NEW YORK -- "Why are you going to go listen to that idiot? That racist indio (Indian) can't even talk during interviews," snarled my blonde-haired, green eyed Cuban friend when I told him I'd be covering the visit of Bolivian President Evo Morales. He was clearly unhappy with the friendship between Morales and Fidel Castro. My friend was not alone.
Here in the North, the Bush administration regularly denies visas to indigenous, mestizo (mixed Spanish and Indian), and even white members of Morales' cabinet. In the South, meanwhile, right-wing Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa recently published an article about Morales titled, "A New Racism Approaches the Region: Indians Against Whites."
"To put the Latin American problem in racial terms as do some demagogues is senseless and irresponsible," said Vargas Llosa.
Indian power ruffles feathers in the modern world.
The first time I saw Morales during his visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting this week, he was suited up as a midfielder in a soccer match on the Lower East Side. Though impressed by some of what I'd heard about the very smart reform agenda of the first indigenous head of state in Bolivia -- a majority indigenous country -- in 500 years, the journalist in me in was skeptical about political theater, even if it took the form of soccer, the only sport I really like.
Yet, even from a distance, he looked very much at ease, undistracted from his game despite the blaring cacharpaya (traditional Andean music) or the throngs of Bolivianos screaming "Evo!" at his slightest pass or shot. I asked Mathilde Lazcano, a Bolivian psychologist and social worker who has met Morales and who worked among indigenous populations for more than 20 years, why people were so effusive about Evo. "For most of our lives, the indigenas, the poor of our country could not express ourselves. I'm here because he (and) his movement brought to life my work," she said, adding, "He's the real thing."
After the match, which his team won despite the presidente's missing a penalty kick, he was whisked by his soccer-uniformed security crew through the crowd. He stopped for a moment and stood right near me. I studied his lanky frame, his straight hair and aquiline nose. Most striking were his intense, but warm brown eyes. He looked like a more genial version of the Geronimo pictures I grew up with. He looked "integro" or "integral" as some of my most respected Salvadoran revolutionary friends called those personifying the highest political -- and personal -- ideals. But my biggest surprise was when I saw how tall he was. Most Bolivianos I grew up with were short mestizos like the Chavez brothers who played on a soccer team my not-so-PC brothers in San Francisco's Mission district named the "Conquistadores" or (Spanish) "Conquerors." Like them, it was easier for me to identify with the Spanish and nationalist side of the mestizo equation than with the indigenous side.
The 5-foot-10-inch Evo came, it seems, to turn over the tortilla of our consciousness about Indians, race and power -- and about our selves.
When I saw him on stage during a speech he gave the next day at the historic Great Hall of the Cooper Union, he started looking even taller. He nervously began by telling us that he was honored to stand at a podium where the likes of honest Abe Lincoln (another lanky president) have stood. But unlike Lincoln, he located himself in relation to not just the "intellectual and professional" and "western" tradition of power but also to the 2,000-year-old collective political tradition of the Aymara people he descended from. "For 500 years," said Morales, "we have had patience."
"It's amazing how he's able to weave and connect so many issues while connecting them back to his base," said my friend, a highly respected former Latin American diplomat in the audience.
Evo Morales also said things Lincoln or any other U.S. president could or would never say, things like, "Capitalism is the worst enemy of humanity" or "We need to decolonize internally and externally." I've never heard a head of state, certainly not inside the United States, interrogate and point out the cultural similarities between both rightists and leftists of the "West."
Morales strikes a 180 degree difference from other indigenous South American heads of state. Peru's Alejandro Toledo, the Stanford-trained Ph.D. and former president, championed U.S. free trade agreements and drug enforcement policies rejected by Morales. Strongly supported by the U.S. State Department and Vargas Llosa, Toledo ranked among the least popular presidents in Latin America, with 23 percent approval in polls taken by the respected Mitofsky International last year. The same polls ranked Morales among the most popular by margins of 81 percent.
It's not just that he's indigenous, but that he communicates honesty and centeredness, even on TV as he did during his smash-hit (raucous audience applause sounded like the fans at the soccer field in the Lower East Side) appearance on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show.
By the time I met and spoke with him on the third and final day of my time tracking him, I, like the growing number of those nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize, believed him when he looked at you and said things like, "We do not have a vengeful mentality" or "We must build a culture of life"; and I also understood why my white Cuban friend, the U.S. State Department, Vargas Llosa and a slew of others criticize Morales with such intensity: fear.
They fear him not only because he is indigenous, not only because he is a leftist in the presidential palace with a massive base of support across the entire insurgent continent; they fear him because his public and private persona, his gentle charisma and ethical approach forces them -- and us -- to look at the long history of violence and hate buried in our individual and collective subconscious, our top-down notions of political -- and personal -- modernity. He forces us all to look at the inner Conquistador -- and the inner Indio.
We are ill-prepared to deal with someone who can say without blinking, "I think that indigenous people are the moral reserve of humanity."
Though he uses state bureaucracy and other instruments of modernity, he also wields them with an unprecedented difference. He has, for example, established in Bolivia something like a Department of "Decolonization" designed to help those wanting to deal with the ravages of modernity.
As he crisscrosses, like a skilled soccer player, New York City between TV studios, skyscrapers, freeways, the 9-11 memorial and other symbols of New York life, I hope he leaves the blueprint for such a department for us to study and apply here.