The Columbus Interim: 500 Years Later, the First Indigenous Government Attempts to Reinvent the State; Bolivia & Pres. Evo Morales' Ormolu Chairs
Two quotes for contrast:
For a man who rose to prominence as a union leader, and to office on the back of social movements with mainly economic grievances, economic policy has hardly figured in the first 60 days. Instead, he has used the parliamentary majority that came with his 54% landslide to push through a law convoking a Constituent Assembly, and allowing regional referendums on autonomy.
"In last year's election we only captured government - with the Constituent Assembly we want to capture political power."
President Bush came into office declaring that Latin America was a priority. That's hardly surprising. It's been a priority for every American president since James Monroe in 1823 whose "Monroe Doctrine" told European nations to keep out of Latin American affairs. In pursuit of American interests, the US has overthrown or undermined around 40 Latin American governments in the 20th Century.
Evo Morales 'padlocked' in palace
By Paul Mason
BBC Newsnight, Bolivia
Shortly before 0500, the military police huddled in the doorways of the Plaza Murillo begin to stir beneath their capes.
The door of the presidential palace creaks open and the guards, in scarlet tunics and white webbing, begin a rigmarole of shuffling, stamping and saluting that is the changing of the guard.
The police are muscular white guys. The guards, armed with muskets, are willowy young indigenous kids - the regiment has always recruited from the "indios" for ethnic novelty value.
Now, as the police strut away, the guards smile nervously at each other from beneath their kepis: then they collapse in a fit of giggles.
Since Evo Morales took office, the joke is no longer on them. "Look," President Morales tells me, "60 years ago, our grandparents didn't even have the right to walk into the main square - not even in the gutter. And then we got into parliament - and now we're here."
He looks around apologetically at the long Rococco state room we are meeting in - at the ormolu chairs we are sitting on. He has installed a portrait of Che Guevara in the presidential suite but, apart from that, the palace remains as it was under his neo-liberal predecessors.
"It's been a great victory - now this is a stronghold for the indigenous people. And we're not going to stop," Mr Morales says.
"The most important thing is the indigenous people are not vindictive by nature. We are not here to oppress anybody - but to join together and build Bolivia, with justice and equality."
'Fight for power'
In truth, the Morales presidency is fast getting beyond the "peace, love and understanding" phase. The first indigenous leader to run a country in the Americas has been two months in office, but he does not feel like he is in power - yet.
It's full of padlocks that mean you can't transform things from the palace... I feel like a prisoner of the neo-liberal laws
"How does it work now? I'll tell you," he says.
"You want to issue a decree to help the poor, the indigenous people, the popular movements, the workers... but there's another law. Another padlock. It's full of padlocks that mean you can't transform things from the palace... I feel like a prisoner of the neo-liberal laws."
For a man who rose to prominence as a union leader, and to office on the back of social movements with mainly economic grievances, economic policy has hardly figured in the first 60 days.
Instead, he has used the parliamentary majority that came with his 54% landslide to push through a law convoking a Constituent Assembly, and allowing regional referendums on autonomy.
"In last year's election we only captured government - with the Constituent Assembly we want to capture political power.
"Who makes the decisions here - the poor and indigenous people or those families who've done so much damage to our country in the past? They discriminated against, marginalised, oppressed, hated and totally disregarded the indigenous people. It's a political fight - it's a fight for power."
If the economic conditions Mr Morales has inherited are relatively benign that is because of Bolivia's newfound hydrocarbon wealth.
There could still be sabotage - we've just heard the news that some transnational companies are putting $2m into a campaign to boycott my government
The trillion-cubic-foot (3bn-cubic-metre) gas field was discovered in the late 1990s and, originally, leased at what Mr Morales sees as knock-down prices to the oil and gas corporations.
He has got a judge beavering away at declaring the original contracts illegal, and plans to nationalise the gas and oil industries.
But here is the problem. Most of the gas is in the Chaco region, administered from the city of Santa Cruz, which represents 33% of the country's GDP and 25% of the population.
Santa Cruz is the traditional base of the Christian right-wing parties - it is the centre from which the US anti-drug operation is run, it is where Repsol, Petrobras and British Gas are headquartered.
Now Santa Cruz wants autonomy and the right to all but 10% of the hydrocarbon revenues.
President Morales appears unfazed by veiled threats of disinvestment.
"Of course, there could still be sabotage - we've just heard the news that some transnational companies are putting $2m into a campaign to boycott my government. It doesn't matter - we're monitoring the problem," he says.
Meanwhile, his own mass base is restive.
The miners of Huanuni, buoyed by the rising international price of tin, paralysed the southern quarter of the country with a series of roadblocks, enforced with dynamite. Their demand? Fifty-five extra teachers in their local schools.
Mr Morales' response - to announce he would provide 3,000 extra teaching posts, paid for by closing embassies and scrapping "decorative" civil service posts.
He seems to sense there is only so long you can go on like this, but as the first indigenous leader in the continent, he has some unique cards to play, the first one being himself:
"I have a lot of trouble understanding all the detail of finance and administration - but if you combine intellectual and professional capacity with a social conscience, you can change things: countries, structures, economic models, colonial states."
That position has visceral support in a place like El Alto, the shanty-city of one million Aymara people which dominates the high plain above La Paz.
There the talking point is not whether the president should nationalise the gas and neutralise the opposition - but what they will do to him if he fails.
They will tolerate Evo, one tells me, for a year or two - though they will never move against him if it weakens the united front against "the whites".
Vote for change
Mr Morales, for now, is more than capable of meeting the wave of rising indigenous cultural consciousness with concrete reforms. But soon the crunch will come - the form and costs of nationalisation for the hydrocarbons industry must be concretised.
How it all pans out now depends on whether he can forge his political party, the Movement Towards Socialism - until now more of a federation of disparate social movements - into a disciplined political force.
It scored a big election victory not only because it mobilised the poor but because the young, white, foreign-educated middle class mobilised themselves to vote for change.
Their vote was more of a rejection of the failure of their fathers' generation than an endorsement of Evo Morales.
"We hope the delegates to the Constituent Assembly will represent not only the indigenous people and popular movements but patriotic professionals, intellectuals and business people. If these patriotic sections take part we'll succeed," Mr Morales tells me.
What happens if they drift away, if the foreign gas companies play hardball, if the rumours of paramilitary arms stockpiles around Santa Cruz turn out not to be scare stories?
Well, at that point the farce played out at the palace gate between the president's ceremonial guards and the muscular remnants of regimes past may turn nasty, on a national scale.
I will use this post as a running commentary on Morales and Boliva when I come across something.
Analysis: How the US 'lost' Latin America
As the BBC begins a special series on Latin America, Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler gives his view on the region's leftward trend and its changing relationship with the US.
There is trouble ahead for Uncle Sam in his own backyard. Big trouble.
It is one of the most important and yet largely untold stories of our world in 2006. George W Bush has lost Latin America.
While the Bush administration has been fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, relations between the United States and the countries of Latin America have become a festering sore - the worst for years.
Virtually anyone paying attention to events in Venezuela and Nicaragua in the north to Peru and Bolivia further south, plus in different ways Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, comes to the same conclusion: there is a wave of profound anti-American feeling stretching from the Texas border to the Antarctic.
And almost everyone believes it will get worse.
President Bush came into office declaring that Latin America was a priority. That's hardly surprising. It's been a priority for every American president since James Monroe in 1823 whose "Monroe Doctrine" told European nations to keep out of Latin American affairs.
In pursuit of American interests, the US has overthrown or undermined around 40 Latin American governments in the 20th Century.
For his part, President Bush even suggested that the United States had no more important ally than... wait for it... Mexico.
None of that survived the attacks of 9/11.
Mr Bush launched his War on Terror and re-discovered the usefulness of allies like Britain.
While Washington's attention turned to al-Qaeda, the Taleban, Iraq and now Iran, in country after county in Latin America voters chose governments of the left, sometimes the implacably "anti-gringo" left, loudly out of sympathy with George Bush's vision of the world, and reflecting a continent with the world's greatest gulf between rich and poor.
[Violeta Chamorro] told me that Washington politicians could always find money for wars in Latin America - but rarely for peace
The next country to fall to a strongly anti-American populist politician could be Peru.
Voters there go to the polls on 9 April to elect a president and Congress.
The presidential frontrunner is Ollanta Humala, a retired army commander who led a failed military uprising in October 2000 and who is now ahead in the opinion polls.
Now, opinion polls in Peru are not especially reliable. They under-represent poor voters in the countryside.
But that is the point. The rural poor form the backbone of Mr Humala's support. If he is ahead even in the flawed opinion polls which tend to under-count his key constituency, Mr Humala is confident he can take the presidency.
And if he does, there will be more ulcers in George Bush's White House.
Shades of red
Like President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and President Evo Morales in Bolivia, Mr Humala talks of the evils of what he calls "the neo-liberal economic model that has failed to benefit our nation".
He dismisses the role of multinational companies that "offer no benefits" to the people of Peru, and he speaks of a new division in the world.
Where once Cuba's Fidel Castro could harangue the US with talk of the colonisers and the colonised, Ollanta Humala attacks globalisation as a plot to undermine Peru's national sovereignty and benefit only the rich on the backs of Latin America's poor.
"Some countries globalise, and others are globalised," is how he puts it. "The Third World belongs in the latter category."
All this may discourage foreign investment, but it is mild compared to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
He compares President Bush to Hitler.
"The imperialist, genocidal, fascist attitude of the US president has no limits," Mr Chavez says. "I think Hitler would be like a suckling baby next to George W Bush."
If you were to colour a map of anti-Americanism in Latin America, for nearly 50 years Fidel Castro's Cuba has been the deepest red. Three of the most economically developed countries - Brazil, Chile and Argentina - are now in varying shades of left-of-centre pink.
Peru - if Mr Humala wins - would join Venezuela and Bolivia in bright post-box red, with two other countries - Mexico and Nicaragua - possibly about to follow.
Nicaragua is close to my heart. What has happened there for the past 20 years sums up the failures of US policy across Latin America.
As a young reporter I travelled across Nicaragua witnessing the fall of the left-wing Sandinista government led by the revolutionary Daniel Ortega.
Now in this new century things are changing, and [Latin America's] potential is being realised
For years Mr Ortega was Washington's Enemy Number One, the ultimate bogeyman.
President Bush's father, George Bush senior, was a key player in undermining Mr Ortega and the Sandinistas.
Mr Bush senior had been Director of Central Intelligence and Ronald Reagan's vice-president before he became president of the United States in January 1989.
During the Reagan administration money was channelled - illegally Democrats said - to the Nicaraguan "Contra" guerrillas, a motley crew of CIA trained anti-communists, paramilitaries and thugs.
The resulting scandal - known as "Iran-Contra" - almost brought down the Reagan administration. George Bush senior survived the scandal, and as president managed to see his policies finally work when Nicaragua's own people threw out the Sandinistas in a democratic election in 1990 [with U.S. supplied vote machines...].
After the polls closed in the capital, Managua, I stood in a counting station next to a young Sandinista woman in green military fatigues. Shaking with emotion she brushed away a tear as the voting papers piled up for the Washington-supported opposition candidate, Violeta Chamorro.
"Adios, muchachos," the Sandinista girl called out to her defeated comrades, "companeros de mi vida!!!" (Goodbye boys, comrades of my life.)
That was then. This is now. The young Sandinista revolutionary, Daniel Ortega, is back. He may well be re-elected president of Nicaragua.
Can you imagine it? The man who survived CIA plots and Contra death squads, who relinquished power peacefully to Washington's candidate, Violeta Chamorro, sweeping back into the Nicaraguan presidency?
It will be a huge embarrassment for George Bush junior, a symbol of everything that has gone wrong with American foreign policy in the hemisphere. And guess who predicted it would go wrong? Violeta Chamorro herself.
The night before her election victory over Mr Ortega I was invited to dinner at the walled compound of Mrs Chamorro's house in Managua. She told me that Washington politicians could always find money for wars in Latin America - but rarely for peace in Latin America.
She said even a slice of the money used to back the anti-communist Contra guerrillas could build a new Nicaragua - but she predicted that if she won the election Washington would declare victory - and then cut off the money supply. She was right.
And now? Well, most of my travelling in Latin America in the 1990s was to cover bad news: insurgency in Peru, American troops invading Panama, the killings by the Contras in Nicaragua, the repressive regime of Fidel Castro in Cuba, and armed thugs burning the rainforest in Brazil.
Even then, the potential of this wonderful continent was obvious.
Now in this new century things are changing, and the potential is being realised. With the exception of Cuba and Haiti, democracy has flourished, almost everywhere.
Latin American voters have thrown out their governments and - often - given a two-fingered salute to Washington. That is their prerogative.
Economically, some countries - including Peru - have been roaring ahead.
Their cultures are flourishing too. A new generation of novelists is following the path blazed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes.
The music? In this special series, we'll be hearing from Novalima from Peru - just one of the talented new bands.
And the cinema? If you haven't seen some of the new hot films from Mexico or Argentina, then you are missing a real treat.
I will be reporting shortly for Newsnight from Argentina on the New Generation cinema which is hotter than a chilli pepper and cooler than a long-neck beer. Plus we'll be covering the run-up to Peru's elections live from Lima, and assessing the huge leftward shift from Argentina to Venezuela.
Oh, yes, and I've also been an extra in a film being made in Buenos Aires. (I don't think the Oscar judges are likely to get too interested. But it was fun.)
I hope, in other words, that Newsnight's Inside Latin American season will capture some of the spice and rhythms of a continent full of life, and hope and promise.
Inside Latin America week starts on BBC Two's Newsnight on 3 April, at 2230 BST.