Latins Are Astir and Thirsty for Power
March 22, 2003
By JUAN FORERO with LARRY ROHTER
Bolivia, March 21 - Isabel Ortega, a full-blooded Aymara-Quechua Indian
who dresses in the black bowler and heavily layered 19th-century dress
common to her people, is one of Bolivia's newest members of Congress.
that has not kept guards from trying to bar her from the ornate
building where the halls of power have long been the exclusive domain
of buttoned-down descendants of Europeans.
guards would say, `How can you come in?' And then they pushed me
out," said Ms. Ortega, 49. "They would say, `AnIndian
is coming into the palace.' "
racism and resistance have not stopped Ms. Ortega, who is part of
a new Congress with three times as manyindigenous lawmakers as the
last one. Nor have they deterred a growing number of other leaders
from forgotten classes across Latin America who are promising a
political and economic upheaval.
and their supporters are organizing as never before and using new,
more open democracies to take on the traditional, light-skinned
ruling classes they blame for
keeping their countries mired in poverty and their people on the
sidelines of power for 500 years. Whether
filled with Indians in the Andes, blacks and
mixed-race "caboclos" and "mulatos" in Brazil
or the poor of Argentina's outlying provinces, the ranks of these
new political movements are united by the dark color of their skin
and their low economic station.
popular protests and new political parties, they are challenging
the orthodoxy of market reforms as the region faces its worst economic
crisis in decades. In the process, Latin America's political landscape
is being redrawn. Parties that have been the pillars of governments
from Caracas to Quito to Buenos Aires are collapsing or fast losing
America is undergoing a fundamental redefinition of identity,"
said Elisa Carrio, the leading antiestablishment candidate in the
presidential election scheduled in Argentina in April. "That
identity is being tinkered with in different ways in
each country," she said, "because we are all different
and not a single package, but there is one thing in common: we are
finally electing leaders who look like the people they represent."
Bolivia and Peru, this change has been accompanied by violent protests.
Elsewhere, it has meant the rise of new leaders like President Luiz
Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, a former labor leader born
a peasant, and Lucio Gutiérrez
in Ecuador, a former army colonel who led the coup that overthrew
President Jamil Mahuad, a Harvard-educated favorite of the International
Monetary Fund, in January 2000.
Gutiérrez was elected president in November after railing
against traditional politicians and promising to cut poverty and
scale back market reforms. He was supported by a powerful indigenous
movement, Pachakutik, and inspired
in part by another former army colonel and coup plotter, President
Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. In
Mr. Chávez, the many dark-skinned people of Caracas's
poor barrios believe they have found a powerful spokesman - and
the nation's traditional political and business class, a reviled
antagonist. In the last year, Chávez supporters have defended
his four-year-old presidency against weeks of
strikes by an opposition whose leaders are mostly of European descent.
new Latin American leaders do not offer a uniform solution to region's
problems. But their political base is decidedly anchored on the
left, and all have toyed with the populism that has been a staple
of Latin American politics
since the 1930's. What
they have in common is the promise to replace the
policies pushed by the International Monetary Fund with a return
to a system of state-owned companies and protected markets.
is not very well thought out, but it is the opposite of the status
quo," said Amy Chua, author of a new book, "The World
on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred
and Global Instability." "The problem with
these policies is they are more anti- than affirmative anything."
Chávez, who introduced a new Constitution in Venezuela
and is redirecting oil profits toward social programs, has taken
the most aggressive tack. Others, like Evo Morales, the head of
Bolivia's main opposition movement, emphasize the traditions of
indigenous people who have organized
their communities collectively for generations. More
moderate leaders have begun groping for a middle ground between
appeasing the powerful financial and capital
markets of a global economy and addressing the complaints of those
who feel excluded from the benefits of more than a decade of market-driven
economic reforms. But
the path is proving treacherous.
Peru, a host of independent movements, several with strong indigenous
representation, swept recent regional elections and are eroding
the standing of the market-friendly government of President Alejandro
Toledo. In Brazil and Ecuador, the new governments have leaned toward
fiscal prudence rather than following through immediately on promises
to redistribute wealth. Disappointed followers are already criticizing
both Mr. Gutiérrez and Mr. da Silva, who assumed Brazil's
presidency on Jan. 1.
even absent clear answers, these new leaders have been helped by
the disintegration of traditional political parties, whose ranks
have been thinned by the defection of those who feel past reforms
have not helped them.
two main established parties are in disarray. Peru's long-dominant
parties have lost ground to an amalgam of independent parties. The
two parties that have ruled Colombia for more than a century suddenly
challengers, as is also the case in Uruguay. In
Argentina, the Peronists, long the country's dominant party, have
split into three warring factions, and their
rivals in the Radical Party have been equally discredited by the
worst economic crisis in the country's history. None
of the five leading candidates in the presidential
election on April 27 have been able to win the support of more than
19 percent of voters. But a recent poll showed that if Brazil's
president, Mr. da Silva, were allowed to run, more than 50 percent
of Argentines would vote for him.
no other country is the gap between the traditional ruling classes
and the majority of the population as wide as in Bolivia. One Western
diplomat described the country
as Latin America's South Africa - a land of virtual apartheid -
dominated for centuries by the descendants of Spanish colonists,
while most of its eight million people,
indigenous and desperately poor, remained disenfranchised.
the experiment with market reforms has come full circle. President
Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was the architect of the government's
free-market reforms in the
1980's. For a while they tamed inflation and restored growth. But
today Bolivia - much like the rest of the region - is mired in recession,
unable to create enough
jobs for the 100,000 people who join the work force each year. In
February Mr. Sánchez de Lozada was forced to escape from
a bullet-riddled presidential palace in a heavily armed motorcade.
At the time, nearly 30 people died during a
protest against his plans for a payroll tax to close government
deficits and meet I.M.F. demands. His
government, just seven months old, is now badly hobbled
and its indigenous opponents are energized, foreshadowing what some
political analysts say will be the eventual rise to power of an
Indian government, Latin America's first in centuries. "After
500 years, the Quechua and Aymara are
preparing to recover political power," said Mr. Morales, the
leader of the opposition Movement Toward Socialism.
of Bolivia's indigenous people see hope in the populist message
of Mr. Morales and that of Felipe Quispe, a former rebel who is
known here as El Mallku, or the
Morales, who finished second in presidential elections last year,
leads a congressional delegation with 22 Indians among its 35 members.
Those allied with him do not control Congress, but they are nearly
half of its 157 members and
have demonstrated that they can organize potent, economically disastrous
street protests. In
their view, Bolivia must take back state companies sold
into private hands, end food imports, and reject Washington's efforts
for a hemisphere-wide free-trade treaty.
essence, the idea is to end the vestiges of a modern, free-market-oriented
state and return to an agricultural society, with a smattering of
mining, that would "regain
the philosophy of the Andean soul," as Hernán Vargas,
a member of Mr. Morales's congressional delegation, put it. "The
indigenous are looking to take political power, to
govern ourselves, not to be governed by whites who have robbed and
stolen our natural resources," said Mr. Quispe, who leads a
confederation of rural workers.
idea that Latin America must make a sharp break from American-inspired
market orthodoxy percolates among several indigenous movements in
the Andes. Mr. Chávez in Venezuela has used similar appeals
recently, as have all but one of
the five main presidential aspirants in Argentina. The
message is poison to the region's elites, and to the United States,
since the indigenous movements oppose
Washington's policies to try to end coca growing in Bolivia. Mr.
Morales, in fact, began his political career as head of the coca
say the nontraditional leaders fail to take note of Bolivia's dependence
on foreign loans and trade, as well as the importance of foreign
investment in developing the country's most important industry,
power is fine," Bolivia's president, Mr. Sánchez de
Lozada, said in an interview. "But what do you do when you
are in power? I do not know how long the economic engine will last
exporting just dried potatoes."