Evo Morales is an anti-American extremist who wants to turn Bolivia into another Venezuela. That naturally alarms Washington, but not enough to halt its war on drugs, which is aiding the president -- and leader of Bolivia's coca-growing peasant movement -- in his bid to become a dictator.
In a recent interview with the Bolivian Catholic radio station Fides, Mr. Morales explained that in 2003, when he was at a conference in Havana, Fidel Castro told him "not to stage an armed uprising" but to "make transformations, democratic revolutions, what [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez is doing."
The process Fidel advised requires the slow dismantling of institutions that act as checks on the executive while maintaining the guise of democracy. This calls for healthy poll numbers even while the rule of law is being trampled. Mr. Chávez had oil revenues to keep the masses happy while he put a noose around democracy. But Evo isn't so fortunate and he can't push through a constitutional coup without popular backing. So to generate support he has relied heavily on his defense of coca growers against a U.S. policy that presses countries in Latin America to destroy their crops.
...On Dec. 15 the opposition organized a "townhall meeting" in Bolivia's largest city, Santa Cruz, to rally against Mr. Morales's power grab. Pro-Morales supporters blockaded a highway outside of the city so that buses carrying protestors could not get through. As many as 60 people were injured and most of the buses had to turn back. But the rally was a success. An estimated 800,000 people congregated under the city's Christ the Redeemer statue to demand that a new constitution be ratified only with a two-thirds vote in the assembly, and that the call for autonomy be respected.
Mr. Morales, who badly needs to maintain the appearance of public support so that the international community tolerates his takeover, had to be embarrassed by this outpouring of democratic opposition. He is trying to spin the constitutional crisis as a confrontation between races and economic classes. But he has to worry about places like the poor and largely indigenous city of El Alto, just above La Paz, where there is evidence to suggest that many who voted for him are unhappy with his unlawful intervention in the constitutional process and growing impatient with his failure to deliver on economic promises.
This is where U.S. drug policy comes in. Railing against the Yankees who want to destroy peasant income has proven extremely effective in keeping the Morales base -- the country's indigenous coca growers who brought him to power -- energized and his numbers afloat.
He reaffirmed this last month. As his opposition swelled he suddenly announced that he would authorize a near doubling of the number of hectares that may legally produce coca. Then last week he inaugurated a coca industrialization plant in the province of Cochabamba, financed by his government along with Cuba and Venezuela. According to press reports, Mr. Morales told the Cochabamba crowd that coca "never killed anyone" and that the U.S. "should have a law to do away with drug addicts."
Mr. Morales shouldn't wish too hard for that. If Washington policy makers ever decide to tackle the demand for cocaine and stop blaming supply, Mr. Morales's political career would be in jeopardy.
As I've mentioned before, I traveled through Bolivia a few years ago and at one point was stopped at a checkpoint that was staffed by local police but the guys giving the orders were US DEA agents. It was awkward to see American drug warriors telling the locals what to do in their own country. Sometimes the locals grow to resent the symbols and the reality of foreign domination, and they elect those wily enough to capitalize on the resentment.