The decision by Evo Morales to bar the American ambassador in La Paz from entering the presidential palace because of comments he recently made has brought the Bolivian president some renewed international attention.
However, the relationship between the United States and Bolivia is not the issue that most Bolivians are focused on. Despite the efforts of Morales, an ally of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, to repeatedly spar with Washington, the U.S. is ignoring him. Since most of the cocaine derived from Bolivia's coca plantations goes to Brazil and Europe rather than to North America, even the Drug Enforcement Agency is keeping a low profile here--for a change.
The real issue for Bolivians today is whether Morales will impose, by way of a new constitution, a system that while purporting to vindicate the indigenous population will concentrate power in La Paz and undermine the rule of law, private property and international exchanges.
After talking to Bolivians from all walks of life in areas ranging from the rural outskirts of Santa Cruz, in the east, to Cochabamba, in the highlands, and from the jungles of Chapare to Tiwanaku, the site of an ancient citadel peopled by indigenous Bolivians, I am persuaded that Morales' government is ruling based on myths. Those myths need to be exposed before other Andean countries where ethnic and social divisions are also abrasive follow suit.
The greatest myth is that Bolivia's population is alien to Western culture imposed by 300 years of colonial rule and two centuries of republican life. According to the last census, most Bolivians are mestizo, or mixed-race. While proud of their past, they are comfortable with the Western ways visible in the language they speak, the way they make their livings and their embrace of every technological novelty. As I was told in Cochabamba by many people of Quechua descent who confronted Morales' supporters after the latter set fire to the office of the governor a few months ago, the current president, an Aymara, does not even speak the native languages. Aymaras and Quechuas fought each other before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. Many mestizos with strong Quechua roots do not see Morales necessarily as someone with whom they have more in common than with white Bolivians.
The second myth pursued by Morales is that Bolivians want communal property. Tito Choque, who was born in extreme poverty in Oruro, the region where Morales is from, invited me to his small farm in Santa Cruz, where he grows sugar cane, soybeans and rice. He told me, "Communal property is what made Oruro a disaster after the decline of mining; farming collapsed under conditions in which nobody owned anything; now they (Morales' supporters) are trying to destroy Santa Cruz." Choque has been encouraging his workers to use their modest savings to buy their own plots of land.
In El Alto, a town overlooking the capital city more than 12,000 feet above sea level, many Bolivians who helped Morales topple successive governments as part of an "indigenous revolt" engage in capitalism by selling jewelry to the United States.
Another myth is that the regions calling for local autonomy want to break away from Bolivia. Cristian, a 17-year-old boy, was murdered in Cochabamba in January when a mob of coca growers who had come from Chapare under encouragement from Morales' party cornered him in Mayor Rocha street. Standing next to the tree from where the kid was hanged, Cristian's uncle tells me, "All we call for is more autonomy, no other option is viable--we are stuck in the middle of the country!"
One last myth is that the nationalization of natural gas in the southeastern lowlands will liberate the indigenous population. For hundreds of years, the lowlands were neglected by the real centers of economic power--the highlands of Oruro, La Paz and Potosi--because Bolivia's economy depended on its tin mines. The economic emergence of the southeastern regions now calling for more autonomy is quite recent. Furthermore, the companies that were investing in those areas before Morales nationalized natural gas are still operating, albeit under higher taxation, because the president realized after taking them over that the state's hydrocarbon entity was unable to manage operations.
Indigenismo, the ideology that seeks to take the Andes back to a world untainted by Western civilization, renders a disservice to indigenous people when it departs from the legitimate vindication of their rich past and in effect imports the socialistic political and economic ideas originated in the West.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute and the author of Liberty for Latin America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa