Many of us dream of a different way of life–a new society that values more than the egotistical pursuit of money. We dream of a world that honors nature, diversity, equality, creativity, and cooperation. We seek a culture, a way of relating and being, that is life-affirming and an end to the mindless greed that is rapidly destroying the very environment that life depends on.
On January 22, an Ayamaran Indian who grew up in poverty—so harsh it claimed four of his siblings—was sworn in as the president of the Republic of Bolivia. Evo Morales Aima was swept into office by Bolivia's indigenous majority and social movements that celebrated in masse this weekend with tears of joy and music flowing in the streets. Many of these people were celebrating a dream come true.
On the day before his inaugural, Morales traveled through teeming crowds to the ancient ruins of Tiwanaku where he was honored by Ayamaran priests in a ceremony to seek the blessing and guidance of the Andean sun god Inti and earth goddess Pachamama for his presidency. He addressed the crowd of supporters and press that had braved the cold Altiplano winds with a euphoric speech that signaled a "New Era" for the country and for indigenous people throughout Latin America.
"This marks the end of neoliberalism," he said. "We don't want vengeance against those that have subjugated us, what we want us unity and equality...The poor have the right to govern ourselves...It is the hour to create a new foundation for the Republic."
Morales then called on the Bolivian Congress to quickly approve a law convening a constituent assembly so that constituents can be elected by June 2 and the assembly itself can begin on August 6.
The pauper-to-prince story of the new president's ascendancy has captured the heart of people and leaders from around the world, many of whom were in La Paz for the inauguration. Morales himself had just returned from an around-the-world tour during which he met with heads of states from four continents, including President Jacques Chirac of France, President Hu Jintao of China and Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez of Spain.
|The new president called on all Bolivians to unite against the empire and for social movements to not abandon him, but to check him and correct him if he falters.|
Morales is already working hard to foil the prediction that his election would cause foreign investors to flee and Bolivia to become isolated in the global economy. Yet even though the tour may have helped Morales gain new allies, the U.S. government's policy towards Bolivia could present huge obstacles to his populist agenda.
The new president appears to be well aware of these constraints and called on all Bolivians to unite against the empire and for social movements to not abandon him, but to check him and correct him if he falters. In his fiery inauguration speech, he denounced the privatization of basic services, particularly water. And today he announced the creation of the first cabinet-level Ministry of Water, a post that will be filled by the head of El Alto's powerful coalition of neighborhood associations (FEJUVE) and leader against the fight to terminate a Suez water privatization scheme, Abel Mamani.
Among those in attendance during the inauguration was Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala whose campaign is also marked by rhetoric challenging the neoliberal, or "Washington consensus" economic model. In a Carl Rove-like move, Florida Governor Jeb Bush was sent to Peru last week to grease the skids of a new Peruvian-US trade agreement that still needs to be ratified by a wavering Peruvian Congress (as well as the US Congress).
Morales called his electoral victory a revolution in democracy and culture. While his presidency may not produce the total transformation in values that so many of us dream of, he has become a potent symbol of change. If anything, his presence has expanded the sense of possible, especially among those who have been struggling to overcome injustice, poverty and racism for over five hundred years.
All around Bolivia I have witnessed the spark of hope that Morales' ascendancy has ignited. This hope, for example, has re-energized the circle of activists fighting to bring ex-president Gonzales Sanchez de Lozada to trial for the deaths of over 60 people killed by the police and military during the October 2003 uprising called the Gas War.
And people continue to dream—big. The visionaries of Theater Trono, a collective theater group that works with thousands of Bolivian children ever year, hope that the new president might be able to help them secure land to build a new community from scratch. Every sector of this new village would be designed by the children themselves.
I have always believed that electoral politics is largely a reactive force. In Bolivia, thousands of creative sparks are starting to illuminate a new path. If the people lead, hopefully the new president will follow.