FACE OFF: Morales Vs Merkel
Who is Evo Morales?
On Sunday 18th December 2005, 46-year-old Evo Morales Ayma and his left-wing party, Movimiento Al Socialism (MAS), strode to victory of the Bolivian presidential election, earning 53% of all votes cast. Although the indigenous people make up over 50% of the country’s population, Morales is Bolivia’s first president in the nation’s 180-year-old history, to come from and represent this ethnic majority. He is also the first president in the nation’s history to attain well over 50% of the electoral vote.
Born in 1959, Morales is an Aymara Indian who grew up amongst a poor family working as a llama herder. Morales completed his high school education and went on to do his military service at the age of seventeen. During the mid-1990s, then-President of Bolivia, Hugo Banzer, initiated a US-funded drug eradication programme, “Plan-Dignidad,” which fuelled anger and discontent amongst the peasants, often culminating in the killing and displacement of many citizens. In 1995, he founded MAS, an indigenous-based political party with a mandate for widespread nationalization of business and the legalization of the coca leaf. Morales emerged as a charismatic leader and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1997, receiving 70% of votes in his district, Cochabamba. He was expelled from the government after three military soldiers and a policeman were killed whilst attempting to shut down a coca market. Rumours suggested that the US was behind his expulsion.
During 2000, a large multinational corporation was given the go-ahead to take over the privatised water works which would have led to an increase in prices. Additionally, laws were put in place making it illegal to catch and use rain water. Morales pioneered huge demonstrations and there were violent clashes with police. Ultimately, the sell-off ceased and the government succumbed to the demands of the people. It was a meaningful success for Morales and the indigenous movement, and it would not be the last time the government would be defeated by the protests of the poor.
Morales lost the 2002 presidential election to the conservative Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, but came in at an unexpected second place. He was at the centre of strikes and violent demonstrations during 2003 which led to then-Lozado (known as El Gringo) fleeing to the US. The succeeding president, Carlos Mesa, was forced to resign two years later amid more protests demanding the nationalisation of the energy sector. It is out of this wave of mass unrest and mistrust of successive right-wing governments that Morales’s popularity soared, emerging as a voice for the oppressed and exploited. Many indigenous peoples of Bolivia have expressed that they see themselves, as well as their needs and hopes, reflected in him.
Morales is likely to face stern condemnation from the US for campaigning to decriminalize the coca leaf. He argues that it is both a health remedy and a long-standing tradition, seeing himself as a “Coca grower, not a drug trafficker.” The chewing of coca leaves has been a tradition for the indigenous population, Aymaras and Quechuas, for over 1,000 years. Due to the lack of food, many of the poor in Bolivia consider it the only way to maintain their energy levels to continue to work what are seemingly endless hours. Morales argues that drug trafficking should be tackled at the consumption side, not by destroying the coca plantations which offer alleviation to the hungry. During his election campaign, Morales voiced his concerns over foreign companies exploiting Bolivia’s rich natural resources, ensuring that he would nationalise large gas refineries. Notwithstanding, since his election, he has taken a more business-friendly stance, promising to respect foreign investments and to re-negotiate contracts rather then expropriate land.
With early visits to Cuba and Venezuela, coupled with scything criticisms of US foreign policy, Morales looks to have aligned himself with the growing number of left-wing leaders sweeping Latin America. The poor in Bolivia, who for so long have been exploited and suppressed, await with baited breath to see Morales’s next move, a move they hope will lift them from a cycle of misery.
Who is Angela Merkel?
Conservative leader Angela Merkel has become Germany’s first female chancellor. Confusion littered the 2005 German elections and finally a coalition led by Merkel and made up of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany was formed. She is the first German leader hailing from the former East Germany, although some might argue that her policies are more similar to those of Washington then to those of her former country.
Born in 1954, the daughter of a pastor and teacher, Merkel was raised in the countryside, just eighty kilometers north of Berlin. An enthusiastic student, she learned Russian at school and later worked as a chemist at a scientific academy in East Berlin. She became politically active at age thirty-five when she joined the Demokratischer Aufbruch (Democratic Awakening Party). She became involved in the growing political upheaval that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. A year later, she switched alliances to the CDU and was propelled into the cabinet as minister for women and youth by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Kohl took her under his wing and in 1994 she was promoted to environment minister. This enabled her to become a popular figure in the media and take on greater responsibilities, expanding her knowledge of German politics.
Following the defeat of the Kohl government to Gerhard Schröder of the SPD in 1998, Merkel was named Secretary-General of the CDU. A financial scandal rocked the very core of the party, threatening its integrity along with its future as evidence suggested that members had taken bribes for the sale of tanks to Saudi Arabia. The party was in desperate need of someone to come along and offer a way out of the uneventful situation. Kohl and general secretary Wolfgang Schaeuble left under a cloud of smoke and it was up to Merkel to drag the CDU out of it. Though previously denying that the bribes had been paid, Merkel chastised her former boss Kohl and argued for a fresh beginning for the party without him. She was elected leader of the CDU in April 2000 but, despite her promise to clean up the party, she refused to hold further inquiries into the financing scandal. Her popularity steadily grew and in 2002, she became leader of the conservative opposition in the lower house of the German parliament.
Merkel supports a major reform agenda concerning Germany’s economic and social system. Unemployment, which currently stands at over 11%, and which has risen by one million since 1998, will be one of Merkel’s biggest challenges. Merkel has pledged to rebuild the broken bridges of German relations with the United States, which have been tense since Germany’s refusal to support the war in Iraq. She was a staunch supporter of the war and sees German-American relations as a critical asset to the improvement of Germany’s destitute economy. During 2003, she went as far as accusing Schröder of being anti-American and whilst engaging in a television debate with him, she was criticized for plagiarizing a passage from a speech used by Ronald Reagan. Due to her right-wing policies, Merkel has often been described as Germany’s Margaret Thatcher, although many would argue that even Thatcher would struggle to match Merkel’s total compliance with US philosophy. In a recent visit to Washington, Merkel stated: “The fight against terrorism has proven more difficult than the Cold War.”