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Morales's first stand

Bolivia's first indigenous leader values territory over globalization.

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Evo Morales has done what he said he'd do before he was elected president of Bolivia in December. On Monday, he seized control of Bolivia's oil and gas reserves. He sent troops to occupy the holdings of foreign oil companies, thereby giving the multinationals a shock hardly softened by his early warning of what was coming.

It all seems so reminiscent of another dramatic stroke by a head of state. On March 18, 1938, in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, President Lazaro Cardenas seized the holdings of American and British oil companies in Mexico. Audacious and dangerous it was, but Cardenas survived the fury evident in Washington and London, though there were many people who thought he wouldn't. It will be interesting to see how Mr. Morales fares in the blowback of his grand stroke. Is this to be a full-fledged nationalization, or something less, like a major renegotiation of contracts?

"The looting by the foreign companies has ended," Morales said from the balcony of the Palacio Quemado, the so-called "burned palace," the venue for more unplanned - often violent - regime changes than experienced by any other country in Latin America.

One wonders what comes next.

Who is Evo Morales and what does he represent? He's already been described as the latest expression of a big swing leftward in Latin American politics. Is he a socialist, a revolutionary, an iconoclast? Nobody's sure, though he has expressed some of his intentions. In addition to taking control of Bolivia's energy resources, for instance, he promised an end to the destruction of the coca crop, a policy unsettling to the drug warriors in Washington so eager to scorch the earth it grows in. Morales calls cocaine a Western invention. He may be right.

Abel Posse, an Argentine novelist and diplomat knowledgeable about the Andean countries, thinks Morales may not fit comfortably with any of the ideologies listed above. Morales, he wrote, represents emergence of the long-submerged Andean belief system, a way of thinking that is antithetical to the body of conventional knowledge about how to live in the modern world.

The people who embrace this system, not just in Bolivia but throughout Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and northern Argentina, have been generally ignored for the past five centuries. "They live bad, die early, pass through cycles of famine. They have been considered incapable of governing and incapable of being governed," Mr. Posse wrote.


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