NS Profile - Evo Morales

How long will Bolivia's <em>cocalero</em> president last? On the answer hangs the future of US strat

Evo Morales has always lived on a knife-edge. On Sunday this former wandering trumpeter, herder of llamas and leader of Bolivia's coca growers becomes the country's president. He takes over after a smashing win in the free elections held on 18 December and a spectacular world tour where heads of state and government from Paris to Pretoria have fallen over themselves to welcome a leader happy to inspect guards of honour in his woolly jumper or short-sleeved, open-necked shirt. But his arrival raises a big question. Will this indigenous president, an Aymara, last the full five-year term, or merely a year, a month, or just a few days? On the answer hangs the future not just of Bolivia but of many strategies the United States uses worldwide.

Morales was one of seven children born to Dionisio, a smallholder, and his wife, MarIa, in the High Andes. Growing in the shadow of snow-covered peaks, the family's potato crops were constantly hit by drought, hail and frost, which made the poor farmer take to the bottle, the usual comfort of Bolivian highlanders. Evo tells how he chewed the goodness from the orange peel and banana skins dropped by passengers in buses passing through his village. Perhaps there weren't enough skins and peel to go round: four of the seven died before their second birthday. "That's how life is in peasant families," he shrugs. "What luck that three of us survived!" Today his glossy hair parted in the centre, his barrel chest from the large lungs that Bolivian highland people develop to cope with the shortage of oxygen at high altitude and his general joie de vivre show that he no longer is in danger of malnutrition. At 46, it is political dangers he faces.

No poles are greasier than those in Bolivia, where there has been a coup d'etat about once a year, on average, since the country achieved independence in 1825. Morales himself knows that a crowd of left- and right-wing opponents are keen to pull him down. Naturally he faces the active enmity of Washington for his closeness to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and to Fidel Castro, whom he visited in Havana last month. He is yet another Latin American leader who has come to power on a wave of popular disenchantment with supposedly "democratic" regimes, backed by Washington, which have refused to tackle the region's greatest failing: the world's unfairest distribution of income. But, however long he lasts, his rise to high office proves what you can do with raw leadership, immense self-assurance and not much else.

From childhood he was a mover and shaker. In class, his teacher told the pupils to draw a donkey. Evo's came out red, yellow and green, the Bolivian colours - which became the school joke for months. He was eight before he visited the nearby city of Oruro, famous since colonial days for its silver and tin mines and its fantastical carnival masquerades. At 13 he founded the village football team, Fraternidad, and used the money he earned by selling wool from llamas that he'd sheared to buy balls and shirts. "I was captain, coach, ref. I was sort of the owner," he recalls.

But, as Evo went off to do compulsory military service, life was draining away from his home region. In 1985 the exhausted diggings were finally closed by Comibol, the loss-making state mining company, and 25,000 men, mostly from around Oruro, were thrown out of the suffocating mines and on to the cold streets. Like thousands of others, the Morales family went off to seek cheap, fertile land on the lower slopes of the Andes. There they finally settled beside the River Chapare, an ideal site for growing coca bushes, whose leaves brought a much better price than potatoes - or, indeed, any other crop.

The immigrant miners brought to Chapare the union traditions that had been honed in miners' demonstrations, where a pinch of dynamite tossed into a line of police often achieved semi-magical results. They passed on to the cocaleros or coca growers a culture of resistance that more than matched foreigners' efforts to annihilate Bolivia's coca crops. The Reagan government, ever keener on its "war on drugs", was attempting to banish what it saw as just the raw material for cocaine, heedless that chewing untreated coca leaves had for millennia helped peasants working at high altitude, and that it remained legal in Bolivia. Bolivian Umopar military units, sponsored and financed by Washington to exterminate the coca bushes, were barbarous but ineffective. When Umopar burned alive a coca-growers' representative it left a mental scar on Morales. He went on to rise in the cocaleros' union and in 1988 he became leader of the Tropical Federation or Federacion del Tropico. He became a national figure, organising a huge cocalero march, and nearly won the 2002 presidential election.

Morales will not bow to the demands of the US (which maintains an embassy with a staff of about 800 in La Paz) for oversight over Bolivia's army and his domestic policies - what nationalists in Washington call "full-spectrum dominance". Although he opposes the production of cocaine for the world's addicts, he will never ban the growing of leaves needed for a harmless practice - or, at least, not until the Americans start bulldozing the tobacco fields of Virginia and the Californian vineyards.

Accompanied by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the two UN bodies whose ludicrous strategies have strengthened Bolivia's tax-avoiding elite to the detriment of the poor majority, the White House will doubtless try to keep nine million vulnerable Bolivians painfully short of money.

Bolivians rattle about in a country four times larger than the UK, the poorest in South America: 60 per cent live in dire poverty. At the top of the pyramid sits a tiny group of fat cats. The poor majority are indigenes, the rich minority descendants of Europeans.

The Bush government will seek allies against Morales in eastern Bolivia, run from the tropical boom town of Santa Cruz. There near-white mestizos aspire to a Texan life-style, enjoying their strong links to the oil and gas industries and the income from growing sugar cane, rubber, soya, bananas, coca, timber. Stiffened with an influx of Brazilian ranchers seeking Lebensraum on the Bolivian savannahs, the local people dream of independence and sole control over their riches. Independence would also relieve them of what they see as burdensome subsidies to the primitive indigenes in the Andes to the west.

But these indigenous people, living on top of vast quantities of different metallic ores, assured Morales's victory last month and are themselves deeply divided. There are a million Aymaras and four million Quechuas and, in the manner of the Kurds, some Aymaras are busily but pointlessly dreaming of reconstituting the Inca empire of their ancestors, eyeing neighbouring Chilean and Peruvian territory.

Morales, who has no established staff or party structure, faces domestic problems - hunger, illiteracy and all-embracing corruption, huge disparities in wealth, deep-seated racism, threats of secession and an impudent military, many trained by the Pentagon to be more loyal to the US than to their own government. (The former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada once remarked, "When you have a corrupt police chief, you fire him. When you have a corrupt chief of the army, he fires you.")

Yet to write off Morales's chances against civilian and military opposition would be imprudent given the ominous cracks opening up in the White House's own strategies. In recent years Washington has sought to maintain some mastery over a restive Latin America by trying to label its political opponents as apologists for terrorism. Successive US presidents' eagerness to fight a "war on drugs" anywhere except the US itself has been dovetailed with the "war on terror", as the Pentagon anxiously seeks to regain the military control of Latin America it lost in 1999, when it was forced out of Panama. With the end of the cold war, which for decades allowed Washington to intervene in Latin America without risk of upsetting its allies, the "war on drugs" emerged as the new cover for military operations throughout the hemisphere. In 1998, for instance, 48,000 US personnel went on 2,265 "deployments for training" in Latin America for "anti-drug activities".

However, with Iraqi irregulars trouncing a US army and with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and international kidnappings - the "extraordinary renditions" - leaving indelible stains on US international standing, Washington can no longer proclaim military invincibility nor can it aspire to the moral high ground. Meanwhile its "war on drugs" is seen as increasingly unwinnable.

Governments, notably in the European Union, are quietly abandoning war in favour of the decriminalisation of drugs, "harm reduction" and rehabilitation of addicts. If, as Morales tackles Bolivia's problems, he can survive long enough to puncture US aspirations to "full-spectrum dominance" and fantasies about a world free of narcotics, he surely will be doing the world a big favour. The acceptance he has achieved in recent weeks on his world tour, not just in Cuba and Venezuela, but also in the EU, China, South Africa, Argentina and Brazil, shows there are many foreign governments willing Morales to succeed, woolly jumper or no woolly jumper.

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