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Bolivia's government wants to fight colonialism by running clocks in reverse

Jose Luis Quintana/GettyImages/LatinContent

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, so that the hands spin counter-clockwise, and 3 o'clock is on the left while 9 o'clock is on the right.

The president of Bolivia's Congress explained that this was "a clear expression of the de-colonization of the people" under Morales. The new "anti-colonial" and "revolutionary" clock is based on the fact that a sun dial turns counter-clockwise in the southern hemisphere, unlike in the northern hemisphere, so clockfaces should match. But this is ultimately about symbolism, and using clocks to signal defiance of Western norms and and an assertion of anti-colonial independence.

In effect, 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. The Bolivian government is also displaying counter-clockwise clocks for the G77 summit it's hosting for the world's developing nations.

This is par for the course for Morales, a former footballer who since becoming president in 2006 has become known as the world's most leftist, anti-colonialist world leader, in large part for stunts like this. 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.

The great irony is that, in actual governance, Morales has not been all that much of a radical. James Petras, who studies Latin America, has called Morales' government either "the world's most conservative radical regime or the most radical conservative regime." He points, for example, to Morales' downright boring and highly conventional investment policies:

The Morales regime has encouraged and protected large scale foreign investment in mining and agriculture. It has not nationalized any large mining operation. Instead it has bought shares in forming joint ventures and increased taxes to a modest and acceptable degree. Corporate profits are high, remittances are unencumbered, environmental and safety regulations are lax and labor conflicts are at historical lows.

Big mining companies left un-nationalized! Lax environmental regulations! High corporate profits! It turns out that Morales is extremely radical when it comes to clocks and public statements about foreign policy, but considerably more moderate when it comes to most other things. Petras writes, "He is not a social revolutionary or even a consequential social reformer."

The clock is actually a great metaphor for Morales' contradictions. The one, highly visible Congress building clock will run in anti-colonialist counter-clockwise, but every other clock in Bolivia will remain in conventional clockwise. Morales' radical rhetoric turns out to be pretty easy and politically attractive, whereas at the end of the day, voters typically prefer to have a stable and predictable government; they want their clocks to run clockwise. As foreign policy Twitter-er Danny Hirschel-Burns put it, "Radical anti-colonial rhetoric is hugely popular, but consequential radical policies aren't."