El Presidente

As the U.S. presidential campaign heats up, February 21 is Super Bowl Sunday of South American politics.

That’s when Bolivians go to the polls to vote on a referendum that will determine if President Evo Morales can seek a third term in office.

A word about Morales (note root word of last name), who is an energetic, charismatic and otherwise complex man. He hails from the region’s largest ethnic minority, the Aymara, making his election back in December 2005 the first of its kind: no other indigenous citizen had served as president in Bolivia’s nearly 200-year history.

Bent strongly to the left, Evo, as he is known, is famous for lopping off the top of the country’s private sector in an effort to redistribute national wealth to the broader middle and lower classes. While at first wildly popular, Evo’s socialist approach through public ownership has proven detrimental to foreign investment and fostered an anti-American sentiment that is both conducive to preserving Bolivia’s cultural identity and somehow utterly paranoid.

el-presidente_07To wit: during his first term in office, Evo launched two rather quirky, if not arguably clinical, anti-imperialist campaigns. The first was to convince Bolivia’s citizenry to avoid drinking Coca-Cola, as the beverage would cause grown men to go bald. The second (and this one would be tough to enforce anywhere) was an insistence that all Bolivians quit eating chicken, as it would turn straight people gay. One need only look to the United States and the vast quantities of chicken consumed to witness the consequences. Later, Evo appeared on national TV for the inevitable mea culpa, apologizing to all and retracting earlier proclamations – a big relief to thirsty Bolivians everywhere and once again sending the country’s chickens scattering. Exactly who’s flown the coop?, people started to asked.

Evo got a pass on those two earlier missteps; after all, he was a champion of indigenous rights and his methodology for the redistribution of industrial assets was achieving some tangible benefits on the ground for the average Bolivian. Yet, as it seems with all South American politicians – from Chavez to Pinochet to Fujimori, and especially with regard to their respective political machines that grind down the opposition – Evo’s government has come under increasing fire for corruption and nepotism. This is especially true in the country’s eastern region, which has for years benefited from old school horse trading and an abundance of exportable resources.

The latest attack comes from a ball-busting report that broke last week suggesting that Evo, while single, had fathered a child out of wedlock, a shame-on-you in this heavily Roman Catholic part of the world. While most Bolivians can blush and look the other way, the most damning accusation is that he helped his ex-lover secure a top job with a Chinese construction company that has obtained nearly $500 million in contracts with the state. While Evo doesn’t deny the tryst, he strongly refutes the opposition’s charges of influence peddling, and is even resorting to a conspiracy theory that pins the mischief on (who else) the U.S.

el-presidente_08Barbara and I were at the famous Carnaval in Oruro, Bolivia, this month, where Evo had been reportedly pictured embracing the woman. Unfortunately (for getting the scoop, anyway), we were a year too late, as the moment had been photographed at last year’s event. Nevertheless, I was able to get close enough to Evo to have him voluntarily shake my hand, and then clicked a number of images of the President mixing it up with his peeps – less in a compromising position (although that is subject to opinion after he got swept into the parade) and more in a sort of what-goes-around-comes-around irony: there was President Evo Morales, in Levi’s jeans, offering one of his admirers a bottle of Coke.

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