President of Bolivia
Born Juan Evo Morales Aima, October 26, 1959, in Isavalli, Orinoca, Sud Caranas, Bolivia; son of Dionisto Morales Choque (a herder and farmer) and Maria Mamani.
Addresses: Office—Embassy of Bolivia, 3014 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington DC 20008.
Agricultural laborer and llama-herder during his childhood and teen years; played trumpet in a band; served in the Bolivian army; became a coca farmer in the Chapare state; elected general secretary of San Francisco, his local growers' union, 1985; became head of the Tropics Federation, an alliance of six unions, 1988, and president of its Coordinating Committee after 1996; elected to Bolivia's Chamber of Deputies from Chapare, 1997; joined the Movimiento al Socialismo party; elected president of Bolivia, 2005.
In December of 2005, Bolivians elected Evo Morales as their country's next president, and made the popular labor activist the first person of Amerindian heritage to lead the country. A farmer for most of his life, Morales entered politics after spending years fighting international efforts to eliminate Bolivia's coca-leaf crop industry. "I have been hated, mistreated, humiliated, and thrown into prison three times for trying to defend my people. But now we are in government and I want to bring peace and justice for all," he asserted to Steve Boggan of London's Guardian, newspaper a few weeks after taking office. "There will be no exploitation or discrimination of anyone."
Born in 1959, Morales spent the first years of his life in Isavalli in Orinoca, a lakeside area whose primary economy is the raising of llamas and vicuña, a camel-like animal prized for its fine wool. His family was of Aymara ethnicity, one of the indigenous groups that lived in what is now Bolivia for centuries prior to European encroachment. Out of the seven children born in his family, Morales was one of just three to survive infancy, and spent his earliest years in a one-room adobe hut with no electricity; the family's livestock were kept in a pen adjacent to the hut. As a child, he helped take care of their llamas, and began taking other jobs as soon as he grew old enough. When he was six years old, Morales, his sister, and their father traveled to Argentina to work during the annual sugarcane harvest there. His first language was Aymara, and he learned Spanish only later in his school years.
As a member of Bolivia's indigenous population, Morales was part of a majority that made up 55 to 70 percent of the citizenry, versus 30 to 45 percent European-heritage Bolivians. Long discriminated against by the political, economic, and social elite of European background, Bolivia's Aymara, Quechua, and other Amerindian groups existed largely as subsistence farmers, eking out a living on tiny plots of land that rarely vaulted a household past the national poverty line. Like other young Bolivian men, Morales served a mandatory stint in the army, after spending a few years as a trumpet player in a band. His family eventually resettled in Chapare, a part of the country inside the Andes Mountains. There they grew coca, a traditional Aymara crop. For centuries, its leaves had been chewed by the Aymara and Quechua as an appetite-queller that helped them survive periodic food shortages; coca leaves or coca tea were also effective remedies for altitude sickness among mountain-dwelling communities. Because of these benefits, the plant has a religious significance in Bolivia and is entirely legal, but drug traffickers buy the crop and use it to manufacture cocaine for illicit consumption elsewhere.
Morales established himself as a cocalero, or coca-leaf grower, and rose to prominence in the local growers' union, called San Francisco. He was elected its general secretary in 1985, and three years later became head of an umbrella group of six unions that had become increasingly active in fighting government restrictions on their livelihood. Bolivia, along with Columbia and Peru, was the target of U.S.-led efforts to eradicate the crop in order to curb cocaine consumption at home, and elected officials usually agreed to implement measures in exchange for generous foreign aid dollars. The cocalero unions allied to fight this and preserve their sole source of income in a region where little else could grow. Over the next several years Morales led marches, met with government and foreign officials, and became the target of harassment. He was both jailed and fired upon, once by a helicopter of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
As one of the most prominent cocalero union leaders, Morales became widely known in Chapare. In 1997 he was elected to a seat in Bolivia's Chamber of Deputies on a coalition ticket made up of representatives from leftist parties and organizations. He eventually joined the Movimiento al Socialismo ("Movement toward Socialism") party, which had emerged out of the cocalero-union movement. Commonly referred to by its acronym, MAS—a play on the Spanish word for "more"—the party proved surprisingly popular with Bolivian voters that year, and gained ground in subsequent national and local elections. In 2002, Morales became the MAS candidate for president of Bolivia and did surprisingly well at the polls, but lost in the run-off race. The campaign had been a tense one, with the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Manuel Rochas, making unfavorable comments about Morales, and even asserting that if Bolivians chose him as their next president, they could expect the United States to retaliate in the form of curtailing some of the $100 million in economic aid to Bolivia, the second-poorest nation in South America. Bolivians were incensed by Rochas' comments, which were widely perceived as an attempt to interfere with the democratic process in Bolivia.
Morales returned as the MAS presidential candidate in December of 2005, and this time won with 54 percent of the vote. Known for his informal style, which includes colorful striped sweaters and sneakers, Bolivia's first non-European president has proved a popular new leader, especially when he followed through on several campaign promises. Bolivia has vast natural gas reserves, and in a 2004 referendum, Bolivian voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question regarding the nationalization of the country's gas and oil industries. There is large foreign investment in both industries, not just by U.S.-based companies but also by Petrobras of Brazil and Repsol YPF, a Spanish company. In May of 2006, Morales announced the nationalization plan for the oil and gas industries, with a timeline of just six months.
Morales' rise is considered another piece of evidence signaling a shift to the left in South American politics. One of his first significant foreign-policy initiatives was to form an economic alliance with the Cuban government and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, two of the strongest critics of U.S. influence in the region. Responding to remarks by President George W. Bush in which the U.S. leader said Morales's legitimate victory at the polls is evidence that Bolivia might be moving away from democracy, Morales reflected in an interview with Tim Padgett of Time that "I think Mr. Bush wants us to be a colonized democracy: dependent, submissive, and subordinate to foreign interests."
Economist, May 6, 2006, p. 38.
Guardian (London, England), February 9, 2006, p. 8.
Time, January 9, 2006, p. 36; June 5, 2006, p. 37.
"Bolivia's first Indian president sworn in," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/americas/01/22/morales.ap/index.html (January 23, 2006).
"Childhood," EvoMorales.net, http://www.evomorales.net/paginasEng/perfil_Eng_infan.aspx (October 18, 2006).