The Digital Journalist
Bolivia Rising

by Spencer Platt

Evo Morales was late and the miners were starting to light off fireworks. Staunch supporters in the leftist Indian's candidacy for the presidency of Bolivia, the miners hold the front line of thousands who had turned out on this cool and drizzly La Paz evening to hear Apu Mallku, or Supreme Leader, speak about the revolution he was fomenting in this Andean nation. In their beat-up brown helmets festooned with stickers of Che and Morales's party MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) the miners make a convincing presence of genuine conviction. There are no campaign handlers at this event and surprisingly little in the form of security for a man who is making headlines from Washington to Rome. But as night sets in and the speakers gradually grow in importance a festive-like atmosphere emerges. As Evo finally takes the stage, adorned with a necklace of flowers and brandishing a knightly staff, fireworks light up the sky over La Paz, as if to warn those near and far that Bolivia is rising.

VILLA CATORZE, BOLIVIA - DEC. 18: Holding coca leaves, Bolivian presidential candidate Evo Morales is greeted by supporters in his hometown while voting, Dec. 18, 2005.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
I had come back to Bolivia, a landlocked country of 8.5 million, after spending a few weeks here in June during a period of anarchy in La Paz as thousands of native Indian campesinoes and supporters of MAS blocked roads and forced out the former president, Carlos Mesa. I arrived back to a relatively calm country, a country that was about to have presidential elections which could prove to be historical for this, the poorest country in South America.

Morales, or "Evo" as he is genuinely called, is a hard figure to dislike. In an age where politicians are increasingly supercilious and reserved Morales enjoys coming to a table of press photographers, or paparazzi as he sarcastically refers to us, and sharing a beer. The stocky former coca-farmer leader has a simple, almost unsophisticated, manner about him. An admirer of Che Guevara, Castro and, to the chagrin of Washington, Hugo Chavez, Morales has sent shivers through the corridors of Washington. His revolutionary platform calls for a legalization of coca growing and for the nationalization of Bolivia's natural resources - a longstanding issue in this country that has an abysmal history of exploitation of the over 60 percent of Bolivians of Indian descent.

The Bush administration views Morales as part of a creeping leftist threat in Latin America. As America has been preoccupied with the Middle East, numerous countries in the region have witnessed the rise of left-wing and indigenous movements that often advocate policies at odds with Washington. Shifts in Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil and now Bolivia away from the blind endorsement of globalization and free-market policies have sent a message to decision-makers in the United States that Latin America is no longer willing to deferentially endorse whatever America prescribes for the continent's woes.

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA - DEC. 19: Bolivians walk past street graffiti for Evo Morales, Dec. 19, 2005, in downtown La Paz, Bolivia. A day after the historic election of Morales as president of Bolivia, the impoverished country is calm and preparing for the radical adjustments the leftist admirer of Che Guevara will bring to the government.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
And anyone who visits the region can hardly blame the public for demanding some kind of change. With some of the world's largest oil reserves and mineral deposits, country after country is awash in corruption, unemployment and skyrocketing debt. The response from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank has been for more privatization and a reduction in public spending, a recipe that has yet to result in the promised rise in living standards for millions in the region. It is the belief that these policies are inherently biased towards the privileged and generally white elite that has given rise to the likes of Evo Morales.

Covering a presidential election in Bolivia is not entirely different from life on the campaign trail in America. There are the musty press buses, bad lunches, candidate photo-ops and late-night scrambles for hotel rooms in provincial towns. But what is unique is a feeling of political authenticity. With few handlers and a limited amount of scripted moments, covering a candidate like Morales offers a journalist a glimpse into what it must have been like to cover politics in the era of Kennedy or Roosevelt, a period of larger-than-life men, advocating bold ideas and in whom people genuinely bestowed their hope.

In my months on the trail with John Kerry I never once had a moment like the morning in Villa 14 de Septiembre, Morales hometown. After the press was fed a breakfast of trout, potatoes and a tepid malt drink the entire village lined up to salute their local hero. Women broke down in tears and kissed the candidate while flowers and confetti were thrown onto him in a kind of hysterical frenzy. It was not so much a campaign stop as a ritual ceremony for one about to be dispatched off to battle giants and conquer foreign lands.

COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA - DEC. 18: Supporters of Bolivian presidential candidate Evo Morales cheer on Dec. 18, 2005 as the candidate gives a victory speech after exit poles were running strongly in his favor in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Back in La Paz, Evo has been speaking for over 15 minutes and it is time to file. The only Internet café with wireless closes in an hour and La Paz traffic can be tricky. Making my way past a crowd of hundreds of rabid supporters waving MAS flags and cheering their man, I emerge on the margins of political theater. Out here commerce refreshingly trumps politics. Dozens of women with makeshift kitchens sit in the middle of the street. Their fires illuminating the dark Indian faces of the Bolivian work force, the women cook various meats and sell beer and soda. Drunks, fires, children, shadows and the pungent odor of street food lend the La Paz evening the sordid intensity characteristic of this wonderful country; a country that has known little but upheaval and exploitation since its inception in 1825.

Evo Morales would convincingly win the presidential election the following week and Bolivia would be sent on yet another adventure. To be continued ...

© Spencer Platt

Spencer Platt is from Westport, Connecticut. After graduating from Clark University in 1994 with a degree in English, he commenced a career in photojournalism with an internship at the Troy Daily News. Spencer worked at numerous newspapers on the East Coast before joining Getty Images in 2000 as a staff photographer. Besides many domestic stories, Spencer has covered such international assignments as Iraq, Liberia, the Congo, Albania and most recently the tsunami in Southeast Asia. Spencer lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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