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.
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.
You can hear Lucy Ash’s radio documentary on Bolivia at www.bbc.co.uk/continents