Friday, November 21, 2008

Seeing Evo Morales Speak

This past Tuesday, I had the enormous privilege of seeing Evo Morales speak at Columbia University as part of the World Leaders forum that Columbia hosts every year. It was a fantastic opportunity, and Morales didn't disappoint, talking for about 55 minutes and then spending another 30 minutes answering questions.

The first thing that struck me is how dynamic, charismatic, and well-spoken he is. I realize "eloquent" can and often does carry all kinds of racist connotations, but "eloquent" is exactly what he was. His detractors in Bolivia and elsewhere often call him an "uneducated Indian" (this was a common refrain among the right in Brazil), but anybody who's seen him speak could attest that it's far from the case. He did an excellent job discussing life in Bolivia, his path to the presidency, foreign policy and politics, and some of what he's done as president and what he still wants to do, but he did it all extemporaenously. It may have been a speech he's given before and been able to rehearse, but that didn't detract from its excellence. If Morales is "uneducated," then George Bush is a nobel laureate.

As for the actual content of his speech, it was also excellent, and quite thought provoking. In discussing his campaign for the presidency, he called the American ambassador to Bolivia his "best campaign manager." Apparently, in 2005 as the campaign went on, the U.S. ambassador repeatedly spoke out in public as saying that Morales was a terrible, terrible choice, going so far as to make the hyperbolic and ridiculous claim that Morales and coca growers were "just like the Taliban." Morales was clearly amused by and grateful for these claims, obviously believing that the U.S. ambassador's opposition and, by extension (as the ambassador is just the state's spokesperson for the government s/he represents), Bush's opposition, were key in making Morales a popular choice among many Bolivians who may have been hesitant towards Morales but had a rather low opinion of Bush's beliefs and attitudes. In short, Morales felt that at least some of his votes probably came from the fact that some Bolivians felt that if Bush believed Morales was a bad choice for Bolivia, then Morales clearly must be a good choice.

This humorous observation was amusing, but it also was great point that really got me thinking about how ineffective the Bush government has been at foreign policy. It's not just that Bush has pretty much taken the perfectly wrong path in dealing with the world (even before it threw away the goodwill we got for 9/11); it's that he has consistently, repeatedly, and clearly made the wrong choices in how he deals with countries again and again, yet he continues to try to bully the world expecting different results this time. His claims against countries have repeatedly emboldened them and made their leaders more popular at home, and yet he continued to speak but against these leaders, expecting the population to suddenly say, "hey, Bush is right!" The administration's refusal to dialogue with anybody and its stubbornness, perfectly embodied by Bush himself, has not only alienated the U.S. from the rest of the world, but that Bush's tactics have helped lead to exactly the results he may have wanted least (condemning Morales so strongly only helping the referendum further being an example). In other words, Morales's anecdote really encapsulates just how much the Bush administration's foreign policy has been equally arrogant and blockheaded - it's not just that it assumes an air of superiority that disregarded what sovereign nations might think is best for them; it's that it continued the same mistakes again and again in dealing with those nations and their peoples.

Morales also stressed the importance of dialog in international relations, and in this regard, he really reminded me of Lula. Morales made clear that he wasn't ideologically aligned with or against anybody, but was simply interested in trying to make the best political and economic negotiations he could for his own country. If there were breakdowns (as in the case of the U.S.), it wasn't through failed dialogue, but through the absence of dialogue, not from Bolivia's side, but from other countries. While he avoided explicitly mentioning Bush, he did say he looked forward to meeting with Obama at some point, and it wasn't difficult to read between the lines of his statements that he clearly thought that the U.S. really had a better chance in foreign policy with Obama than with Bush. However, he also raised the interesting comparison of Obama to himself, insisting that nobody compare the two, because Obama never had people spitting on him, he didn't face a societal structure in which it was difficult financially and socially for him to gain access to higher education, and he never had to lead strikes and face the threat of prison and abuse from police forces in the way Morales and indigenous leaders in Bolivia did. While that comment could have come off as arrogant and belittling, it didn't, instead serving as a strong reminder that, while Obama has indeed made enormous strides in arriving to the presidency, the contexts matter greatly in making such comparisons.

Another thing I noticed, and that I thought was of tantamount importance, was the complete absence of any mention, explicit or tacit, of Hugo Chavez or Venezuela. The U.S. media tends to always lump those two together when discussing Bolivia, and Morales often comes off as little more than a subservient follower of Chavez's "Bolivarian mission." Nothing could be further from the truth, and Morales's talk hammered home exactly what Morales is: a former poor, indigenous farmer who rose to the presidency of Bolivia and who only wants to see see Bolivia improve and to see the majority of Bolivians who have historically and perpetually been kept in poverty and away from national sources of power (political and otherwise) and wealth gain fair access and have a chance to succeed, too. And the goal of making life better for all Bolivians is not only a fair goal, it should have been done centuries ago. That Morales is finally doing this doesn't make him some some dangerous "communist" leader who follows Chavez around out of a lack of any convictions of his own and a little-brother-like devotion; it just makes him a president who has his own population's interests in mind, and is working to improve life not for some wealthy minority, but for the majority of his country's citizens. In that regard, given Bolivia's history and the functioning of a very small political/economic aristocracy there, and the changes Morales has brought about (including, hopefully, a fairer and just constitution this January), he's been hugely successful.

One final thing that struck me was what was in one way the relative "conservatism" of Morales in terms of fiscal policy. In discussing the conditions Bolivia was facing domestically when he was inaugurated, he stressed that, since 1940, there had not been one year where Bolivia was operating at a surplus. Simultaneously, the previous (neoliberal) governments had done little to actually help Bolivia financially (as opposed to helping themselves and the political elite), so that in 2004, the year before Morales's victory, Bolivia was pulling in $300 million in revenues from natural resources. In contrast, Bolivia had a net gain last year of over $2 billion, and while the rise in oil prices explains some of that increase, it's also aided by Morales's nationalization projects that, among other things, demanded fair prices for Bolivia's resources (rather than selling them off at discounts to foreign companies and pocketing the money), as well as the fact that, by nationalizing some industries, the money provided income for the state that had previously gone into the pockets of foreign national businesspersons who were already rolling in money. Yes, Morales has expanded some state programs to help the poor gain better access to good schooling, resources, food, health care, etc., but he has done so because he's created a budget surplus that allows the state to provide those services (as it should). That's hardly a "destructive" or "communist" vision.

To be clear, I'm not a Morales hagiographer, and I had some problems with some things he said, particularly in how he staked out the economic successes of the future in Bolivia. He paid lip service to the understanding that oil would not be there forever, nor could Bolivia stake its financial futures only on natural resources that would have a diminishing market, but then he went on to say how promising oil was for at least the next few decades. What is more, he then went on to discuss Bolivia's lithium deposits and how much they would help Bolivia in the future as lithium-powered batteries for cars increased even while oil demand decreased. However, that comment was completely disconnected from his previous line that Bolivia couldn't stake its economic future to exhaustible resources either for which the market would eventually wear down or the resources would disappear. In short, he claimed that Bolivia couldn't rely strictly on finite natural resources for its own financial well-being, yet he offered no alternatives that weren't natural resources that Bolivia could exploit.

That said, it was a really good talk with a good audience (it was clear that, while he had some adoring fans in the audience, he also had some pretty fierce oppponents). Ultimately, what emerged from his presentation was that the U.S. media (and what population does know about him) has virtually no understanding about the man or about what he is doing as leader of his own country. People may have their criticisms about him (and they certainly do, in Bolivia, Brazil, the U.S., and elsewhere), but by and large, those criticisms are baseless and completely out of touch with what Morales himself does, how he sees politics and society in Bolivia, and what he wants for his country.