What's in a Tie? Evo Morales Raises the Question

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 13, 2006 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Bolivian President-elect Evo Morales's world tour had barely started last week when he was accused of showing an "inadmissible lack of respect'' toward his hosts. From Spain to France to China, the man who will become Bolivia's first indigenous president was apparently breaking protocol all around.

It wasn't anything he was saying, but everything he was wearing -- a striped sweater to his audience with King Juan Carlos in Madrid's Zarzuela Palace, black jeans to his meeting with President Jacques Chirac in Paris's Elysee Palace, a leather jacket to his talk with President Hu Jintao in Beijing's Great Hall of the People.

His attire raised enough eyebrows that by day six of his trip, Morales couldn't ignore the issue and appeared to apologize for his informality. "I am not accustomed to protocol,'' Morales told a Chinese official, according to Bolivia's daily La Razon, which covered the trip and the "international controversy.''

Morales is everything Bolivia's former presidents were not. The 46-year-old Aymara Indian herded llamas as a boy and never finished high school. In the early 1990s he became the charismatic leader of coca growers in the Chapare region, an alliance that put him at odds with Bolivian and U.S. governments that sought to eradicate their crops. By 1995, Morales had founded his political party, Movement Toward Socialism.

As a presidential candidate, Morales was firmly anti-establishment. He employed socially radical, nationalistic and anti-American rhetoric. His public image, that of an unkempt labor activist in short sleeves, was completely honest to the man and hugely effective at the ballot box last month. In a decisive first-round victory, Morales took 54 percent of the Bolivian electorate, much more than any other Bolivian presidential candidate had received in 20 years.

But now, as the expression goes, Morales is not in Kansas any more.

Unfortunately, his appearance proved to be a distraction from the substance of his message, which, interestingly, seemed to be a moderation of his campaign rhetoric. In meetings with political and business leaders in Europe and Asia, Morales seemed to calm fears that his promises to nationalize Bolivia's gas and oil industry would jeopardize foreign investment. Morales remained firm in his position that Bolivia needs to control its natural resources, but he referred to multinational energy companies as "partners'' and said he has no plans to expropriate or expel foreign companies.

While in Europe he softened his anti-globalization and anti-free trade rhetoric, recognizing that his country, the poorest in South America, still "needs private foreign partners and entrepreneurs.'' Morales insisted that nationalization is essential to eradicate poverty, but added that changes would be gradual and peaceful.

Some Bolivian analysts praised Morales' choice of dress as a political calculation meant to demonstrate consistency to those who might interpret a change as an act of submission. "If what he represents is opposition to 600 years of exploitation, why should he wear a suit and tie?'' asked Eduardo Gamarra, Bolivia expert at Florida International University.

Others, however, claim that there is nothing preconceived to his attire at all. They say Morales is merely winging it both in clothing and message. Neither he nor anybody on his team, several critics said, seems to have given any thought to the protocol that is expected from a representative of a nation, thereby raising questions about his overall competence.

There is no doubt that one can read too much into one man's attire, particularly when he is not even president yet. Moreover, it may well be that this trip will prove useful in showing Morales the need for a sharper image.

Beatriz Canedo, one of Bolivia's best-known fashion designers, said in a telephone interview from La Paz that Morales barely had time to pack his bags before he took off on his whirlwind tour. Canedo refused to confirm reports that she is designing a suit for Morales's Jan. 22 inauguration. Yet, she talked enthusiastically about developing a style for Bolivia's new leader that incorporates elements from the country's rich indigenous culture and gives him a "dignified and elegant look respecting his desire not to wear a tie.''

There is no question that Morales's appearance needs some work, but preferably something that can be interpreted as neither disrespectful nor as submissive. Indeed, when I next write about Evo Morales, I hope not to talk about his clothes but rather about what he has done to help his struggling nation.

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