Note from La Paz

I arrived in La Paz, Bolivia, too late to get a press pass, so I watched Evo Morales’s inauguration on television with my aunt and some friends. There were nearly a dozen of us—my aunt is a political exile from Peru, and many of her old friends had made a special trip. We reserved a long table on the second floor of a Peruvian restaurant called Machu Picchu. It was a celebration, with drinking, laughter, applause. There was a brightly colored swing-set in the room, and periodically the cook’s daughter would climb on. The noise was just awful, but no one seemed to notice.

Among the guests in from Peru to witness the event was a white-maned wolf of a man named Hugo Blanco. It took me most of the speech to realize it was him—mostly because it had never occurred to me that a man like that could still be alive. Blanco is a celebrity in certain circles, a myth even, a man who began making his considerable reputation leading land takeovers in Cuzco in the early 1960s. He was eventually captured, jailed for six years, sentenced to death, then pardoned and deported in 1970. He returned in 1978 to participate in the elections for the Peruvian Constituent Assembly, and, despite the fact that he was again deported, this time in mid-campaign, Blanco was elected with the most votes of any candidate nationwide. He made a run for the presidency in 1980, failed, and then, naturally, the Peruvian left splintered and weakened, the coup de grâce coming in three parts over the next twelve years: the homicidal war of Shining Path, the disastrous populist experiment of President Alan García, and the mafia bribery-state of President Alberto Fujimori. My aunt and others like her—union leaders and activists, many now labeled terrorists—were forced into exile. Others were jailed. Hugo Blanco briefly returned to the political scene in 1989, when he was arrested and accused of terrorism, but the charges were eventually dropped, and he was released. After five years in Mexico, he has lived for the last ten in the kind of monastic austerity one would expect from a man with his résumé: a simple room in Cuzco, with a cement floor and a cot to sleep on.

He sat across the table from me, eating papa a la huancaína and hardly pausing to breathe, with a cone-shaped wool hat pulled low over his eyes. He didn’t take off his blue windbreaker, which was adorned with a Peasant Confederation of Peru logo on the left breast—and a Nike swoosh on the right. Every now and then he looked up to ask what Evo was saying, since at his seventy-two years of age, Hugo Blanco is nearly deaf. And still Blanco was joyous. Evo made his speech before the Congress—one of the best political speeches I’ve ever heard: combative, funny, hopeful, charming—and Hugo Blanco laughed when we laughed, clapped when we clapped, as if the words, no matter how well delivered, were beside the point. He never took off his hat; periodically he would scratch his white beard, look up at the television, and offer me a grin. He said almost nothing. When it was over, we shook hands, and he left.

Later, one of my aunt’s friends told me that Blanco always wears a hat because he feels it protects his brain. It turns out that four years ago he suffered an aneurysm and almost died. Fate had done him a tremendous favor in granting him these four extra years. What if he had passed away then? This old socialist, this lion of the left, wouldn’t have seen Lula in Brazil or the election of Bachelet in Chile. He wouldn’t have seen Tabaré in Uruguay or Argentina under Kirchner or Chávez in Venezuela, and most importantly, he wouldn’t have seen Evo.

La Paz is a beautiful city, a knot of high- rises dropped in a sharp valley, a colonial center in miniature on steep narrow streets. In January, a day that dawns rainy and cold can become sunny and bright almost without warning, and so one never knows what to expect. The night of Evo’s inauguration, in the Plaza San Francisco, the physical space yielded completely to the needs of the people, and tens of thousands of Bolivians made of the city a festival. It was impossible not to feel hopeful, and I’ll admit that hope—at least as regards politics—is an altogether foreign sensation for me. On another day, the scene would have struck me as irredeemably optimistic, but that day I kind of enjoyed it. The rain threatened, but did not come, and one suspected that if it had, it hardly would have mattered. Bolivians and their guests from all over the world danced in the streets, offered toasts to the new president, and nothing could have quelled that optimism.

Of course, there is hope, and there is reality. The following day I went to the Hotel Sucre in downtown La Paz for a conference of the so-called new Latin American left. The first speaker, Zacarías Flores, a representative of Evo’s own MAS party, was far and away the most lucid exponent of a nonideological, nondogmatic, and practical approach to dealing with the pressing issues of poverty and the marginalization of the indigenous majority in the nation-state. He offered real ideas, and perhaps most comforting was that he seemed to have a real respect for the immense challenge of governing. It began so well, I began to think that perhaps all of the previous day’s optimism had not been unfounded. But then it unraveled: speaker after speaker rose to the dais, spouting jargon that we all know by heart. It was a toss-up between the triumphalist and the conspiratorial schools of sloganeering. Every time one of these men (they are almost always men) won an election in his country: THE PEOPLE CANNOT BE FOOLED! Every time one lost (and they lose quite often): THE IMPERIALISTS HAVE MANIPULATED THE PEOPLE’S WILL!

It was an altogether dispiriting day: there was Schafik Handal, a representative from the FMLN, presenting a preposterous apology for Stalinism and mourning the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Tragically, though perhaps not surprisingly, Handal returned to El Salvador and promptly died of a heart attack.) There was Mohammed Lashpar, representing Qaddafi’s Libya, urging us all to read the Great Leader’s Green Book, and saying that electoral democracy wasn’t really that important, what mattered most was unity (behind a demagogue, Mr. Lashpar? behind a dictator?)—dismissing, in other words, the most significant lesson of Evo Morales’s long political struggle. More surprising and therefore more disappointing was the legendary Bolivian mining leader Domitila Chúngara revealing a frightening authoritarian streak, calling for nationalizing the media and chastising those who didn’t vote a straight MAS party line. But most nauseating was Tomás Borge of Nicaragua, whose self-aggrandizing speech was demagoguery of a fine vintage, enough to make me grind my teeth. He name-dropped for fifteen minutes—I was talking to Fidel, Torrijos and I were saying, et cetera—stopping only to lead the crowd in a few vivas: Que viva Bolivia! Que viva Fidel! He is married to a Peruvian, and many Peruvians, including some of my aunt’s friends, fought in the war against the Contras. Everyone I spoke to said the same about Borge: There is no man more corrupt in all of Latin America. It was something I could sense intuitively—his was perhaps the exact opposite of Evo’s speech the previous day.

Hugo Chávez and his people were expected but did not make an appearance. They were across town, where the Comandante was receiving an honorary degree from the local university. I came across the crowds walking home: the main avenue leading to El Prado was closed, and hundreds of people were listening to Chávez’s speech on loudspeakers, waving tiny Venezuelan flags. I listened for a moment, long enough to hear him declare that machismo is a by-product of capitalism, just after he insulted Lourdes Flores, Peru’s first serious woman contender for the presidency. He rambled: My mother wanted me to be a priest, he said, be patient with Evo, and his rhetorical meandering made me dizzy. Later I read that he spoke for three hours.

It’s easier to like Hugo Chávez from afar. Up close, the spectacle of his ego is grotesque. When people propose Venezuela as a political-economic model for Latin America, I’m reminded of high school physics classes, where each problem assumes an infinite plane and zero friction. Every country has resources, but not every country sits on the world’s fourth-largest reserves of oil. This is the kind of wealth that allows a leader to behave in pretty much any way he wants. Whatever social and wealth redistribution programs Chávez may be pursuing in his country, many of which are certainly producing admirable results, he is self-evidently a man in love with the spotlight, an egocentric milico, and Latin American history is full of these types. If you can take your social programs with a strong dose of authoritarianism and cult of personality, then Chávez is your man. He spent the first week of the new year provoking a diplomatic spat with Peru by taking sides in Peru´s upcoming elections. Then he showed up in La Paz, perhaps Latin America’s safest capital, with two planes, one just for his security detail. There was something unseemly about Chávez throwing his weight around, his caravan (two SUVs, a bus full of soldiers, a limousine, and an ambulance) speeding through the crowded streets with horns bleating. His security guards kept busy harassing reporters, checking credentials, patting down local journalists, and acting as if they owned the place.

Immediately after the inauguration, Evo and his vice president, Alvaro García Linera, stood on the balcony of the Palacio Quemado to preside over a military display, soldiers marching and whatnot. They were soon joined by Chávez, who placed himself slightly behind but between the president and vice president of Bolivia before eventually throwing his arms around both, as if he were a proud father presenting his children at a society cotillion. Oh look, they’re all grown up. Every now and then he took Evo by the hand, and they raised their arms together. It was awkward. The Peruvians I was with all groaned. García Linera was visibly uncomfortable, and finally left, so the aforementioned Tomás Borge took his place next to Chávez, the two of them chatting like they were at the racetrack, as if this were not the inauguration of a popularly elected president in a foreign country, neither paying Evo any mind.

The festival of alasitas fell on the Tuesday after the inauguration. Change had already begun: the Ministry of Sustainable Development was renamed the Ministry of Coca. The new cabinet was sworn in, including miners and domestic workers and the kinds of people Bolivians have never before seen in government. On the streets, the festival was under way. Ordinary people engaged in the serious task of buying scaled-down versions of their dreams: tiny houses to hold in the palm of your hand, cars, miniature cell phones, little plastic baskets of food, stacks of fake dollar bills and euros, computers, building materials, passports. You could buy almost anything in miniature: it was reported that Evo Morales bought a marriage certificate—he is single—committing him to the nation of Bolivia. Vendors lined the avenues and filled the plazas, and everyone rushed to get their items blessed. For a day, it’s a frenzy, the local obsession. The entire city smelled of incense. Even office workers were released from work for a half-hour at noon to buy their alasitas. There’s a similar holiday in Puno, Peru, but I’d only read about it, never seen it myself.

Apart from being good fun, Alasitas is also an X-ray of the needs of Bolivia, and therefore an indicator of the sorts of challenges Evo Morales now faces. He has earned the presidency through two decades of organizing and dogged persistence; he has been jailed, threatened, bullied, elected to the congress and then expelled, been called a terrorist and a narco-trafficker, declared an enemy of the United States and Bolivia—and still he won. Evo was able to carry his core constituency—cocaleros, Aymara Indians and peasants, the militant neighborhood associations of El Alto—along with an important segment of the middle class, without whose support he never would have passed the 50 percent threshold necessary to win. And suddenly Evo Morales is not the opposition anymore. It’s unlikely we will ever again hear him say Wañachun Yanquis, death to the Yankees in Quechua. Governing requires different language and different skills. Who would have thought that Evo Morales could become the consensus builder in Bolivia, a country that has had five presidents since 2000?

But because he is, Evo Morales cannot be ignored. What to do with the natural gas? How to deal with the tense issue of coca? What about land reform? On a very basic level, one wonders whether the symbolic gestures of former miners and domestic servants with little formal education being installed as ministers will translate into good governance. Evo’s opponents will look for corruption, and when they find it, or even a hint of it, they will pounce. But Bolivia has strong neighborhood and community organizations, perhaps the most vital in all of Latin America, and with the right leadership, these can be a positive force in the complex work of reducing poverty. By celebrating the indigenous core of Bolivian identity, the ceremony itself set a tone which cannot be easily dismissed.

Evo Morales spent his transition traveling, paying his respects in Venezuela and Cuba before hitting Europe and South Africa and the Far East, and in so doing, managed to raise his domestic approval rating another 10 percent. The inauguration made Bolivia briefly feel like the center of the world, and it seemed like everyone understood the singular opportunity that Evo Morales represented. The very next day the new president went to work at four in the morning and cut his own salary in half. This was a good start: there is always a future for a politician who understands the power of symbolism.

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