Bolivian President Evo Morales: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Mary Ruth Sanders Bracy

Mary Ruth teaches college history and has a PhD.

In this lesson, we will learn about Bolivian president Evo Morales. First coming to office in 2006, Morales is an avowed socialist and the first Amerindian president of Bolivia, hailing from the country's Aymara indigenous group.

Early Life

Have you ever been the first in your family to do something? Imagine not only being the first in your family, but the first person in an entire group of people to ever accomplish something amazing: becoming president. Evo Morales was the first member of an indigenous group in Bolivia to become that country's president. Let's learn more about his accomplishments.

Evo Morales (whose full name is Juan Evo Morales Ayma) was born October 26, 1959, in Isavilli, Orinoco, Bolivia, where he worked with his family herding llamas and as a farmer. He was born one of seven children, but only he and two of his siblings survived infancy. The Morales family worked hard, at one point traveling all the way to Argentina to work in the sugarcane harvest. Evo Morales served in the Bolivian army and played trumpet in a band, eventually settling with his family in Chepare, a region in the Andes Mountains.

Morales was born to the Amerindian (American Indian) Aymara minority. In Bolivia, indigenous minorities such as the Aymara and Quechua historically were discriminated against; elites (with European heritage) controlled the political, economic, and social systems and pushed the indigenous people into less desirable jobs such as farming or ranching. Even though the indigenous population made up 55 to 70 percent of the Bolivian population, the European minority still discriminated against them.

After settling in Chepare, the Morales family began to grow coca, a traditional Bolivian (specifically Aymaran) crop. Coca is common in Bolivia because of its reputation as a filling crop that helped local populations live through food shortages; it was also a remedy for altitude sickness. However, coca is also used to make the illegal drug cocaine.

Early Political Activism

It was as his role as a coca farmer that Evo Morales first became politically active. He became a cocalero, or a coca-leaf grower, who was active in his local union. In 1985, he was elected that union's secretary, and in 1988 became chair of a six-union group that was active in fighting government regulation of their livelihood.

In the 1980s, the use of cocaine was a worldwide problem, especially in the United States, and the U.S. government put pressure on Bolivian authorities to limit coca growing (even though the crop was legal in Bolivia and elsewhere in Central and South America). Morales led marches and pressured government officials to continue to allow the coca growers to farm their traditional crop. He became the target of harassment: Morales was jailed for a time and was even fired upon by a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency helicopter!

Morales would go one to be a founding member of a new nationwide political party in Bolivia, the Movimiento al Socialismo, or ''Movement Toward Socialism.'' In 1997 he was elected as a member of the country's Chamber of Deputies, and in 2002 ran for president but lost in a run-off election.

Becoming President

In 2005, Morales ran for president of Bolivia again. This time he won with 54 percent of the vote, successfully becoming Bolivia's first Amerindian president. He was a popular leader, who followed through on several of his major campaign promises.

One of the most important things Morales promised to do was to do his part to end the discrimination against the indigenous minority populations in Bolivia. He sponsored a referendum on a new constitution, which went into effect in February 2009 and guaranteed the rights of indigenous people and redefined Bolivia as ''multi-ethnic and pluri-cultural.'' He also represented Bolivia's indigenous populations in international negotiations, especially over climate change, when he emphasized the need to respect ''Mother Earth.''

Morales is a socialist, and his domestic policies emphasize government ownership of natural resources. He nationalized the oil and gas industries in 2006. He also struck up alliances with other socialist and communist governments, such as Fidel Castro's Cuba and Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. In so doing, he moved away from the United States, which has frequently viewed Morales as a radical. In 2013, Morales expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from Bolivia, accusing it of ''conspiring against'' the Bolivian people.

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