PRAGUE, 20 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Evo Morales, who has called himself "America’s worst nightmare," has been visiting world leaders ahead of his inauguration on 22 January.
His first stop: Cuba. Morales invited Fidel Castro to the swearing in, joking that he would not take the oath of office unless the veteran revolutionary attended.
The 46-year-old Morales is the first Bolivian of indigenous descent to attain the country’s highest office. Born to a poor family in a desert mining town, Bolivia’s new leader has vowed to be a voice for his country’s poor.
"Newly empowered, previously excluded large segments of populations who feel they have not benefited from the economic reforms that their countries have imported in the last decade-and-a-half are speaking through the ballot box and voting for radical overhauls of their countries."
He has promised radical changes, including undoing free-market policies that he says have brought no benefit to Bolivia’s poor and indigenous populations. The former llama herder and leader of the country’s coca farmers’ association has also vowed to expand production of the controversial crop, which he says is integral to Bolivian culture.
Coca leaves can be processed into cocaine. But they are valued by locals for other uses. Coca leaves are important in religious ceremonies. They also have medicinal properties, containing proteins and vitamins that, when chewed, can help the human body cope with life at high altitudes
The priorities announced by Morales put him on a collision course with the United States, whose main policies in South America are fostering privatization and liberalized trade, and funding coca-eradication programs.
Morales, along with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, represents a more extreme version of the populism that has been sweeping South America. But almost everywhere on the continent -- including in its largest country, Brazil -- the left is riding high.
Although it is a regional phenomenon, observers say the trend has larger echoes. The rise of left-wing movements in South America reflects disappointment in the democratic revolutions that swept the continent at the end of the Cold War.
"If you look at Latin America, there's a fundamental problem of unrealistic expectations that happen with the democratization process that began in the 1980s," says Kirk Bowman, a specialist on Latin America at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "And at the same time there was all the liberalization of the economies. And throughout the region there was this expectation that if people would have democratically elected governments and at the same time liberalized economies, that the result of that would be tremendous increases in economic development and living standards."
That has not happened. Some have gotten wealthy by exploiting business and government connections through crony capitalism. But there has been little "trickle-down" effect to South America’s urban and rural poor, who still form the majority in most countries. Inequality between the few rich and many poor has grown, stirring social tension.
It’s a phenomenon familiar to many people, especially in the postcommunist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The lesson, Bowman says, is that democracy doesn’t automatically bring prosperity.
"The virtues of democracy are considerable but there is simply no strong evidence that democracy will lead to enhanced living standards amongst the poor sectors of the population," Bowman says. "And so democracy should have been sold for its own sake and for some of the opportunities it brings for selecting your leaders and not -- along with this liberalization of the economy -- as a panacea, this magic bullet, that would turn Bolivia [and the rest of the region] into the United States in a generation."
Paradoxically, what democracy has done in South America is give the disadvantaged a new voice, which they are using to express their disenchantment, according to Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations.
"[You] have the forces of economic globalization confronting and colliding with the forces of democratization," Sweig says. "And newly empowered, previously excluded large segments of populations who feel they have not benefited from the economic reforms that their countries have imported in the last decade-and-a-half are speaking through the ballot box and voting for radical overhauls of their countries."
In part because Washington is perceived as the main advocate of those pro-market reforms, anti-Americanism has grown in the region. Sweig says there is a widespread perception that American foreign policy is out of touch with most people’s daily concerns and even detrimental to the interests of many -- such as the coca farmers of Bolivia. As a result, the elites who once clung tightly to America’s mantle across the region have sensed the popular mood and are drawing away from Washington’s embrace.
"We have too myopic a view of Latin America," Sweig says. "Trade, terror, and drugs are the three major policy priorities that this administration has given to Latin America. And those priorities are essentially unresponsive to the deep social class and ethnic cleavages, crime issues, and the daily life issues that Latin Americans face. So I think the United States needs both in its rhetoric and in its policy and in the cast of characters with whom it engages in the region to vastly diversify its vision of Latin America and acknowledge that the issues that Latin Americans have as their daily bread-and-butter, key issues need to be part of the policy dialogue."
Many experts say these are lessons that could be applied to other parts of the world as well, as America struggles to boost its image abroad, strengthen its current alliance, and win new friends.