In his History of Contemporary Italy 1943-80, Paul Ginsborg quotes an American officer based in the peninsula after the war who found the skewed priorities of the natives rather disturbing: ‘The Italians can tell you the names of the ministers in the government but not the names of the favourite products of the celebrities of their country. In addition, the walls of the Italian cities are plastered more with political slogans than with commercial ones.’
In contemporary Bolivia the ratio of political slogans to commercial ones is at least ten to one, and that’s being generous to the ad hoardings. From the moment you hop in a taxi from the airport in El Alto and follow the plunging road down into the centre of La Paz, you’re bombarded with slogans and images, singing the praises of Evo Morales, his MAS party, el pueblo, socialism, May Day, the working class, and a whole host of other things that were meant to be so 20th century. By the time the first commercial poster appears (a Samsung hoarding on the side of a derelict factory), you want to jeer derisively.
It doesn’t let up as you make your way around the country. At the ruins of Tiwanaku, high on the Andean plateau, there’ll be a few stickers bigging up the MAS. Deep in the rainforest, you can still find the party’s candidate for governor beaming at you from a poster. Look out of the window as your bus crawls forward, a hundred miles from the nearest big town, and someone will have found the time to paint the blue and yellow colours of the MAS on a piece of rock.
Occasionally you can spot a faded slogan from a now-vanquished president or party (Banzer, the MNR), but mostly the partisans of evoísmo hold sway. The commercial posters aren’t safe either. In one southern town, an ad for Tigo – the chief mobile phone network – was painted over to read ‘contigo somos MAS’ (‘with you we are MAS’). The traffic goes both ways: Vittal, a bottled-water company, has lifted the motto of Cochabamba’s water war (‘el agua es vída’) so that its labels now boast ‘el agua es VITTAL’.
It wasn’t until I was in Tarija, one of the opposition strongholds, that visual culture returned to its familiar pattern: plenty of ads with shiny white teeth, and glossy posters hawking the wares of the opposition alliance without relinquishing the safe ground of fluffy generalities. Such electrifying slogans as ‘Tarija’s doing well!’ and ‘The change continues!’ made me feel right at home, as Fianna Fáil had used a similar tagline during the 2002 election in Ireland. The pictures of the local political hierarchy made them look like the sort of men who’d kiss a baby, take a bribe or burn down their country for the insurance money given the chance. Yet even in Tarija, you only had to walk a short distance from the city centre to find yourself in MAS territory, where the jerry-built houses were adorned with blue and yellow paint and the usual messages.
In Cochabamba, the mural monopoly was broken by a strange assortment of groups, though the MAS still had its share of wall space. A youth movement calling itself La Falange and appealing for ‘youth with conviction’ to stand by ‘God, fatherland and family’ jostled for space with evangelical Christians who promised a life ‘libre de Satanísmo!’ An anarchist challenged both camps with the message ‘No God, no fatherland, no love – liberty!’ Some partisan of the once mighty MNR party had scrawled ‘MNR – we will return!’ around the town. In the main square, a stall marking the first anniversary of the coup in Honduras stood beside a group of evangelicals selling pamphlets.
Liberal critics of Morales (who’s just back from a liberal-baiting state visit to Iran) say we should be wary of a charismatic leader with a gift for rhetoric who speaks before huge crowds of people and becomes the focus of their hopes for change. For some reason this principle doesn’t apply to Obama or Blair, but I suppose they have their reasons (charisma must seem less threatening when it comes with a law degree). Still, there are worse things than charisma: in a café in La Paz I overheard a conversation between a Bolivian student and her North American friends; the Bolivian girl said indignantly (in perfect English) that before Morales was elected, ‘there was never any trouble with the Indians, but now he’s made them so hateful with all his talk about the past, and I’m sure he doesn’t even speak Aymara!’ One of the North American girls made some similarly profound observations about the US: ‘I don’t really understand the way it is with black people in our country, it’s OK for them to call each other “nigger”, but if we were to do it, that would be racism.’ Well quite.
It doesn’t seem as if Morales’s supporters are content to follow the example of the Obamaniacs and wait for salvation to come from the presidential palace. It was a common theme in the press that last year’s overwhelming re-election was a double-edged sword for Morales: having sent him back into office with such a thumping majority, and backed his government against the old elites when they tried to bring it down in 2008, supporters of the MAS now expect the president to deliver the goods in his second term, and intend to make their presence felt if he disappoints them. The blockades that shut down Potosí a few weeks after I passed through may be the start of a trend.