What Bolivia needs from Barack Obama

I went to Bolivia partly for political and journalistic reasons. President Evo Morales seemed to me an exciting and romantic figure, a source of great hope for Bolivia and the rest of South America.

He came to power as part of a progressive trend that has swept the continent in recent years, fueled by a popular backlash against the imperialism and neoliberal economic policies of the United States, a country that has arrogantly and inappropriately been meddling in Latin American affairs since the Monroe Doctrine.

Evo even had something that other leftist leaders like Hugo Chavez didn´t. Evo is the first indigenous leader of a Latin American country and a former coca grower. And he has an undeniable charisma, which I saw first hand during a speech he gave in the plaza below my apartment window on Easter Sunday and in a soccer game benefitting Bolivian flood victims a few weeks ago, when he played center forward opposite legendary Argentinian player Maradona. 

Morales and his party, MAS or Movement Toward Socialism, was elected by an overwhelming margin in 2005 and seemed to represent a hopeful sign that perhaps our species was beginning to peacefully redress past grievances and more forward into a brighter and more equitable future.

But the reality is far more complicated in this and all countries struggling under the yoke of late capitalism and impatient democracy. The deck is stacked against would-be reformers, whether they be Evo Morales or Barack Obama.

Part of the problem is with the pueblos, or the people, and their understandably high expectations. Many Bolivians I met who voted for Evo and generally support his policies have lost confidence in him. They think he picks too many unnecessary fights and they no longer believe the slogan posted on signs throughout the country, Evo Cumple, which means he´s accomplishing what he promised to do.  

What Evo promised was a panoply of good things things for most Bolivians: greater indigenous rights, use of the country´s natural resources for the people´s needs, resistance to U.S. economic and drug war policies that hurt Bolivians, and a new constitution that is more equitable while expanding the economy, creating jobs, and raising the standard of living. It would already have been a tall order to fill, particularly give the ineffective and sometimes downright inept government that this outsider formed. But it´s made even more complicated by the resistance of the ruling class in this divided country, which is pushing for greater autonomy with which to resist Evo´s agenda.

It´s far easier to identify a country´s problems than to solve them. Does this sound familiar? The U.S. is a very different country from Bolivia in almost every way, but Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will face similar problems fixing the U.S. if one is elected in the fall (John McCain, who isn´t promising major reforms, isn´t in the same boat).

Like the indiginous Bolivians who have suffered generations worth of insults and unfulfilled promises, the U.S. anti-war, labor, and social justice movements that would form the base for a Democratic president are angry about losing ground for so long and will demand progress. Presidential timidity will quickly earn their scorn, while bold action in areas like socialized medicine, steeply increased taxes on the super-wealthy, or a drastically downsized military (you know, a Defense Department actually used just for defense) could create a crippling backlash from the U.S. center-right political spectrum.

Unlike in Bolivia, President Obama could have the benefit of a large, knowledgable, well-educated, and well-established stable of brilliant thinkers and experienced bureaucrats with which to put together a new government. And he seems to understand the importance of finding smart, driven people to fill top posts, unlike Clinton, who would likely turn to political loyalists and old hands from her husband´s administration, if her choice of campaign advisors is any indication.  

That has been part of Morale´s problems, the emphasis on symbolism over substance. He made his base happy by naming the first indigenous woman to be a top-level minister, a popular figure who went from maid to labor leader. But he named her to be the Justice Minister, a job for lawyers for which she wasn´t qualified, so she lasted less than a year and the episode weakened Morales.

But as long as we have a global economic system based on exploiting dwindling natural resources into an annual economic growth rate of at least 3 percent — rather than one that encourages sustainability — maybe politicians around the world can only achieve survival but not real success.  

Even with the overt emphasis in Evo´s party on moving toward socialism, Bolivia probably doesn´t have the power or resources to make that possible. Many of his critics told me that Evo needs more patience and that major transformation takes a long time, even if that´s not what Evo´s base wants to hear.

It might be easier and quicker for a U.S. president to affect the kind of reforms that would encourage a fundamental shift in the global economy. We have that kind of power. Unfortunately, we´re way behind Bolivia in terms of talking serious about these issues, and using words like socialism to talk about the answers to certain problems and sectors where capitalism is causing problems.

Maybe starting this kind of national dialogue would be the best thing a Democratic president could do for future generations. But that will take both political skills and the willingness to suffer bitter attacks and potential unpopularity before they can come out the other side.

Are Obama or Clinton up for that kind of task? For the sake of people in Bolivian, the U.S., and around the world, they had better be.

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