A Bolivian Populist Upends the Status Quo Evo Morales rose to power vowing to create a more equitable society. He's won the hearts of Bolivia's poor with policies aimed at raising living standards, and nationalized the hydrocarbon industry with a moderate approach that relies on negotiation, rather than confiscation.
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A Bolivian Populist Upends the Status Quo

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A Bolivian Populist Upends the Status Quo

A Bolivian Populist Upends the Status Quo

A Bolivian Populist Upends the Status Quo

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6061781/6061814" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower, has pushed for greater state control of his country's vast natural gas reserves. Other economic reforms have made him a favorite among the poor in Bolivia, where two-thirds live below the poverty line. Olivier Hoslet/epa/Corbis hide caption

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Olivier Hoslet/epa/Corbis

An indigenous Bolivian, one of tens of thousands of protesters demanding nationalization of the country's gas resources, marches past riot police guarding the government palace in La Paz, May 27, 2005. Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters/Corbis hide caption

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Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters/Corbis

An indigenous Bolivian, one of tens of thousands of protesters demanding nationalization of the country's gas resources, marches past riot police guarding the government palace in La Paz, May 27, 2005.

Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters/Corbis

Bolivia is one of the least developed nations in Latin America. Almost two-thirds of its people, many of them subsistence farmers, live in poverty. Doug Beach hide caption

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Doug Beach

Bolivia is one of the least developed nations in Latin America. Almost two-thirds of its people, many of them subsistence farmers, live in poverty.

Doug Beach

Bolivian President Evo Morales, right, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greet a crowd of supporters in Bolivia's coca-growing region. Morales is considered a protege of Chavez, seen as a leader in Latin America's leftward shift. Martin Alipaz/epa/Corbis hide caption

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Martin Alipaz/epa/Corbis

Campesino to Indigenous Icon

• An Amayra Indian, Morales first rose to power by organizing Bolivia's coca growers — mostly subsistence farmers — into a loose federation opposed to U.S.-backed eradication efforts. Like many in his country, Morales views the coca plant as an important part of indigenous culture. In his 2005 inaugural address, he said the fight against illicit drugs "cannot be an excuse for the U.S. government to dominate" South America's coca-growing nations.

• Morales was ousted from his seat in Bolivia's Congress in 2002 on trumped-up charges of terrorism related to anti-eradication riots. He chose to run for president anyway, and came in second place — surprising candidates from Bolivia's traditional political parties, and making him an instant celebrity among South America's indigenous population.

• During the so-called Bolivian Gas War of 2003, Morales was a leader of mass protests sparked when the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada awarded lucrative contracts, without oversight by Congress, to dozens of foreign companies to extract and export Bolivian natural gas.

• Morales was elected president in 2005, defeating his nearest rival, conservative former President Jorge Quiroga, by a wide margin. Since coming into office, Morales has traveled to visit the heads of state of Cuba, Venezuela, Spain, France, China, South Africa and Brazil.

Sources: Associated Press, CIA Factbook, Encyclopedia Brittanica

Bolivian President Evo Morales wears a wool sweater to his audience with Spain's King Juan Carlos in Madrid, Jan. 4, 2006. Morales, modern Bolivia's first-ever indigenous leader, is known for his low-key style. Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images

Children run past election grafitti supporting Evo Morales in the impoverished city of El Alto, near the capital of La Paz. The Bolivian president is wildly popular among the nation's poor, who identify with his indigenous roots and modest upbringing. Rickey Rogers/Reuters/Corbis hide caption

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Rickey Rogers/Reuters/Corbis

Children run past election grafitti supporting Evo Morales in the impoverished city of El Alto, near the capital of La Paz. The Bolivian president is wildly popular among the nation's poor, who identify with his indigenous roots and modest upbringing.

Rickey Rogers/Reuters/Corbis

Bolivia is the latest Latin American nation to embrace a leftist leader — Evo Morales, a former coca grower who rose to power vowing to use his nation's resources to help the poor.

The landlocked nation, high in the Andes, gets much of its revenue from sales of natural gas. With trillions of cubic feet of gas, Bolivia has the second-largest proven reserves in the region after Venezuela.

In 2003, a government plan to export the gas via a pipeline sparked a popular revolt that hastened the political shift to the left. Then-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a U.S. ally and free-market disciple, agreed to ship natural gas out of Bolivia for processing elsewhere.

Protestors said that the plan relegated Bolivia to simply supplying raw materials, leaving the more lucrative job of refining to others. Critics had long derided Lozada's "neo-liberal" policies, which slowly put once-public enterprises into private hands. Many Bolivians saw it as one more case of foreign exploitation.

Demonstrators set up a blockade in the capital of La Paz in hopes of stopping the gas pipeline deal. Troops using tear gas and bullets to break up the protest killed at least 50 people in what became known as the "war in defense of gas." Disgraced, Sanchez de Lozada resigned and fled to safety in the United States.

Jim Shultz, director of the Bolivia-based human rights organization Democracy Center, says Sanchez de Lozada epitomized a generation of Latin American leaders, backed by the U.S. government and the World Bank, who persisted in pushing a misguided economic model on their people.

"What is happening in Bolivia [and] throughout Latin America is not rocket science to understand," he says. "It is about the practical failure at a day-to-day level to deliver the goods, because they just haven't worked."

President Evo Morales was swept into office largely on a promise to regain control of Bolivia's hydrocarbons industry. At his inauguration, he told a delighted public that his government would end centuries of "foreign plunder" of Bolivia's mineral wealth. He nationalized the hydrocarbons industry in May 2006 — an ongoing process that relies on negotiation, not confiscation of assets.

The leftist transformation that has spread across the region may be less about ideology than economics. At least 60 percent of Bolivia's population lives on $2 or less a day, and the gap between rich and poor is one of the widest in the world.

The indigenous majority have long felt excluded from power by descendants of Spaniards, who traditionally held the keys to wealth and power. Morales, the first indigenous Bolivian head of state since Spanish forces took over five centuries ago, is redistributing millions of acres of land.

At his inauguration in January, Morales proclaimed "from 500 years of resistance ... we pass to another 500 years of power." Indigenous people across the hemisphere saw an end to their exclusion.

Critics say Morales is trying to wrap state capitalism in the flags of Socialism, riding a surge of national pride to upend longstanding agreements. But political scientist Jose Mirtenbaum disagrees, saying Bolivia has given birth to a new kind of politics.

"I think that Evo has opened this door — he's forcing the world to think in new paradigms," Mirtenbaum says. "Just by the fact that he presented himself in his sweater before the King of Spain!"

And as the leader of Bolivia's cocalero movement — a loose federation of coca growers — Morales is also challenging the United States to rethink its coca eradication efforts.

Coca for chewing and tea are ancient traditions in Andean culture, and growing and selling coca leaves is legal — the derivative cocaine is not. Aides say Morales prefers that growers voluntarily eradicate illegal crops. But experts say that won't work as long as there's no alternative crop as lucrative as coca — and that means reducing demand for cocaine within the United States.

While Bolivia's drug policy is aggravating relations with the United States, Morales' gas-nationalization plan is antagonizing Bolivia's biggest customer: Brazil.

Morales is also having to fend off rebellious states that are rich in oil and clamoring for more autonomy. Yet his personal popularity remains high. South America's newest leftist leader, for the most part, enjoys rock-star status.