Note from La Paz

I arrived in La Paz, Bolivia, too late to get a press pass, so I watched Evo Morales’s inauguration on television with my aunt and some friends. There were nearly a dozen of us—my aunt is a political exile from Peru, and many of her old friends had made a special trip. We reserved a long table on the second floor of a Peruvian restaurant called Machu Picchu. It was a celebration, with drinking, laughter, applause. There was a brightly colored swing-set in the room, and periodically the cook’s daughter would climb on. The noise was just awful, but no one seemed to notice.

Among the guests in from Peru to witness the event was a white-maned wolf of a man named Hugo Blanco. It took me most of the speech to realize it was him—mostly because it had never occurred to me that a man like that could still be alive. Blanco is a celebrity in certain circles, a myth even, a man who began making his considerable reputation leading land takeovers in Cuzco in the early 1960s. He was eventually captured, jailed for six years, sentenced to death, then pardoned and deported in 1970. He returned in 1978 to participate in the elections for the Peruvian Constituent Assembly, and, despite the fact that he was again deported, this time in mid-campaign, Blanco was elected with the most votes of any candidate nationwide. He made a run for the presidency in 1980, failed, and then, naturally, the Peruvian left splintered and weakened, the coup de grâce coming in three parts over the next twelve years: the homicidal war of Shining Path, the disastrous populist experiment of President Alan García, and the mafia bribery-state of President Alberto Fujimori. My aunt and others like her—union leaders and activists, many now labeled terrorists—were forced into exile. Others were jailed. Hugo Blanco briefly returned to the political scene in 1989, when he was arrested and accused of terrorism, but the charges were eventually dropped, and he was released. After five years in Mexico, he has lived for the last ten in the kind of monastic austerity one would expect from a man with his résumé: a simple room in Cuzco, with a cement floor and a cot to sleep on.

He sat across the table from me, eating papa a la huancaína and hardly pausing to breathe, with a cone-shaped wool hat pulled low over his eyes. He didn’t take off his blue windbreaker, which was adorned with a Peasant Confederation of Peru logo on the left breast—and a Nike swoosh on the right. Every now and then he looked up to ask what Evo was saying, since at his seventy-two years of age, Hugo Blanco is nearly deaf. And still Blanco was joyous. Evo made his speech before the Congress—one of the best political speeches I’ve ever heard: combative, funny, hopeful, charming—and Hugo Blanco laughed when we laughed, clapped when we clapped, as if the words, no matter how well delivered, were beside the point. He never took off his hat; periodically he would scratch his white beard, look up at the television, and offer me a grin. He said almost nothing. When it was over, we shook hands, and he left.

Later, one of my aunt’s friends told me that Blanco always wears a hat because he feels it protects his brain. It turns out that four years ago he suffered an aneurysm and almost died. Fate had done him a tremendous favor in granting him these four extra years. What if he had passed away then? This old socialist, this lion of the left, wouldn’t have seen Lula in Brazil or the election of Bachelet in Chile. He wouldn’t have seen Tabaré in Uruguay or Argentina under Kirchner or Chávez in Venezuela, and most importantly, he wouldn’t have seen Evo.

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