In the footsteps of Che Guevara: Democracy in South America

Thirty-eight years after the revolutionary perished in the Bolivian foothills, Evo Morales is poised to become the first indigenous president of the impoverished country which has been run by politicians of European descent since independence in 1825
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The red carpet shines like blood in the intense heat of a La Paz summer afternoon. It marks the path of a marching band in colonial uniform, cutting a swath down and across Plaza Murilla, the capital's main square. The toy soldiers in their Spanish-era coats pass in front of the fresh bullet-holes pock-marking the Council headquarters and march on to the decorative façade of the National Congress. They are flanked by colleagues in combat fatigues bearing tear-gas rifles, a reminder of the unrest that threatens to engulf Bolivia.

Inside the grand and gloomy neo-classical hallways, the Congress is filled with yellowing portraits of the great and good, of European descent, offering a gilt-edged history lesson on who has ruled Latin America's poorest, highest and most racially polarised country since independence in 1825.

At the end of one of its corridors, just visible through office doors, hangs the more modern image of Che Guevara. Inside the room, he is everywhere. Among the myriad images is a black and white poster showing his patchy, iconic beard and piercing eyes above the slogan, "I'd rather be an illiterate Indian than a North American millionaire".

Thirty-eight years after his death in the foothills of the Bolivian Andes, trying to spark a Marxist revolution, the socialist soldier of fortune's boast reverberates in the dilemma now facing the country.

Bolivia is at a crossroads and goes to the polls on Sunday to choose between a Harvard-educated, American-married, member of the business elite and an indigenous Aymara Indian and radical former coca farmer.

The two leading presidential candidates, Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga and Evo Morales, personify the bitter divide between the European-descended haves and the majority indigenous have-nots, in Bolivia and beyond.

Despite its poverty, Bolivia contains a wealth of natural resources, from minerals to significant oil reserves, and the second largest proven gas reserves on the continent. But an estimated 63 per cent of the people remain rooted in poverty, and its indigenous people - mainly Aymara and Quechua Indians - who make up more than half of the population, are suffering disproportionately.

Bolivia was in the vanguard of nations that experimented with the neoliberal "shock tactics" of privatisation and austerity measures that swept Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s, known as the Washington consensus. These policies helped to control hyperinflation but failed utterly to deliver the promised prosperity to all but a few of the business elite.

Popular anger and disbelief that hydrocarbon wealth had failed to lift them out of poverty has brought the country to the edge of disintegration, with two presidents forced out of office inside two years by mass social protests. These demonstrations catapulted Mr Morales, a leading trade unionist and passionate campaigner for the legalisation of coca-leaf production, into the international spotlight. He is now within touching distance of becoming the first full-blooded indigenous president in Latin America.

His commitment to nationalise the gas and oil industry, taking back control from the multinationals, has become a rallying point for the disenfranchised.

Bolivia is poised to join Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and possibly even Mexico next year in an extraordinary rebirth of the Latin American left. Such is the anti-American mood among Bolivians that a warning from the US embassy backfired. During the 2002 vote, they warned they would withdraw all aid from the country if Mr Morales was elected, and that sent him surging in the polls. He missed out last time by less than two percentage points.

This time he is the frontrunner and Washington, publicly at least, is keeping its counsel. Privately, the 38-year-old has been labelled a narco-terrorist, compared to Cuba's Fidel Castro and is said to be relaunching Che's project of a peasants' revolution in the country.

White House ire has led the State Department's new head of western hemisphere affairs to link him to narco-trafficking and accuse him of receiving cash and possibly arms from the hated Venezuelan left-wing leader Hugo Chavez. These scare tactics are echoed by the opposition Quiroga camp as they try to close the gap in the polls, and get their man, a right-wing former president, back into office.

Fernando Messmere, a former ambassador and now senior aide to Mr Quiroga, says Mr Morales' black and white, belligerent style is a danger to the existence of Bolivia. "His proposals divide Bolivia and isolate it internationally," he says. "He'll turn Bolivia into a drugs paradise." Mr Messmere accuses Mr Morales' Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) of vote-rigging in rural areas and of making threats of armed insurrection. No evidence is produced.

At his campaign headquarters in La Paz it is hard to connect Mr Morales with Washington's bogeyman. His broad Indian face breaks into an easy smile and his informal dress, jeans and a battered old fleece, owe more to his days as a provincial activist than a presidential front-runner. He is quietly spoken with a calm, yet charismatic style.

"I'm not only a follower of Chavez, but a follower of Castro and a follower of Che," he says, sitting at a table piled high with coca leaves and flanked by a man and woman, who remain silent but chew the leaf continuously.

"This does not mean I am going to implement their programmes here because Bolivia is not Cuba." He obviously revels in his role as a White House hate figure but professes himself open to negotiation with the Bush administration on its policy to combat the cocaine trade.

"If they want to talk about the war on drugs, fine. But the discussion should start with demand and not supply." Mr Morales is as eloquent a defender of the rights of the cocaleros as one could expect from a man who came to prominence as their spokesman in the Chapare region, which produces 90 per cent of the country's coca yield.

His family were victims of Bolivia's first skirmishes with globalisation that caused closure of the tin mines in his native Oruro, and an enforced migration to the lowlands to farm llamas and later coca leaf.

"I'm willing to sign an effective agreement to combat narco-trafficking. If they cut demand we'll work to cut supply but at the moment it's not the traffickers that are in jail it's the farmers." Mr Morales litters his conversation with Aymara references and reminders that Europeans have been exploiting the indigenous people for 500 years. He links this with a swift critique of the US policy of preventative war and points to Iraq as evidence that the real aim of Washington policy is not to combat drugs or terror but to control oil-producing countries.

Few observers, even within Bolivia, know how seriously to take his vow to depenalise coca leaf production. Away from his populist stump speech he hints at a more pragmatic style, reminiscent of the Brazilian leader Lula Da Silva, a social democrat in radical clothing.

This has not stopped his US critics, foreign investors and multinationals from being terrified of the second plank of his campaign: to nationalise the hydro-carbon industry. The scaremongers, and many of Mr Morales' supporters, expect him to expropriate oil and gas facilities within months of taking office. This will land Bolivia in an international court battle with the likes of British Gas and British Petroleum; drive out foreign investment and the already stricken economy will collapse, they say.

But the reality is very different, says Carlos Villegas, a researcher at the University of San Andres in La Paz and Mr Morales' main economic adviser. "What we are talking about is changing the rules of the game," he says. "Bolivia owns the hydro-carbons only while they're in the ground; the minute they're extracted they belong to the trans-nationals and they can exploit them and price them as they see fit." He says present contracts are illegal and they must be renegotiated, if the companies involved are willing to talk.

If not, Mr Villegas says, other major players will. Feelers have been put out to China, India, Canada and Venezuela. A new law was driven through Congress this year by MAS, reasserting sovereignty on hydro-carbon reserves and raising taxes on the industry to 50 per cent. "So far the government has failed to enforce this law," Mr Villegas says. We are going to enforce it and we're going to extend it."

But even if Mr Morales does win the vote he is almost certain to fall short of the 51 per cent needed to claim office. Then the conservative-controlled Congress, which is likely to entrench its advantage in the same elections, will hold the constitutional key to who is appointed. There is no run-off in Bolivia. This is the nuclear scenario says Cesar Rojas Rios, an analyst with the political institute UNIR in La Paz. "There will be chaos," he says. "He must be given a chance to rule." Mr Rojas Rios says people no longer trust the neoliberal alternatives and Mr Morales, as the first serious indigenous candidate, has symbolic importance that should not be underestimated. "He's not a domesticated politician, which scares a lot of people. Morales has not been broken in."

"Tuto" Quiroga, despite rebranding himself as a caring conservative, backing tax increases for multinationals and even expropriating red with a white star as his campaign signature, has failed to make inroads. Many of his US-style presidential posters, showing the conspicuously European-looking candidate in a red polo shirt have been sprayed with a black swastika. "Tuto is a marketing exercise," says Mr Rios Rojas. "MAS is a grassroots movement."

The approach to the square where Evo, as everyone calls him, is staging his final rally is choked. Regiments of blue-black MAS party flags are interrupted only by the multicoloured grid of the pan-Andean banner. Hundreds more people are arriving for what is set to be a long night. On stage, three boys and a stack of amplifiers put the old leftist standard, "Commandante Che Guevara" to a violent death by heavy metal.

Miners, still wearing their helmets, form an honour guard between the stage and throng. A volunteer feeds them coca leaves from a plastic bag. There are no police. The atmosphere is one of adoration and pure impatience. The chant goes up, "Now, Now, Now, Evo Presidente!"

As the sun sets against the serrated peaks of Villa Fatima, the rock trio give voice to the anger and expectation that will make managing Bolivia such a tightrope-walk for their hero. The singer grabs the microphone and screams: "The place to eradicate coca is in the noses of those gringo sons of bitches!"