Morales's first stand

Bolivia's first indigenous leader values territory over globalization.

Evo Morales has done what he said he'd do before he was elected president of Bolivia in December. On Monday, he seized control of Bolivia's oil and gas reserves. He sent troops to occupy the holdings of foreign oil companies, thereby giving the multinationals a shock hardly softened by his early warning of what was coming.

It all seems so reminiscent of another dramatic stroke by a head of state. On March 18, 1938, in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, President Lazaro Cardenas seized the holdings of American and British oil companies in Mexico. Audacious and dangerous it was, but Cardenas survived the fury evident in Washington and London, though there were many people who thought he wouldn't. It will be interesting to see how Mr. Morales fares in the blowback of his grand stroke. Is this to be a full-fledged nationalization, or something less, like a major renegotiation of contracts?

"The looting by the foreign companies has ended," Morales said from the balcony of the Palacio Quemado, the so-called "burned palace," the venue for more unplanned - often violent - regime changes than experienced by any other country in Latin America.

One wonders what comes next.

Who is Evo Morales and what does he represent? He's already been described as the latest expression of a big swing leftward in Latin American politics. Is he a socialist, a revolutionary, an iconoclast? Nobody's sure, though he has expressed some of his intentions. In addition to taking control of Bolivia's energy resources, for instance, he promised an end to the destruction of the coca crop, a policy unsettling to the drug warriors in Washington so eager to scorch the earth it grows in. Morales calls cocaine a Western invention. He may be right.

Abel Posse, an Argentine novelist and diplomat knowledgeable about the Andean countries, thinks Morales may not fit comfortably with any of the ideologies listed above. Morales, he wrote, represents emergence of the long-submerged Andean belief system, a way of thinking that is antithetical to the body of conventional knowledge about how to live in the modern world.

The people who embrace this system, not just in Bolivia but throughout Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and northern Argentina, have been generally ignored for the past five centuries. "They live bad, die early, pass through cycles of famine. They have been considered incapable of governing and incapable of being governed," Mr. Posse wrote.

But they have held firm to their traditions and values. They know what they believe. They know what they do not believe.

The people Morales represents, probably a large fraction of the more than 50 percent of the electorate who voted for him, "don't believe in globalization, don't believe in capitalism, don't believe in Marxism. (Che Guevara died in Bolivia because he failed to grasp that.)," wrote Posse. Nor do they believe in the institutions imposed upon them by whites and mestizos: the judicial system, taxation, everything that has to do with the "imaginary republic" created to further the interests of only 10 percent of the population.

So what do they believe in? Well, for one thing a softer approach to development and a deeper respect for the environment. Bolivia, owing to slash-and-burn agriculture and the worldwide demands for exotic hardwoods, suffers extensive deforestation, soil erosion, and industrial pollution.

Morales speaks of a cultural federalism, some new institution to bind together the divergent peoples who inhabit Bolivia's lowlands in the Amazon basin, virtually at sea level, and those of the sierra, who live in remote hamlets, some clinging to the high Andes at nearly 20,000 feet. These are very practical problems and concerns, hardly driven by ideologies of the standard sort.

Morales speaks frequently of multiculturalism and "convergent economies," whatever that means. But his policies are not all vague. Quite specifically, he wants to direct the wealth that flows from existing resources (Bolivia has the second largest reserve of natural gas in the continent) to the people who never got it before.

Who know what's at hand? Certainly Morales, whatever his plans, has one thing going for him. Things couldn't get much worse for this poorest country in the Latin world, a nation which - owing to the greed and incompetence of the oligarchic and militarist classes that have always run it - has suffered through the turmoil and consequences of nearly 200 coups and counter coups and a couple of full scale revolutions and wars since its founding in 1825.

Much will be heard in the coming months no doubt about Indian superstitions, mockery of their worship of Pachamama, their goddess who calls upon human beings to care for the earth. The rise of Evo Morales certainly won't restore the indigenous people of the Andes to their historical high estate. But a little improvement might be in the offing.

Richard O'Mara is a former editor and foreign correspondent at The Baltimore Sun.

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