By Jimmy Burns(*) - The colonial church of San Francisco in La Paz, founded in 1548, is a beautifully textured mixture of Christian imagery and Indian mythology. The facade and ceiling mixes in saints, Christs and Virgins with tropical birds, reptiles, and sweet corn.
On a recent Sunday, the church was the setting of a controversial ceremony: a Jesuit priest officiated the marriage of Bolivia’s neo-Marxist vice-president to a popular TV newsreader just a day after the couple dedicated their love to each other in Tiwanaku, site of a prehistoric indigenous ceremonial centre.
To supporters of President Evo Morales, the marriage of his powerful number two to a TV newsreader in two of the country’s oldest and most venerated locations, under the umbrella of two different cultures, symbolizes the dynamism of a left-wing political project that has cultural diversity and inclusion at its centre.
Vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera, a former guerrilla fighter these days is usually seen in a designer suit and sporting a flash tie. To Morales’s detractors, Linera’s marriage to the glamorous Claudia Fernández would be a farce were it not for the fact that behind the fashion-conscious exterior lies a very calculating politician, who is not to be taken lightly. This “very tough cookie”, as one European diplomatic put it, is one of two key strategists and ideologues behind the controversial Morales regime.
Serious arguments over what in a less politicized environment would simply be the subject of a photo-spread in a celebrity magazine are symptomatic of the tension in Bolivia as Morales tries to perpetuate himself in power with a radical style and program that have gained him some powerful opponents, as well as friends, not least in the Catholic Church.
Morales, an Aymara Indian, baptized Catholic and former coca leaf grower, was elected in December 2005 with the laudable pledge to end centuries of marginalization and discrimination. The state has pumped money into education and heath projects for the poor, and both the hydrocarbons and mining sectors have been partly nationalized.
As the Morales’ revolution approaches its seventh anniversary, the parameters of government remain officially set by a new constitution (voted by referendum) that decrees respect for indigenous customs, languages and forms of justice. “What we are seeing is a quantitative jump in our way of life, in our ways of thinking and doing democracy,” says Juan Ramon Quintana the Minister of the Presidency. “We have broken with the liberal tradition of one citizen one vote and adhere to a more dynamic political and social landscape that recognizes multiple ways of participating in a very complex society with a very varied geography.”
Quintana, a well-educated former army officer turned political fixer, is the other eminence grise behind Morales, who, as president, is still the undisputed Caudillo, or strong man of MAS (Movement for Socialism), the broad left wing grouping he formed prior to reaching government.
I met Quintana in the office he occupies just yards away from the president’s in the neocolonial palace in La Paz’s Plaza Murillo. But for some ceremonial guards dressed in 19th century uniform, the building has a disarmingly relaxed if occasionally chaotic atmosphere of a non-government organization. I was waiting in line, behind a charming Methodist pastor who declared that Bolivia had become a more tolerant and ecumenical society since the new constitution defined the country as a secular state in which no one church had a privileged status any more.
Only the groups of riot police lingering in the plaza, and the careful security checks carried out by some plain clothed officers (trained by the Cubans) remind one this was the heart of the Morales regime, with all its contradictions.
Bolivia’s one Catholic cardinal the Archbishop of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Julio Terrazas took on Morales with the Catholic bishops, opposing government efforts to end Catholic religious education in state schools. Morales reversed the plan after protesters took to the streets. Terrazas has maintained a certain diplomacy, speaking of Morales’ “many qualities” such as his ability to speak to poor people, telling what they want to hear. But Terrazas has also said that at times the president’s ways and “betray him.”
In a recently published book of interviews the media-weary Terrazas told his chosen interlocutor, a priest “I think the President is playing the part he’s been told to play: the savior of the indigenous world. He presents himself as someone who will save the indigenous people from the rest of the world and claims to have a personality that is almost on the level of religious leaders. All these insinuations show up very clearly in some of his attitudes.”
“They say,” the cardinal added, “that the biggest and most beautiful things are always just one step away from the ridiculous, and he could cross that line if he continues to try and change things that aren’t for him to change. He could be a model for Latin America if he were able to respect differences, benefiting from all cultural values without mixing in external ideologies.”
Relations between Bolivia’s Episcopal Conference and the Morales regime have been strained since the Catholic Church lost its official status. They have been particularly on edge ever since Terrazas’s home was bombed in 2009. The attack was blamed by the government on an alleged foreign terrorist conspiracy against President Morales financed by local right-wing businessmen in the province of Santa Cruz. Its version has been questioned in a bestselling book by an investigative journalist which shows evidence suggesting that that the government itself, with support from Venezuela, instigated the plot with the aim of discrediting its opponents.
The case remains far from open and shut. Equally confusing is the government’s recent bizarre decision to launch a criminal prosecution against the widely respected Church-funded news agency Fides, for alleged “racism and discrimination”. The agency’s Jesuit editor José Gramunt de Moragas has strongly denied the charge which follows the radio reporting of a poorly phrased speech Morales himself made about inhabitants of the province of Santa Cruz. “They are shooting the messenger,” Fr Moragas commented.
The Government blames such conflicts on sectors of the Catholic Church who, as they have done since colonial days, have sided with the privileged white population. “There are (unnamed) Church figures who talk about ‘justice’ while eating five meals a day and drinking a lot of wine,” Quintana commented, while making clear that the government did not consider itself at odds with all Catholics. “There are progressive sectors whose work we support and who are true interlocutors of liberation theology,” he emphasized.
State-Church relations could be far worse if as in neighboring Peru, the local Catholic Church was dominated by Opus Dei. While Opus does have a presence in Bolivia, one of the strongest Catholic influences in the country is that of Spanish-born Jesuits, with a long tradition of radical missionary work with indigenous groups. Today, sixth formers of St Ignacio, La Paz’s Jesuit run school for the sons and daughters of rich Bolivians, do voluntary service working in poor rural communities as part of their education. And the Jesuit officiating the vice-president’s wedding was the elderly Fr Mauricio Bacardit who has been a close friend of Morales since the president’s days as a militant rural trade unionist.
“Evo Morales used to call him ‘my father’ because he was a kind of spiritual guide whenever there were political conflicts in the province of Santa Cruz, “Xavier Albo, a fellow Jesuit who has become more critical of the president told the Bolivian newspaper Pagina 7.
The governing political grouping MAS contains within its ranks, alongside members of the communist party, indigenous community leaders, miners and socialist intellectuals, priests and lay Catholics who believe that Bolivia, historically one of the most politically unstable and backward countries in South America, is embarked on a necessary project of social and economic transformation in favor of the formerly downtrodden and excluded.
Albo, a trained anthropologist and dedicated student of indigenous movements, has supported those protesting the government’s decision to push ahead with a Brazil-funded highway across a pristine natural Amazonian reserve in the north of the country inhabited by indigenous groups whose rights and traditions are now at risk in apparent violation of the constitution.
The disputed road is central to Morales’s drive to boost infrastructure and investment. “This is a political battle over the control of a territory we believe should be part of the country’s development,” says minister Quintana who suggests that the opposition is being fuelled by “global ecological activists”.
What Quintana doesn’t say is that the territory holds strategic importance for coca growers of Aymara and Quechua origins, the president’s most loyal constituency. This is one of the reasons why the issue of the highway has sparked clashes between them and other indigenous groups from the Amazonian lowlands, who fear that the area could turn into a safe haven for cocaine producers and traffickers. Elsewhere the country’s rich mineral resources are being fought over by self-employed miners and displaced Indians, while the government considers bringing back foreign investment and technical know-how the state sector lacks.
Morales’s constitution enshrines the values of ‘Mother Earth’ and equality of race and status. But in mineral-rich Bolivia, the ecologists are on the defensive, and some citizens are more equal than others.
(*) Jimmy Burns was the Southern Cone Correspondent for the Financial Times, based in Buenos Aires, and a regular contributor to the London Observer, The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, as well as the BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Radio Nederland.
A prize-winning author, including the 1988 Somerset Maugham Award for non-fiction for his book, “Argentina and the Falklands War; The Land that lost its Heroes.”
He appears regularly on British, European, Latin American, US radio and TV on the subjects of his books and a range of additional subjects he specializes in, including security and terrorism, crime and social policy, and the Royal family.