Traditionally, a small elite has controlled much of the wealth in this Andean nation, while the vast majority lives on less than $2 a day, many of them indigenous.

(Soundbite of rally; music)

McCARTHY: Into this mix comes Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian by blood who decries the free market. His movement toward socialism is a grouping of associations fed up, they say, with corruption, inequality and the foreign extraction of the nation's natural wealth. Bolivia just raised its hydrocarbon tax to 50 percent on transnationals tapping Bolivia's natural gas reserves, estimated to be 53 trillion cubic feet.

(Soundbite of rally; music)

Mr. EVO MORALES (Presidential Candidate, Bolivia): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `Companeros, sympathizers and the curious among you,' Evo Morales implores the crowd in the impoverished high plateau region of his birth, `give us the opportunity to revenge the vilified of history on Sunday, to demonstrate that the poor, the excluded, that we,' Morales says, `can guarantee a government with honesty and that defends the dignity of Bolivians.' As the leader of the coca growers federation stem-winds, a crowd of indigenous supporters sings `We are the sons of rebellion. Death to imperialism.'

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

McCARTHY: A woman wearing a trademark Bolivian black bowler scoops coca leaves from her lap into small bags. This mother of eight says the campaign distributed the coca as a gesture of hospitality. Chewing coca is part of Andean culture and, 50-year-old Solome(ph) says, survival.

SOLOME (Bolivian Resident): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `We are poor and our husbands don't work. Coca leaf kills the hunger when we have nothing to eat,' she says.

Evo Morales, who wants to protect traditional coca use, says, if elected, he will decriminalize coca production. That challenges one of the most sensitive US policies in Latin America, the eradication of illicit coca cultivation.

Coca growers have become a force of popular resistance, employing roadblocks and the ballot box to win a voice in Congress electing Morales. His rising influence has been warily eyed in Washington and reflects the leftist tide that is washing over South America. His opposite number: Jorge Quiroga Ramirez, a conservative who served as president in 2001, popularly known as `Tuto.' The 45-year-old free-market proponent leads in Santa Cruz, the economic engine of the country's eastern lowlands. Quiroga talks so tough on drugs that during a candidate's debate this week, one reporter asked if he wasn't more inflexible on the subject than the United States Embassy.

Former President JORGE QUIROGA RAMIREZ (Bolivia): (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

McCARTHY: `I couldn't care less about the US Embassy,' Quiroga shot back to the applause of the audience. `Drugs must be combated,' he says, `and have never been a matter of pleasing others.'

(Soundbite of rally; music)

McCARTHY: Outside the debate, Quiroga supporters clamor under the banner `Podemos,' meaning `We can.' To distance himself from the old prominent parties, Quiroga created a new one. The ads refer to new winds blowing, but La Paz-based political analyst Carlos Toranzo says the candidate has failed to see that those winds are shifting left.

In this split country some fear that a Morales presidency would undermine the current oil and agribusiness boom and the international aid that keeps Bolivia afloat. Toranzo says, however, if elected, Evo Morales will be more compelled to change himself than the economic realities around him.

Mr. CARLOS TORANZO (Political Analyst): If Evo Morales wins the election, it's not revolution. Evo Morales has to understand that they have to go step by step. He needs to build another Evo Morales.

McCARTHY: Morales is the front-runner but is not expected to win a majority of the vote, meaning Congress chooses between the top vote-getters. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

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