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Nathaniel Loewentheil

Nathaniel Loewentheil

Posted: January 25, 2010 11:43 PM

President Once and Future: The Spirited Inauguration of Evo Morales

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Last Friday, Evo Morales was inaugurated to his second term as Bolivia's President. The day before, he held a ceremony in ruins close to La Paz to celebrate his newly minted role as Bolivia's Spiritual Guide.

The shimmer-red helicopter bearing Evo Morales towards the Temple of Kalasasaya last Thursday was a strangely modern twist to the morning's ritualistic proceedings, but the theatrical entrance still earned great applause from the thousands of supporters who had gathered in the altiplano town of Tiwanaku, 70 kilometers outside of La Paz. The crowd was congregated to celebrate Evo's imminent inauguration as Bolivia's chief executive, a post he won for the second time this past December as part of a wider electoral victory by his party, Movimiento a Socialismo (MAS). That morning, however, the president was being vested with a brand-new title, one equally important for the people assembled: Apu Mallku, spiritual leader of the Andean indigenous peoples.

The setting was appropriate. Kalasasaya lies at the center of the remains of the most important city of the Tiahuanaco civilization, a pre-Incan empire that controlled large swaths of the Andes from the 7th to 12th century C.E. The ancient complex is one of only a few testaments that remain to speak of the peoples that flourished in the Bolivian highlands before the Spanish invasion; as a result, the social movements that seek to link themselves to the region's pre-colonial history have adopted the ruins as a spiritual home. The site has particular resonance for the Aymara, Bolivia's largest indigenous group and the one to which Morales himself belongs; as the traditional people of the altiplano, they consider themselves directly connected to the Tiahuanaco.

Driving west from La Paz early Thursday morning, I could see why the region had served as a spiritual center for over a thousand years. The remains of the timeworn city still stand proudly above the plateau, echoing the sharp-crowned mountains that surround the sun-battered, wind-fused plains. The land has a tundra beauty of bright flatness and green mountain air, of open horizons crowded by distant-clear peaks.

By the time I arrived at 8:30 am, thousands of elaborately dressed campesinos and campesinas were already drifting slowly from the highway towards the ruins, stopping along the way to buy fresh fruit, fresh coca and refreshing MAS paraphernalia. Decked out in my own brand-new bright-blue MAS headband and Evo scarf, I joined the crowd's mile-long trek. Circling round a long police arc, we made our way into an open field facing the Temple.

The official ordination, scheduled for the following day (Friday, January 22) in La Paz at the Presidential Palace, was designed primarily for journalists, political elite and foreign dignitaries; there would be a long speech to the new Congress, a formal military parade and the ceremonial oath of office. But Thursday's investiture was a celebration of and for Evo's political base. And the base was keen to take advantage. From 9 to 11 am, the crowd grew from perhaps five to thirty thousand, as troupes representing various indigenous groups, unions and political parties arrived not only from all regions of Bolivia but from Argentina, Peru, Chile and other Latin American countries. Crews of cholitas (campesina women) wearing traditional skirts of bright red and dark umber sat in large circles sharing rice and corn. Musical troupes in luminescent green and orange danced to folk songs springing from Andean flutes and drums. Hundreds of banners large and small proudly displayed associations and affiliations, while a giant fifty-foot Evo balloon-doll graced the sky. The gathering was part political rally, part religious pilgrimage and part music festival; I couldn't decide whether to shout slogans, meditate or crack a beer and join in the dancing.

The day was designed not only to celebrate Evo's victory but to demonstrate the right of his indigenous supporters to mark that celebration with their own customs. It was an opportunity fully embraced. At 11 am, as the helicopter cruised to the ground behind the temple walls, Evo was met by the community's amautas aymaras - somewhere between wisemen and priests - who ritually cleansed him with holy water and herbs before dressing him in a specially woven llama-wool robe - unku, in Aymara. The wool itself represented communication, while the Andean symbols decorating it imbued prosperity, wisdom and success. On his head, los amautas placed a ch'uku, a hat with four corners representing the four cardinal points.

Properly attired, the politician turned priest-king ascended la pirámide de Akapana, a small nearby hill with the remains of a Tiahuanacoan altar, where he received the blessings from the South, North, East and West, respectively representing economic stability, the union of the country's Orient and Occident, health for all Bolivians and wisdom for the leader himself.

Benedictions received, Morales and his entourage threaded their way back down to the Temple, escorted by an Aymara anciana (elderly woman) of more than 100 years, and borne along by the galloping applause of the assembled crowd. Framed by a large archway in the Temple wall, the coronation began in earnest. Morales received two bastones de mando indígenas - which I will poorly translate as "scepters of indigenous authority" - from a pair of children in llama white. Representatives of important constituencies, including labor syndicates, women's collectives and community coalitions, paraded by in formation and were duly recognized in turn. Finally, leaders of indigenous social movements from across the Americas - from Peru, Ecuador, the US, and Canada, among others - climbed the stairs one at a time to present the Chief with laurels, robes and other symbolic gifts.

Fully adorned, Evo turned to address the crowd, now forty thousand strong, in both Quechua and Aymara, before launching into a longer discourse in Spanish. He touched on themes familiar to those who have followed his presidency: on the power of social movements, the transition from a colonial to a plurinational state, and the need for ongoing political reform. He leveled his standard attacks on Capitalism, a term that stands in for all things American, Western, Imperialist, Colonialist and Generally Wrong.

Cheers, however, were reserved for his discussion of the historical purpose of the Bolivian people. In a world endangered by capitalism, a "new light of hope emerges from the people that never forget...a form of life lived in complementariness and solidarity...with Mother Earth ... [in which] we know how to distribute wealth among all and live in harmony with all." The Bolivians are descendents of people who have long waged a battle against capitalism, "always standing and never kneeling in the confrontation."

Throughout the speech, repeated references to native predecessors, complemented by pledges to fight for future generations, reinforced a blunt political effort to fit the Morales administration - and the movements that brought it into power - into a historical social narrative; the morning as a whole sought to reach both back and forward in time, stretching across three millennia from the Andean nobility of the Tiahuanaco people to the recently purchased Chinese helicopter fleet. Evo was not only taking on the spiritual mantle of a centuries-old struggle for the rights and dignity of the indigenous peoples of America but proudly leading Bolivia forward in to the 21st century.

Yet while the morning's narrative captured the imagination (at least of this partial observer), it also perfectly encapsulated the tensions latent in Evo's reign. The ritual consciously invoked kingship while investing Morales with a heavy spiritual and political charge, thereby casting the president as a leader apart, the luminary of the world's indigenous movements. And yet by defining the struggle in broad historical terms and situating his worldview firmly in the traditions of Bolivia's peoples, Evo simultaneously presented himself as no more than an expression of movements that have long driven Bolivia forward.

These tensions manifest themselves in the relationship between Evo and his supporters, as that morning's festivities well demonstrated. While supporters had made the trek from wide and far to bear witness to the ceremony, there seemed to be at least equal enthusiasm directed towards fellow political travelers. Attention would shift to the ceremony or the speech at moments of particular valence, but remained largely focused on the festivities themselves - the dancing, the hearty congratulations, the reunions of veterans of battles won and lost. I had the feeling that while Evo felt he had won the battle, la gente knew they had won the war: a victory of, by and for the people. The question is one of power and its balance. In America, when the elections end, the vast majority of people return to their apolitical lives. But Bolivia's social movements, empowered by victories over the last decade, retain a keen sense of agency; Evo did not create them, and does not control them.

Or, at least, so believe the movement actors with whom I've spoken. What Evo believes - whether he sees himself as the indispensable spiritual guide or the humble movement cipher - is harder to determine. Though he rose to elected office through his work as a union-leader and organizer, it can be difficult to retain one's grassroots orientation when in power, especially amidst such pomp and ceremony. As long as Evo's political decisions remain aligned with the will of Bolivia's social movements, the tensions between the two roles will remain dormant. But if paths diverge - if Evo finds himself a leader with no followers - the social movements may begin to view him as an obstacle in the way of reform, and then neither North nor South nor East nor West will be able to save him.

At the moment, this possibility seems remote - Evo won an election with 64% of the vote only a few short weeks ago. But in the months and years ahead, Evo must confront a series of critical policy questions that will pit the interests of his base against other national constituencies and needs. He has promised communities control over their natural resources, while also pledging to expand natural gas production; already, the state-run gas company YPFB has expressed concern about tensions with indigenous groups. His rhetoric around Pachamama and pledges to protect the environment come into clear conflict not only with these proposed exploitations of natural gas but with his ideas for lithium, timber and hydro-power use. He campaigned partially on regional and municipal autonomy, and yet has a government filled with Marxists keen on central state power. While advocating a move towards socialism, he has made few moves to challenge private property. With a five-year term ahead of him, it will be near impossible to avoid making political decisions that alienate his allies.

Morales is aware of these challenges. His speech touched on the importance of plurinational consensus and on the challenges of building a unified state. But the assemblage seemed relatively uninterested in these details of governance; by the time the formal remarks concluded, they were more than ready to return to the celebration. The crowd shouldered towards the open fields beyond the temple grounds, where hundreds of vendors stood ready with cold Paceñas and hot plates. They were joyful, united by a collective embrace of indigenous power embodied in the person of their president. That joy carried over in to a two-day long party that continued long after Evo had returned to La Paz to face the more mundane and complex tasks of governance. In that effort, he may very well succeed in balancing the interests of his traditional base and the exigencies of the country as a whole. But if he fails, he may discover that luminary though he is, and spiritual guide though he may be, he is at the same time only one actor in a struggle greater than himself.