Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
4 December 2006updated 27 Sep 2015 5:20am

No ties for the peasants’ champion

Bolivia - Evo Morales

By Lucy Ash

What sets Evo Morales apart from the wave of radical leaders in Latin America is the issue of ethnic identity. The landslide election of Bolivia’s first indigenous president last December was a flexing of political muscles by Native American peoples long subordinate to a governing “white” elite.

In Bolivia today, whether you talk to llama herders or to ministers in La Paz, conversation seems to wind up in the early 16th century. The Spanish conquest led to centuries of exclusion and oppression for Bolivia’s native inhabitants. Today, it is the poorest country in the region and two-thirds of the population live on less than £1 a day.

“Decolonisation” is the guiding principle of the Morales government: his investiture ceremony was held at pre-Inca ruins outside La Paz and he has always refused to wear a “European” tie. Most strikingly, the former coca farmer whipped a leaf out of his jacket pocket and waved it in front of the UN General Assembly. “This is coca – it is not cocaine,” he told world leaders as if they were nursery-school children. Defending the right of indigenous communities in his country to grow “the sacred leaf”, Morales called for changes in fighting the global drug trade. He said rich countries should work harder at controlling their demand for narcotics instead of spraying poisonous clouds of chemicals across swaths of Bolivia’s countryside.

Granting native traditional justice official status on a par with national laws is another vital part of the “decolonisation” strategy. But his promotion of community-based courts, where village elders determine guilt and decide penalties, has not been an unqualified success.

Land reform will be a crucial test for Morales, who vowed to redistribute farmland among poor indigenous Bolivians. A small group of landowners holds 90 per cent of the farmland, while the rest is shared among three million indigenous peasant farmers.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Bolivia’s better-off who live in the eastern half of the country are so horrified by Morales and his policies that they are campaigning for autonomy. There are already rumours that some ranchers are building up private militias.

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

You can hear Lucy Ash’s radio documentary on Bolivia at