In what has been billed as an anti-colonial protest, the Bolivian government of President Evo Morales has changed the direction of the clock hands on the Congress building in La Paz. It will now go widdershins.

Max Fisher takes this somewhat silly gesture as more evidence that Morales is a charlatan:

Nothing says "Bolivian President Evo Morales" like a radically leftist but ultimately inconsequential government policy, but the South American leader may have veered a bit into self-caricature with his latest. The big clock on top of the capital city's Congress building has been reversed...this makes no actual difference other than to confuse people in the Bolivian capital of La Paz who want to know what time it is. [Vox]

Is Evo Morales a fake radical? Fisher is right that his policies have been pretty moderate overall, and certainly Latin America (just like the United States) has not lacked for strutting, stuffed-shirt presidents. But if we put him in the context of two centuries of a power-drunk, swaggering U.S. repeatedly laying waste to nations all across Latin America, and fully consider his coca policy, things look much different.

The United States has a gruesome history when it comes to Latin America. There was the time we stole half of Mexico. And the time some guy, with the enthusiastic support of many American elites, repeatedly tried to take over Nicaragua and to install himself at the head of a slavery-based dictatorship. And the time we toppled the democratically elected government of Guatemala and installed a right wing dictatorship, largely to protect the profits of the United Fruit Company (a common theme in the earlier Banana Wars), ushering in a 36-year genocidal civil war in which U.S.-backed military regimes massacred something like 200,000 people. (I could go on, and on, and on.)

Indeed, President Morales has experienced first-hand what happens if you catch the attention of the U.S. when it’s in a bad mood, as Fisher himself explains:

Earlier this month, he called for the abolition of the United Nations Security Council, to help bring "the destruction of world hierarchies" and begin healing "mother Earth." He frequently defies and denounces Western governments, for example in July, when his plane was grounded in Austria and searched for NSA leaker Edward Snowden. [Vox]

Notice the use of the passive voice there: his plane "was grounded." Well, who did the grounding? The United States security apparatus obviously — Morales had previously mentioned that he would consider giving Snowden asylum, which is why his plane was searched. That was a flagrant violation of international law, and a stunning piece of arrogant hypocrisy. You think the American government would tolerate Bolivia swatting down President Obama’s plane so they could look for a domestic criminal?

So you might understand why Morales, as leader of a small and impoverished nation, might be a wee bit hesitant to upset the international order. Don’t want to chance the CIA murdering you and replacing you with a right-wing sociopath who kills half the country.

However, while Morales’ economic policy is fairly bog-standard, Fisher doesn’t even mention his coca policy, perhaps his most important and most radical area of reform. Morales got his political start as the head of the cocalero (coca grower) trade union; when he was first elected he legalized coca production and sales on a limited basis. While he has continued to fight cocaine production (coca leaves contain a tiny amount of cocaine, making coca tea similar to coffee in strength), he has consistently pressed for an end to U.S.-backed coercive coca eradication (he kicked out the DEA in 2008) and for legalization of the coca trade.

He scored a major victory in this regard last year, when he was voted back into the U.N. Convention on Narcotic Drugs, having left it the previous year because it classified coca as illicit.

Given that Morales has maintained democratic institutions in the face of serious challenges, I would give him more credit both for the difficulty of his position and for some quite bold policies here and there.