Eminentoes

Bolivia’s Budding Cult of Evo

It didn't take long for this latest lefty populist darling to declare himself a national monument.

By 10.16.06

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The Republic of Bolivia boasts a new national monument: the childhood home of Evo Morales, the country's new president.

In July, reports the Bolivian newspaper La Razon, Morales issued presidential decree No. 28807, declaring his hometown of Orinoca a "National Historical Heritage" site and turning the house where he was born into a "Historic Monument."

The decree, approved by the president and his cabinet without input by the national legislature, directs the Ministry of Culture to allocate government funds toward maintenance of the home, and to build an "interactive museum" chronicling Morales's life up until his election victory last December.

Then in August the Bolivian postal service issued not just one, but three postage stamps bearing the president's image. According to the daily El Deber, one stamp shows Morales wearing the ceremonial presidential sash, a common symbol of authority in Latin American countries.

Another stamp shows Morales, an Aymara Indian, attired in traditional native dress and holding the baston de mando (staff of command), another customary emblem of power south of the border. In the third stamp, Evo is seen smiling and waving to his people.

As the country's first president of Indian heritage, Morales is a significant figure in Bolivian history. But will he prove to be a great statesman, one worthy of museums? Popular politicians sometimes have a way of disgracing themselves. It's way too soon to start building monuments.

Morales asserts, in ostensible modesty, that the measures are intended simply to render tribute to Bolivia's ascendant indigenous movement. One wonders, however, why then Evo's birthplace and Evo's image, in particular, were chosen. Surely there are other places and other events in Native Bolivian history or culture that are worth memorializing. There may be more at work here than Indian pride.

Evo currently enjoys 60 percent approval in opinion surveys -- but this is already down twenty points from polls taken during his "honeymoon" period early in 2006. In the end he could become a sort of Bolivian Boris Yeltsin: an indisputably courageous leader, whose utter incompetence once in power set the cause back for years.

Since taking office in January, Morales's government has made an inauspicious start in this regard, with a number of key posts going to people unlikely to inspire much confidence. As put by an Associated Press summary of what it delicately termed these "unconventional" appointments, "A former maid is justice minister. A coca-farming feminist with little formal education heads the assembly rewriting the constitution. A renowned Quechua-language singer whose voice mimics birdsongs is ambassador to France." And the new ambassador to the U.S. is a "career journalist with no previous diplomatic experience and limited command of English."

Morales himself is a longtime political activist with the Movimiento al Socialismo ("Movement Toward Socialism") party who participated in protracted unrest leading to the downfall of a previous president; whereas his vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, is a former guerrilla fighter who spent five years in prison for alleged terrorist acts in the 1990s.

WHAT EXACTLY IS AT WORK HERE -- the idealist's faith in the ability of non-professionals to manage the affairs of state, or the revolutionary's contempt for the processes of law, diplomacy, and other ordinary institutions? The answer may lie in the exaltation of the president's person as the embodiment of the "new Bolivia."

There's something unseemly, if not ridiculous, about printing stamps with Evo's image at this stage -- indeed, at any stage of a sitting head of state's term in office. (Imagine the fun Jay Leno might have had if the U.S. Postal Service had issued Bush or Clinton stamps during their terms.) Hence opposition leaders' warnings of a budding "evolatry."

But then, Evo is a celebrity president. The cult is nurtured not only from above, but also eagerly from below. Calendars bearing photos of Evo Morales grace homes all over Bolivia's countryside.

The ultimate adulation gets underway this month as Bolivian moviemakers Tonchy Antezana and Homero Rodas start filming a fictionalized Morales biography. The film, to be titled "Evo Pueblo," hones in on key moments in the president's eventful life from childhood through his rise to power, stopping along the way to focus on Evo's musical skills, on Evo's love of soccer, and on Evo's leadership of the country's coca leaf growers. Four actors have been selected to play the role of Morales at different ages. The company expects to hire up to 15,000 extras from native villages to re-create an ambitious carnival scene at the start of the film.

The movie may yet turn out to be even more topical than its makers expect, with Evo front and center -- and Bolivia's long-suffering Indians serving as props.

Jorge Amador is a freelance writer and editor emeritus of the Pragmatist, a current-affairs commentary.

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