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Morales: A historic opening for indigenous peoples of Latin America

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More than a decade ago, indigenous rights in Latin America attained a new
visibility and legitimacy thanks to the anti-quincentenary campaigns
protesting the 500-year anniversary of Columbus Day. Favorable media
coverage of indigenous political struggles and revisionist historical
perspectives were at an all-time high.

The winds of change for bringing new resources and rights to some of the
original and poorest inhabitants of the Americas appeared stronger than
ever. That same year, Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala won the Nobel Peace
Prize and, a few years later, the U.N. General Assembly declared a "Decade
of Culture" to celebrate the contributions of indigenous peoples.

Across the Americas, constitutions gave recognition for the first time in
history to the cultural and ethnic diversity of the nations; and in
Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, path-breaking land reform legislation
granted indigenous peoples collective rights. Moreover, indigenous people's
political empowerment was manifest in electoral triumphs for occupying new
political spaces as mayors, city council members, national congressmen and
senators, and as political appointees as ministers, vice ministers and even
diplomats in various countries.

Subsequently, however, most of the promising social and political openings
toward reform became stalled or even reversed. The latest evidence of this
disappointing outcome is a recent World Bank study showing that the
indigenous people's standard of living remained the same or worsened during
the past decade of economic globalization. Such degrading poverty and
unfavorable trends toward inequality suggest once again that the 40 million
or so indigenous peoples remain among Latin America's biggest losers in the
contemporary economic globalization game.

Amid this social decline and dashed hopes, the surprising Andean image of
Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, comes crashing into our consciousness
through the world press. Morales is the first indigenous president in
Bolivia's 180-year history, despite its indigenous population majority.

Benito Juarez of Mexico, elected in 1861 to be the first indigenous
president in the Americas, enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle during his
youth. In contrast, Morales shared all the social and economic ills of
growing up poor as an Indian peasant in an Andean rural community (several
siblings died at birth). He was a high school dropout for lack of family
income and migrated in search of better subsistence as a young peasant
farmer to the humid tropical jungles of Bolivia's Chapare province, a zone
of coca leaf production that's rapidly expanding thanks to a boom in U.S.
cocaine consumption. Morales demonstrated some musical and soccer talents,
yet it was his political organizing skill and personal charisma as an
indigenous peasant leader that quickly gained him the popularity, loyalties
and votes needed to reach the top leadership post of the Chapare's militant
farmers unions (sindicatos) in the late '80s.

The Chapare's community-based sindicato networks with Morales at the helm
were the vehicle for the cocaleros social movement which launched protest
after protest (marches, road-blockades, sit-ins of public offices) aiming
to alter Bolivian-U.S. government policies of coca leaf eradication. Having
developed impressive social mobilization and negotiation skills during the
'80s, this provincial rural movement by the '90s had become -- even to the
amazement of many Bolivians -- the most politically mobilized labor group
in the entire country. During the next decade of ever-increasing protest
actions against a bipartisan U.S.-Bolivian drug policy rooted in national
laws and international conventions, Morales enjoyed uninterrupted and
widespread Bolivian media publicity as a high-profile, albeit
controversial, leader.

His cocalero movement proceeded to win municipal elections in the Chapare;
then, with other peasant groups in the region, he organized a poor people's
political party, Movimiento al Socialismo. In 1997, MAS ran Morales for
congressional office, a campaign that yielded the highest percentage vote
count in the country. Simultaneously, Morales deployed this political
capital to build alliances with other dissident labor and political groups
all over Bolivia, plunging into their protests and sometimes helping shape
their critical grass-roots agendas such as landlessness, privatization of
water and natural gas, collective territorial rights, political corruption,
racism and sovereignty with respect to the United States and multinational
corporations.

Morales also became a bona fide internationalist -- an energetic
globe-trotter continuously forging alliances with other indigenous
movements and anti-globalization organizations in Latin America and
elsewhere. In short, he was making himself into an indigenous cocalero for
all political seasons, both at home and abroad.

Morales, the now-renowned peasant leader, can be viewed as one part
Muhammed Ali, one part Geronimo and one part Che Guevara. His defiant
attitude toward public authority as a social activist is akin to Ali's, as
is his brash, in-your-face personality and bravado. As Geronimo fought for
indigenous rights by leading small, armed raids to surprise his foes,
Morales mastered nonviolent road-blockade tactics to defend indigenous
rights which -- although violating the rights of other citizens to transit
freely -- compelled the Bolivian government to negotiate on agendas that
include coca and others of national concern. The Guevara connection comes
from Morales' revolutionary commitment to the poor.

Morales' rise to political prominence as president of Bolivia is resonating
powerfully with poor indigenous and peasant rural communities as well as in
urban shantytowns throughout Latin America. Many of their hopes ride on his
shoulders, beginning with his first inaugural speech on Jan. 21 at the
archaeological site of an ancient Aymara state which once extended into
today's Peru and Chile.

Although the international media has fixated on hydrocarbon policy and the
decriminalization of the coca leaf, most indigenous eyes in the hemisphere
also will be fastened on his efforts to bring about genuine land reform.
Bolivia has a progressive 1996 land reform law on the books which has
barely been implemented due to the lack of political will by conservative
white and mestizo governments closely allied with the economic oligarchy of
the country's eastern lowlands. Land dispossession and concentration are at
the heart of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and help explain the
exclusion of indigenous peoples from the fruits of today's economic
globalization.

The historic possibility is there for Evo Morales' MAS government, with its
unprecedented majority support from the voters, to open a path forward that
reverses some of the negative neo-liberal social trends by jump-starting
land reform for indigenous Bolivians -- and, indeed, for all the Americas.

Kevin Healy is an adjunct professor at George Washington University and the
author of "Llamas, Weavings, and Organic Chocolate: Multicultural
Grassroots Development in the Andes and Amazon of Bolivia" (University of
Notre Dame Press, 2000).