Same Socialist, Same DangerOliver Briscoe
¡Populista! The Rise of Latin America’s 21st Century Strongman
By Will Grant
Head of Zeus, 464 pp. £25
To no one’s surprise, Morales is back in Bolivia. He walked across the Argentine border like Caesar under a triumphal arch. Let in by the president Luis Arce, Morales’ former deputy who, handpicked by Morales at a party conference in exile, won a convincing majority only months ago.
Shaken by pro-democracy protests, having tried to rig a fourth term, unconstitutional even by his own reforms, Morales, like all Bolivian kleptocrats, had to flee.
In November last year, stepping down unannounced to buy time, he flew first to El Chapare, his coca-based fiefdom, then off to Mexico. Cuba had been rumoured and Venezuela too, but neither would have him. Argentina under the more moderate Macri also refused. Although it later took him in, under the left-wing populist Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, vice-president to the moustachioed puppet Alberto Fernández–the Internationale at its best.
At the time, most looked on askance ‘another Latin coup’. I watched the plane leave with a Bolivian friend; for him it was the end of a subtle tyranny. ¡Que alegria! We were indeed alleviated; a bit jolly, shouting, crying out, ‘thirteen years!'
The army did turn against Morales, but it would have looked odd if they had not. After he gave them and the police a pay-rise upfront (though the police got less, prompting amidst it all a farcical protest by the Union of Policemen’s Wives), during the twenty-two days of popular protest, after the election had been condemned by Almagro, the Secretary General of the Organización de los Estados Americanos; a man who once backed Ortega.
In his victory speech Arce promised a new Bolivia, free from the corruption. Bringing back a democratic tint to the pink tide, his win exhumed Morales’ party Movimiento al Socialismo [MAS], whose political leanings need no translation. Yet, only a fortnight later, the red-dye-in-the-wool started to bleed. Unsurprising in a country known for undemocratic transitions, the MAS-controlled Congress, expecting to lose its two-thirds majority, voted to make decisions needing such a majority need only a simple one–which they have managed to retain.
Broadly though the Morales story is still reported as Morales tells it; poor against rich, Left against Right, Andean against American, with Evo, as he in affectionately known, an indigenous victim of Yankee imperialism. In the most recent English account ¡Populista!, the former BBC correspondent Will Grant sets the facts straight, but stops short of the obvious; Evo’s drug problem.
However, he is the first to give us a clue because in his Bolivia Carlos Valverde exists, if only in passing. A Bolivian investigative journalist forced into exile for writing Coca, Poder, Territorio y Cocaina, Valverde has not been heard much of otherwise. Poor and black-listed, no-one would air him or print him, fearing a crackdown under Morales’ tightened press laws.
Valverde saw the Svengali behind the face of Progress. It is stupidly simple really; Bolivians suck coca but not billions of dollars of it. He saw Bolivia as it is, one of the only countries where coca is legally grown and culturally justified, the third biggest source of it; that coca was traditionally grown in the Yungas and only came to El Chapare with the drug trade; that 95% of El Chapare’s coca, most of the country’s coca, is destined for illegal markets; that Morales’ whole career has been in the coca growers' union, starting out in El Chapare region in the 1980s as Bolivia’s drug trade grew; a union he then headed both before and during his presidency.
Valverde also looked at the corrupt buildings Morales lavished on El Chapare. It was the Bolivian Rome, all roads leading to it. There was a new airport in the middle of the jungle, the biggest in Bolivia, a new football stadium and a new port, in the heart of a landlocked country. A area it took months after his flight, for the army to enter, fighting a praetorian guard of armed coca union members.
It worked because Evo kicked out the US ambassador, kicked out US Aid, kicked out the DEA, denied fly-over supervision, stopped coca replacement programs, reneging their targets for a growers’ mark-your-own-homework approach. While at the same time expanding the number of hectares for coca; his building through the TIPNIS, one of the last virgin biospheres in the world, and his slow action over Amazonian wildfires conveniently freeing land which he later gave to coca growers.
It also worked because the ponchoed cholitas, with their fake Italian bowlers, whose pictures sell well in the papers when they cry for their Evo, do not hide AKs in their skirts. Bolivia has no infamous Escobar, no Netflix show. Mostly they make paste. The paste goes to Columbia and Peru, where the powder is made and sold.
Following the money Valverde proved long ago what has been too easily overlooked; that Evo Morales, a man who for thirteen years was both Head of State and Head of Government, ruled both for and with cocaine.