Meeting the President

By Published On: February 17, 2006Categories: Politics0 Comments on Meeting the President

The woman in the suit and silk scarf tightly wrapped around her neck kept rushing in: "The President is coming, the PRESIDENT IS COMING! You have to SIT DOWN!"

I dutifully perched on the edge of the Versailles-style gold-adorned sofa, but it seemed to have no effect on several people who stayed chatting on their mobile phones gazing out of vast windows draped with velvet curtains.

Then he swept in accompanied by the Vice-President Alvaro Rodriguez whose hair curved tensely around his face as he sat rigidly in his chair. Evo Morales seemed unaffected by the fuss in his loose short-sleeved shirt and trousers – and immediately started ribbing my boss for not joining the government. "So what nationality are you now?" he joked to Pablo as he gazed around the sofas full of curious eager gringos.

He already seemed at ease in a Palace whose decorations of white generals and European architecture told a history of colonialism that had excluded his indigenous peoples’ from power for many centuries.

I was there with a number of US trade advisors (something I will write about later), but the conversation kept closer to themes of solidarity and how outsiders can play a role in supporting Bolivia’s vote for a change in economic and social policies.

"I have always had a good relationship with the American people," Evo Morales said. "We need your support, your information and your experience to help Bolivia become a country for all its peoples." He spoke of the need to counter lies about coca, to push for extension of trade preferences and to help industrialise Bolivia’s natural resources. Then after a quick set of photos, he was gone.

As I walked through high-ceilinged chandeliered halls to leave the Palace, I bumped into a friend who I met at a few campaigning meetings when I first got to La Paz. He was dressed as usual in his blue jeans and dark baggy jumper, except this time he was on the inside in his new job as Alvaro’s assistant. Outside his office, a line of business men looking slightly out of place in suits queued up no doubt to lobby the Government for their particular interests.

The Palace seemed to have become a site of clashes of cultures. Suddenly a symbol of exclusive power has become full of activists and rebels, those who for years were denounced as "terrorists", "narcotraffickers" and "bloqueadores" (road-blockers). People I have met in 2005 as impressive campaigners or researchers on various issues of social justice – the sort of people who make up many friends at home in England and now in La Paz – are Ministers and Ambassadors.

But taking power doesn’t yet mean that they have yet replaced those who have ruled and dominated  power for so long. They are there in the staff obsessed with protocol who ushered us into the palace. They are present in the upper and middle-class people who are still regularly visiting the palace to push for their particular interests. They make up most of Bolivia’s civil service.

Moreover as rebels like Evo become as used to power as they do to grandiose palaces, you can’t help wondering how much it will constrain his radicalism. In the last few weeks since the Morales Government took office, it has felt as if the MAS Government is slightly afraid of exercising power. They have seemed anxious not to upset anyone. Yet radical change invariably means at times opposing certain interests and taking them on.

I left wondering whether the Palace would still be a site of clash in a year’s time – and if not whether the suits or the jeans would have won.


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