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Morales poised to win Bolivia's presidency

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Evo Morales is an indigenous man, a member of Bolivia's national Congress
and a candidate for president in the national elections scheduled for Dec.
18. He is the rarest of all politicians because not only is he an
individual of indigenous descent, he actually represents indigenous
constituencies in Bolivia. One might say he is an Indian's Indian. If he
wins, he will become the first American Indian to be head of state in
modern times.

Morales' political career and his candidacy for the country's highest
office are deeply troubling to the United States and the Bush
administration. An ally of Cuba's Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez of
Venezuela, Morales heads a political organization called the Movement
Toward Socialism.

The United States has long opposed Castro because of the reforms that
followed the Cuban revolution, reforms that included the expulsion of the
American-based Mafia from what was then Cuba's lucrative gambling trade and
policies that produced a range of what amounted to seizures of American
corporate properties on the island.

Chavez has been a thorn in the side of Washington because of his fiery
rhetoric as the president of oil-producing Venezuela. In early December,
Chavez offered reduced prices to poor people in Massachusetts and New York
in a move probably intended to embarrass the U.S. government -- which
itself has done little to help poor people with heating bills during an
especially cold winter. That offer stimulated a statement by an Exxon
official, who complained that giving U.S. poor people cheaper heating oil
was hurting Venezuela's own poor people -- a rare expression of concern by
an Exxon official over the plight of Venezuela's poor. Chavez has also
stated that Christopher Columbus was worse than Hitler.

Morales is expected to win and become Bolivia's president. Even if he
doesn't win on the first round, U.S. officials say Bolivian law requires
the winner to emerge with 51 percent of the vote and that this lends itself
to street politics involving mass rallies. Under those circumstances,
Morales is likely to emerge victorious.

Morales has been an unbending foe of American-led policies collectively
known as globalization, a set of policies which have become discredited
throughout most of Latin America, and is a long-time advocate of coca
growers, the plant from which the drug cocaine is derived. The United
States has waged a 20-year campaign to eradicate coca growth in all of
South America, which was enthusiastically welcomed by previous Bolivian
administrations, as was the money that came with cooperation.

Bolivia has seen two presidents driven from office since 2003, and the
electorate seems in a surly mood. Globalization advocates policies that
range from state-supported and promoted privatization of public properties
to "free trade" policies that expose agricultural economies, such as those
of Latin America, to cheaper U.S. products. The end result is that small
farmers across Latin America are being driven out of business by
lower-priced corn and other crops from the United States.

In Bolivia, the American-led initiative to replace coca growing with other
crops has achieved limited success and, in fact, coca growing has increased
since 2003. The U.S. policy is to impose its policy of total eradication of
coca growing in a country that has grown coca for centuries -- even
centuries before the Spanish invasion -- and in which coca leaf has been
and continues to be a part of the culture.

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In recent years, coca farmers have battled the government for the right to
grow the crop, at least in limited amounts. An area of central Bolivia
known as Chapare is a major producer of coca leaf and political support for
Morales, who clearly intends to legalize or at least expand legalization of
its growth. Coca leaf has been used for centuries to alleviate the pangs of
hunger, and coca tea is sold in marketplaces in Chapare. Morales and his
supporters talk about industrial (i.e., non-recreational drug) uses for
coca in toothpaste, soft drinks and pharmaceuticals.

U.S. officials claim most of the coca finds its way into illegal cocaine
production. Farmers claim coca leaf is the only crop that offers them a
chance at economic survival. The current Bolivian government has legalized
limited coca-growing, and U.S. observers fear that a Morales victory will
greatly expand its production. The United Nations reported that 2004
production of cocaine was up 35 percent from the previous year, to 107
tons. The situation is like that found in Afghanistan, where opium poppy
production is soaring, even during a U.S. military occupation, assisted by
cooperation with the government.

Morales seems poised to adopt policies which go well beyond coca
production. His supporters favor the nationalization of Bolivia's natural
resources. Many nation-states around the world claim to own their oil and
natural gas and other natural resources. American-led globalization
policies would privatize such resources, and in Bolivia there was even an
attempt to privatize water as a natural resource, but the attempt resulted
in massive protests and was ultimately unsuccessful.

In Latin America, as in other parts of the world, countries are finding
that globalization is too expensive and is undemocratic. While supporting a
rhetoric that opposes government interference, globalization requires
massive and painful intervention by the government, almost always to the
benefit of foreign interests against the local economies. Globalization is
especially caustic to owners of small shops, small-scale farmers and the
poor, and it is being rejected throughout Latin America.

Indeed, as America's prestige declines due to unpopular wars and
unsustainable economic policies, countries that defy America's economic
policies find their local economies improving. The quality of their
democracy seems to improve also because, despite rhetoric to the contrary,
globalization is anti-democratic.

Morales stated he is opposed to the drug traffickers and supportive of
small subsistence Indian farmers. If the term "clash of cultures" (itself
much abused in a variety of contexts) has any meaning, it is surely
applicable here. For Bolivia to advance from its elite-driven past of
cooperation with its colonizers to a democratic country, it will elect a
government that will find common cause with the interests of the majority
of its people. That majority includes the indigenous and poor.

The United States does not seem to have a policy or strategy of dealing
with that kind of democracy.

U.S. officials have accused Morales, without proof it seems, of being
everything from a narco-terrorist to drug trafficker. As former leader of a
coca growers federation, Morales is a true grass-roots phenomenon. On Dec.
18, he seems destined to become president of Bolivia.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., is a columnist for Indian Country Today, an
associate professor of American studies and the director of indigenous
studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.