Bolivian president Evo Morales doesn’t often make front-page headlines in the U.S., but his image was all over the Internet in early July when he presented the visiting Pope Francis with a bizarre gift: a “cross” made out of a hammer and sickle. The message could hardly have been less subtle. In the weeks preceding their encounter, to be sure, Francis had spent a lot of his time savaging capitalism, but he hadn’t yet hoisted a Soviet flag over St. Peter’s Square or hung up a picture of Lenin in the Sistine Chapel. Morales’s gift seemed to make the pontiff at least somewhat uncomfortable, although it was unclear whether he disagreed with Evo’s apparent equation of Communism and Christianity or whether he was uneasy about being seen by the entire world accepting a potent symbol of that equation.
What’s the deal with Evo? Well, first of all – like the Castros in Cuba, the Kirchners in Argentina, and Nicolás Maduro (and Hugo Chávez before him) in Venezuela – he’s a card-carrying member of Latin America’s hard-left club. He’s presided over South America’s poorest country since 2006, and is its first president with an indigenous background; during his tenure in office, he’s alienated whites and mestizos with his “discriminatory government policies and Hugo Chávez–style power grabs, not to mention rampant corruption.” (According to Transparency International, Evo’s regime isn’t quite as corrupt as those in Venezuela or Paraguay, but it’s on a par with Argentina’s, which is awful enough.) A 2009 Atlantic Monthly article described Evo as “deploy[ing] a rhetoric studded with racial references aimed at his [white] opposition.” Last year, reports Human Rights Watch, Bolivia became “the first country in the world to legalize employment for children as young as 10.”
Nonetheless, like his counterparts in Havana, Buenos Aires, and Caracas, Evo has made his share of amigos in Hollywood. Among them: Benicio del Toro, who in 2007 visited Evo, who “gave him a charango, an Andean string instrument, and several books.” Two years later, del Toro, who played Che Guevara onscreen, said that he shared many of Che’s values – and that he was sure Che would’ve been delighted to see Bolivia governed by somebody like Evo. We’re sure Che would delighted too: Evo, an outspoken Che fan whose aggressively socialist policies have eroded human rights, damaged the country’s already feeble economy, and sent foreign investors fleeing, would have been right up Che’s alley.
Another Evo enthusiast, unsurprisingly, is our old friend Oliver Stone, the far-left director whose 2009 propaganda film South of the Border was a gushing, inane paean not only to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez but also to Morales, with whom he held an obsequious interview at the presidential palace in La Paz. During his visit with El Presidente, Stone reportedly “kicked a soccer ball and chewed coca leaves” with him. Later, Evo traveled to New York, where he spoke alongside Stone and Chávez at a Lincoln Center event held in connection with the documentary’s premiere.
Then there’s actor Jude Law, who went to Bolivia this past February as part of a deal to promote the country’s annual Carnival. While in La Paz, Law met with Evo, who presented him with a poncho and a book about Latin American history. News reports on Law’s visit didn’t indicate how much money he was paid to plug the Carnival and didn’t even hint that there was anything remotely inappropriate about his taking money from Evo’s regime or holding a chummy meeting with the authoritarian leader; the Daily Mail, for its part, was more interested in covering Law’s new hairline and his growing family.