Morales rose to prominence as the leader of the Bolivian Movement for Socialism (MSM) in 2005.
Tumultuous U.S.-Bolivian relations took a turn for the worse last month when a plane carrying Bolivia’s President Evo Morales was diverted and forced to land in Austria after departing Russia. European authorities thought that Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower, was on board Morales’ plane, setting off a diplomatic row after Bolivia refused requests to search the plane.
“The U.S. pressured these countries to ground my plane, they wanted to scare me, they kidnapped me and put my life at risk because my country doesn’t follow the rules of the Empire any longer,” Morales said following the incident. ” Edward Snowden is not a fly that can get onto my plane without anyone noticing, he’s not a bag I could just carry on board.” Although his government offered Snowden asylum, the NSA whistleblower accepted a temporary, one year asylum offer from Russia. Bolivia could be on the short list of countries that will accept him for permanent asylum once his one year stay in Russia is complete.
Following the incident, CBS news reports that Morales decided to extend asylum to Snowden, welcoming him to come to his country after he accused the U.S. and Europe of temporarily blocking his flight home.
Before Morales got wrapped up in international headlines regarding Edward Snowden, the Bolivian President had defied Washington dictates by supporting coca production and nationalizing key sectors of the Bolivian economy, including telecommunications and mining. The transition to a semi-planned economy has helped the South American nation to slash extreme poverty by at least 13 percent, reduce unemployment and virtually wipe out illiteracy among the country’s 10 million citizens in recent years.
Who is Evo Morales?
The late Hugo Chavez may have stolen headlines in the U.S. for famously calling former President George W. Bush “the devil” at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in 2006. But among contemporary leaders in Latin America, Evo Morales is no less controversial in the eyes of Washington.
Morales rose to prominence as a leader of the Movement for Socialism (MSM) after he was popularly elected the country’s first President of indigenous descent in 2005. He played a key role in national protests against the privatization of water supplies in Cochabamba in 2000 and similarly against the privatization of the country’s robust gas resources in 2003.
As the Obama administration criticizes Bolivia and other countries for offering asylum to Snowden, the U.S. continues to harbor Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, Bolivia’s President from 2002-2003 who ordered the military to open fire on citizens protesting the privatization of a major gas line. Sixty people died in that attack.
It’s part of a long history of U.S. intervention in Bolivian affairs, notably lending support to the Bolivian military in the assassination of Che Guevara in 1967. Che was hoping to lead another popular revolt in the country following his success in the 1959 revolution.
With the help of the CIA, the country was plunged into decades of military dictatorship, coups and countercoups until Morales’ election began to turn the page in 2006. His rise has been described by many observers as part of the Bolivarian Revolution that led to a new wave of leftist leaders in Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and in Venezuela over the past decade.
U.S. filmmaker Oliver Stone interviewed Morales as part of his hit 2009 documentary, “South of the Border,” including him in the list of new leaders.
Empowering the peasantry
So what can be said of his leadership? For the marginalized indigenous population, Morales represented more than a symbolic change of face, by extending resources to help reduce poverty and virtually wipe out illiteracy with the help of Venezuela and Cuba.
The BBC reported in 2008 that a 30-month campaign to teach thousands of poor Bolivians to read and write has made the country “illiteracy free.” In 2001, at least 14 percent of the population didn’t know how to read, compared with just 4 percent after the campaign was completed in 2008.
For many of the poor indigenous population, the “Yes I Can” campaign designed by Cuba and funded by Venezuela was the first time a Bolivian government had helped further the education in rural areas.
“Not knowing how to read and write was like having a disability, it was like being blind,” said Freddy Mollo, a 43-year-old student.
“I couldn’t even draw a line. I had never been to school. Now I have learned to read and write in Quechua and I feel like a real person. Before I didn’t,” said Daria Calpa.
Gains extend far beyond just literacy campaigns. Using data from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Guardian newspaper reported that the proportion of those in moderate poverty dropped from 60 percent in 2005 and to 49.6 percent in 2010. Extreme poverty fell from 38 percent to 25 percent over the same period.
The UNDP also reports that Bolivia is the top country in Latin America in terms of transferring resources to its most vulnerable population — 2.5 percent of its Gross National Product (GNP).
“Bolivia is one of the few countries that has reduced inequality… the gap between rich and poor has been hugely narrowed,” said Alicia Bárcena, executive secretary of the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean last year.
Standing up to the DEA
As a former union leader for a coca growers union, the issue of normalizing coca production and consumption was a personal one for Morales and for millions of citizens who rely upon the crop for their livelihood. It’s a difficult line to walk when coca from South America, mostly from Colombia and Bolivia is used to produce the majority of the world’s cocaine.
“I would like to say with clarity and with responsibility to you and the entire world that this is the coca leaf; that this is not cocaine. This coca leaf is part of our culture,” said Morales holding up a coca leaf at a 2009 U.N. meeting in Vienna.
For centuries, indigenous groups in the Andes mountains have been chewing coca, a leaf that produces a mild buzz similar to caffeine. Morales, a regular consumer of the plant has been a leading spokesman for taking the plant off the U.N. list of schedule I drugs.
After expelling the U.S. ambassador in 2008, the U.S. and Bolivia normalized relations in 2011, but it is not business as usual when it comes to drug enforcement. “For the first time since Bolivia was founded, the United States will now respect Bolivia’s rules and laws,” said Morales under the agreement restoring full diplomatic ties that Bolivia and Washington signed in 2011. As part of the new agreement, the DEA is no longer welcome in Bolivia.
Cocaine is still illegal in Bolivia and regulation of the coca industry seems to have actually helped reduce the illicit drug trade. “It’s fascinating to look at a country that kicked out the United States ambassador and the D.E.A. [Drug Enforcement Agency], and the expectation on the part of the United States is that drug war efforts would fall apart,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a Bolivian research group. Instead, she said, Bolivia’s approach is “showing results.”
By empowering the coca unions and drawing a clear line separating coca leaf from illegal cocaine, Morales appears to have found an alternative to the decades DEA war on drugs policies that have resulted in $1 trillion spent, 60,000 deaths and no measurable reduction in drug export or consumption. About 82 percent of Americans now say that the U.S. is losing the war on drugs.