Scanning through headlines can be a surreal experience sometimes, as was the case when I saw this headline in the current issue of the Atlantic (here) “The Mugabe of the Andes.” The title of the piece comes from a quote by a member of the Bolivian opposition that says that Evo Morales “had the chance to be the Mandela of Bolivia, but instead he chose to be the Mugabe,” which though eye catching seems to misrepresent about everyone involved in the quote in some way. Mainly it is because it is a gross oversimplification and that it is trying to take apples and oranges and make them the same.
Morales is neither a Mandela figure, nor a Mugabe, even if it is an intriguing turn of phrase. First off, Mandela’s image of being the savior of South Africa stems from the 28 years he spent in prison during apartheid – now it might be possible to compare the racial divide in Bolivia highlands to apartheid in some ways, but this doesn’t seem to be the issue at hand for the man that made the quote Luis Eduardo Siles. While Mandela has certainly been deemed a saint for what he suffered, Mugabe is the opposite in that his name has become synonymous with evil. Regardless of what role Mugabe played in Zimbabwe’s independence struggle in the 60s and 70s, he has come to epitomize the dangers of authoritarian rule. He has stolen the last two elections, bankrupted his country (which used to be one of the wealthiest in Africa), and become and international pariah all while conditions for the people in Zimbabwe have gotten worse and worse.
Now in all fairness, Eliza Barclay’s article is not trying to claim that this Evo is a dictator, but she does seem to see him as more of a divider than a uniter. Ms. Barclay article states that as Evo “has consolidated power among the patchwork of indigenous groups in the western highlands, Morales has deployed a rhetoric studded with racial references aimed at his opposition, which is led by wealthy, mostly white businessmen and concentrated in the lowland eastern region that includes Santa Cruz.” This seems to be a rather biased point of view, in that Morales has often been left no choice as wealthier people in Eastern Bolivia have talked of seceding and the US has tried to make it seem as if Bolivia is another domino that has fallen in a new version of the Cold War led by Hugo Chavez.
I have high hopes for Evo Morales and think that he will do what is right for the majority of Bolivia’s people, over 2/3 of whom are indiginous and have been marginalized from power for centuries. And while it is true that his current victory in January (article here) does seem eerily like a play out of the Chavez playbook, it doesn’t mean that he is trying to set himself up as a president for life or a classic caudillo.
What will be interesting to see is how his latest moves to redistribute land (here) unfold. In general land reforms have either laid the groundwork for long term changes or led to an invasion from the North. So far it seems like a relatively small amount of land has changed hands, but the elites across Latin America, especially in the poorest countries have never been known to take such actions lying down.