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

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Some are calling it a pink tide sweeping across Latin America. All this week, we're reporting on the region's swing to the political left. South American governments are affirming their autonomy, asserting greater independence from the United States, and tightening control over their oil and gas.

Today's report is from NPR's Julie McCarthy. She recently traveled to the newest country to embrace a leftist leader, Bolivia.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Bolivia's fortunes have long rested on the riches extracted from its earth. In 2003, a popular revolt challenged the sell off of the natural gas reserves and hastened the country's shift to the left.

(Soundbite of crowd shouting)

MCCARTHY: Residents in El Alto, a hardscrabble city in the Bolivia highlands, blockaded nearby La Paz to protest a gas project backed by then-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. The U.S. ally and free-market disciple agreed to a pipeline that would ship the 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. Troops used tear gas and bullets to end the blockade.

(Soundbite of gunfire and yelling)

MCCARTHY: In the 1990s, Sanchez de Lozada introduced economic liberalization. It put public enterprises - water, gas, the airline - into private hands. Generous terms lured many foreign investors to the privatizing boom, derisively known here as neo-liberal economics. Many saw it as one more case of foreign exploitation that began with silver centuries ago.

At least 50 people were killed in what became known as the war in defense of gas. Juan Patricio Kespey's(ph) brother was among the dead. Kespey recalls events in anger, and says privatization enriched a few at the expense of many.

Mr. JUAN PATRICIO KESPEY: (Through translator) For years after the privatization process, politicians promised a great deal. But the reality is that they were rich, and their policies were making the rich people even richer. After 10 years of privatization in Bolivia, we learned that only poverty came of it.

MCCARTHY: A disgraced President Sanchez de Lozada fled to the U.S. The families of those who were killed want him extradited for trial. Jim Shultz directs the Bolivia-based human rights organization Democracy Center. He says Sanchez de Lozada epitomized the Latin American leader who pressed a misguided economic model backed by the Washington and the World Bank.

Mr. JIM SHULTZ (Director, Democracy Center): So what's happening in Bolivia, what's happening throughout Latin America is not rocket science to understand. It is about the practical failure at a day-to-day level of these policies to deliver the goods. Because they just haven't worked.

MCCARTHY: Evo Morales swept to office largely on the promise to regain control of Bolivia's hydrocarbons industry, which he nationalized on May 1st.

President EVO MORALES (Bolivia): (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Morales told a delighted public, we are ending centuries of plunder of Bolivia's wealth. The gas reserves, estimated in the trillions of cubic feet, will be nationalized through negotiation, not confiscation. Father Wilson Soria Paz - an important figure during the gas conflict - says Bolivia is shaping a new destiny.

Father WILSON SORIA PAZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: I took the announcement with joy and hope, he says. And foreign companies will see that the government will respect them. We are tending towards socialism, but not communism. Socialism, he says, in the sense of justice and inclusion.

Political analyst Carlos Toranzo says the transformation that has spread across the region is not about ideology, but rather economics.

Mr. CARLOS TORANZO (Political Analyst): Why? Because in 20 years, Latin America has problems in equity.

MCCARTHY: Sixty percent of Bolivia's population lives on $2 or less a day. The gap between the rich and poor is one of the widest in the world. The indigenous majority has long felt excluded by the descendants of Spaniards who traditionally ruled here. To rebalance the scales, Morales is redistributing millions of acres of land, taking a greater share of the gas profits, and changing the status quo with gestures that include naming a former maid as justice minister.

But not everyone's pleased. Carlos Dabdoub is a commentator from the oil region of Santa Cruz.

Mr. CARLOS DABDOUB (Commentator, Santa Cruz): (Through translator) Without a doubt, the policies of this government are heading to a new type of a state. It is a state of capitalism along with the flags of socialism, accompanied today by such countries as Cuba and Venezuela. There is an attempt to impose this on the rest of Latin America.

MCCARTHY: But Professor Jose Mirtenbaum says Morales is neither a socialist nor a populist. Mirtenbaum calls him a nationalist, cut in the mold of Andean leaders who favor what he calls creative chaos.

Professor JOSE MIRTENBAUM (Political Science): It makes people nervous, of course. It makes everybody nervous, you see. But again, Evo is seen from the initiator of what we call, or what they call the (foreign language spoken) -the upside down or turning the world upside down, back to its natural order.

MCCARTHY: Reordering the gas industry antagonized Morales' best customers: Brazil and Argentina. Only Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who sees Morales as a protégé, rushed to his aid. But economist Gonzalo Chavez says Morales has an internal advantage.

Mr. GONZALO CHAVEZ (Economist): Because he's gaining a lot of Bolivian support, because we are living a very emotional and nationalist period in Bolivia.

MCCARTHY: Morales's inauguration was a showcase of emotion.

(Soundbite of music)

MCCARTHY: Amid ancient ruins, Bolivia installed its first Aymara Indian leader in modern times. 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. Political scientist Jose Mirtenbaum says Bolivia has given birth to a new kind of politics.

Prof. MIRTENBAUM: And I think Evo has opened this door. He's forcing the world to think in new paradigms. And just by the fact that he presented himself with his sweater before the King of Spain.

MCCARTHY: As the leader of Bolivia's coca growers, Morales is also challenging the United States to think anew about coca eradication.

(Soundbite of farm tools rattling)

(Soundbite of crowd chattering in foreign language)

MCCARTHY: The green leaf is openly weighed and legally sold here for chewing and making tea. Its derivative cocaine is not. Yet the DEA reports that illegal cultivation of coca has increased. Aides say Morales prefers that growers voluntarily eradicate illegal crops.

But experts say that won't happen as long as there's no alternative as lucrative as coca. Latin America drug expert Roberto Laserna says Morales is putting the dilemma back on Washington.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

Mr. ROBERTO LASERNA (Latin American Drug Expert): To a large extent, he says, okay. If you want to eradicate drugs, it's your problem. So you come up with a solution. Don't punish my constituency to bear the cost of your fight.

MCCARTHY: This ball you see is in the U.S. court?

Mr. LASERNA: Yeah. They have to be smarter than before. It's not working, not here. It's not working in Columbia. It's not working in the U.S.

MCCARTHY: Inside Bolivia, Morales faces rebellious provinces rich in oil and hungry for more autonomy. A corruption scandal inside the state-run oil company is slowing the project to nationalize the country's oil and gas. Yet Morales's own popularity remains high.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering, applause)

MCCARTHY: Ducking from a building onto a street of well wishers, South America's newest leftist leader is part idol, part president.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, La Paz, Bolivia.

SIEGEL: You can learn more about Evo Morales and hear yesterday's profile of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez at our Web site, npr.org.

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