Bolivian President Evo Morales showed the international media a clean pair of heels on Wednesday. The fit and avid football player and his team of former Bolivian world cup players recorded a 12-1 victory over a team of journalists from The Associated Press, Efe, Reuters and other foreign groups. Morales added to the damage by converting a penalty. While Morales won this time, he hasn't always had it his own way in his battles against Bolivia’s international press corps. "Some journalists treat me as if I'm ignorant, or crazy, and the press never reports this," Morales said. "Some foreign journalists come here just to offend me." Morales has often expressed his desire to open more government-friendly media outlets, and has announced plans to create numerous community radio stations in small towns throughout Bolivia.
Juan Evo Morales Ayma turns 47 on 26 October. Popularly known simply as Evo, he claims to be Bolivia’s first indigenous leader since before the Spanish Conquest 470 years ago. His political party Movimento Al Socialismo (known as MAS which is also Spanish for ‘more’) was founded in 1997 and has had a spectacular rise to power. It came from nowhere to come second in the 2002 elections with 19.4 % of the valid presidential vote and 14.6% of the valid uninominal vote, which gave it 27 out of 130 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and eight out of 27 seats in the Senate. Morales credited then U.S. ambassador Manuel Rocha for the success of MAS: "Every statement [Rocha] made against us helped us to grow and awaken the conscience of the people." None of the other candidates would agree to enter a debate with Morales and his “minor party”. Morales turned that into a positive by saying “"The one who I want to debate is Ambassador Rocha — I prefer to argue with the owner of the circus, not the clowns."
Rocha and the US State Department cautioned the other parties not to enter a coalition with MAS. Instead they became the strongest opposition party. In October 2003, Evo played a central role in the violent demonstrations demanding the nationalisation of the energy sector that led to the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. The cause was the Bolivian Gas War, a huge social conflict based on the exploitation of the country’s vast natural gas reserves. In the 1990s, the government had awarded generous contracts to 26 foreign companies in a consortium called Pacific LNG. The plan called for a pipeline to the Chilean coast where the gas would be exported to the US and elsewhere. Opponents argued that exporting the gas as a raw material would give Bolivia only 18% of the profits. When the army killed seven protesters against the plan in September 2003, the Bolivian Workers Confederation and the leader of the indigenous party declared an indefinite general strike. Morales and MAS eventually took part and organised the protests in the capital in 2005.
Morales was well prepared for the December 2005 election. He formed a ticket with Alvaro Garcia Linera whose elegance and middle class background formed a striking contrast with the Aymara Indian common look of Morales. The combination was a success. Morales won 54% of the vote and was declared outright winner without a congressional vote. The new president has been openly hostile to US and foreign interests.
In May this year he fulfilled on an election pledge and signed a decree nationalising the gas industry. He threatened to evict foreign companies unless they sign new contracts within six months giving Bolivia majority control over the entire production chain. The decree impacts about 20 foreign oil companies, including Spain's Repsol, Petrobras of Brazil, Britain's BP and French group Total.
Morales’ power base is Bolivia's cocalero movement – a loose federation of coca leaf-growing campesinos who are resisting the efforts of the US to eradicate coca in the province of Chapare in southeastern Bolivia. In front of an audience of 20,000 cocaleros shortly after his election win, Morales told them ,"the fight for coca symbolises our fight for freedom. Coca growers will continue to grow coca. There will never be zero coca." This was a reference to the US backed “Plan Dignidad” (Dignity Plan) which the 2000 Bolivian government supply-side exercised to rid the rid the country of illegal coca which is a key ingredient of cocaine. However the indigenous Aymara and Quechua peoples have traditionally chewed coca leaves as a dietary supplement. Its consumption in the form of leaves and tea is part of daily life for Bolivia's peasants, miners and workers. They saw Plan Dignidad as an attack on their way of life. Morales says he supports an anti-drug policy but not an anti-coca policy, "there will be zero cocaine, zero drug trafficking, but not zero coca".