Past drives Bolivian president
Evo Morales never forgot the lessons of his childhood. Speaking at a recent conference in the Italian seaside city of Rimini, the Bolivian president began describing the struggles of growing up as an impoverished indigenous boy in one of Latin America’s poorest countries. With charismatic passion, Morales talked about how wealthy foreigners would drive through his town on large tour buses, stopping to buy local fruit that he could never afford. When they threw away the peels, the young Morales and his friends would fight over them. It was a heart-wrenching story. But for Morales, it was an analogy of modern Bolivia. He explained that, like those wealthy foreigners, multi-billion dollar oil and gas companies have for too long come to Bolivia to exploit the country’s natural resources, only to leave locals fighting over the scraps. It became clear Morales was addressing critics who have condemned him for nationalizing the country’s natural gas fields — estimated to be worth $70 billion. After his election in 2005, he forced nearly two dozen foreign oil companies to renegotiate their state contracts, allowing the government to take what Morales called a fairer share of their profits. That alarmed countries like Brazil and Spain, whose companies are heavily invested in Bolivia and were suddenly expected to take in far less money. But in Rimini, Morales vehemently defended his decision, calling previous Bolivian governments corrupt for “lining their pockets” while allowing companies to export the country’s vast energy resources. “I did what I did for my country,” he said in Spanish, not using any notes. “I’ve never forgotten that, as an indigenous child, I, too, was on the streets.” Morales explained that the nationalization of natural gas has earned his government $2 billion — compared to the $300 million the previous government made from the same quantity of production under its overly generous contracts with foreign companies. As the country’s first-ever indigenous president, Morales has used that money to tackle Bolivia’s rampant poverty. He’s funded a national microcredit program, committed to achieving universal education and offered assistance to the country’s elderly. He’s also raised the minimum wage and even cut his own salary in half to hire more teachers. “I want to give back to Bolivia through our social movement,” Morales told the audience, which was uncomfortable with his bold and confrontational style. That style has also made the U.S. and Europe nervous. They accuse Morales of following in the footsteps of Fidel Castro. “I hope you don’t accuse me of being part of the axis of evil,” he told the crowd of businessmen, diplomats and academics. Morales’s speech shows why he is such a polarizing figure. Like other left-leaning political figures to rise to power in Latin America this decade, he’s wasted no time in implementing reform. But it’s still unclear if he will become like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has restricted rights, or if he will remain committed to democratic ideals, like Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. One thing is for certain though: as he enters his third year in office, the world will be watching closely. Craig and Marc Kielburger are children’s rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world. Online: Craig and Marc Kielburger discuss global issues every Monday in the World & Comment section. Take part in the discussion online at thestar.com/globalvoices.