Evo Morales Has Plans for Bolivia
by America Vera-Zavala
In These Times magazine, December
Evo Morales is a polarizing figure in
Latin American politics: a proudly left-leaning indigenous activist
who defends the traditional rights of peasants to grow coca and
describes the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas as "colonization."
While opponents have labelled him a "narco-trade unionist,"
the charismatic Morales enjoys widespread popular support. As
In These Times went to press, he was expected to win the special
December 18 Bolivian presidential election. His election would
place him in power alongside other Latin American leaders who
are critical of America's neoliberal economic agenda: Hugo Chavez
of Venezula, Lula de Silva of Brazil and, of course, Fidel Castro
Morales' upbringing shaped his political
philosophy. The son of coca farmers, he was raised in the barren
altiplano region, where he worked as a coca farmer and llama herder
before rising to power as the national leader of the coca-growers
union. In 1995, he founded MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo), an
indigenous-based political party that calls for the nationalization
of industry, legalization of the coca leaf (the main ingredient
of cocaine) and fairer distribution of national resources. Morales
ran for president in 2002 on the MAS ticket, losing to the heavily
favored Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada by two percentage points.
A major plank in his current platform
is to convene a "constituent assembly," that would re-write
the country's Constitution with input from the indigenous groups
that make up approximately 62 percent of the population, but who
only won the right to vote in 1952. Morales is an Aymara Indian,
and many observers note that MAS has successfully brought together
two strands of the left--the indigenous and the liberal--in one
The political climate in Bolivia is tense.
This presidential election comes after June protests against an
oil export deal that forced the resignation of then-President
Carlos Mesa. These protests were only the most recent: In 2000,
protests in the city of Cochabamba stopped the IMF-mandated privatization
of the public water system, and in 2003 protests erupted in La
Paz over a tax increase aimed at the poor. If Morales wins less
than 50 percent of the popular vote, the election will be decided
by a congressional vote in January, and critics say that he has
moved to the center in an attempt to win. But when In These Times
spoke with Morales in early November, he was sporting a Che Guevara
t-shirt, and his resolve to equalize access to the country's resources
What is the most important issue that
you plan to address as president?
The most important thing is to create
public well-being, to combat poverty and take care of our natural
resources. To form a government is to form a family that will
work together to eliminate poverty. In this project the state
has to be a central actor, generating development, housing, sports
and so on.
The state has to be the motor: We will
nationalise the forests and the petroleum and natural gas reserves.
In several cases the management of the companies has been disastrous.
To develop the country, we have to get rid of the colonial and
neoliberal model. We want to tax the transnationals in a fair
way, and redistribute the money to the small- and medium-size
enterprises, where the job opportunities and ideas are. To get
this on its way, we want to create a development bank. The properties
of big land owners will have to be redistributed; we'll respect
the productive land, but the unproductive land must be handed
out to landless peasants--this will start a true process of economic
redistribution. We also want to industrialize and give people
more access to technology.
We want to govern with our indigenous
ancestors' models: That means a different concept of participation,
community work and honesty.
How important is the Constituent Assembly?
The Constituent Assembly is our number
one priority and main proposal in the campaign. The majority of
people in this country--people from more than 30 indigenous groups--did
not participate in the foundation of Bolivia in 1825. We have
to re-found Bolivia in order to end the colonial state, to live
united in diversity, to put all our resources under state control,
and to make people participate and give them the right to make
If I become president, I have to swear
to respect the laws--and if the laws are neoliberal, I can't do
that. Our constitution says that Bolivia is a multiethnic democratic
country, but that is only in theory. If we win we have to change
the country, not only in theory but in reality.
What will the process of transforming
political representation look like?
We would like to have elections for the
Constituent Assembly six months after these [December] elections.
Bolivians will elect three people from each district, which would
constitute a parliament of around 200 members. Then the assembly
will have to work for some months, after which their proposals
will be voted on in a public referendum.
But we have to see how this goes. The
minority in this country are not going to give up the baby bottle
What are you going to do about Bolivia's
We will ask for the total [forgiveness]
of the debt, negotiating with the World Bank and the IMF. We are
looking into the possibility of presenting a demand that Bolivia
be compensated for genocide and 500 years of oppression and violations
of human rights. It would be a historic thing to do, especially
for an indigenous government.
How about the world outside Bolivia? What
do you think about what is happening in Latin America right now?
I respect Cuba a lot. When it comes to
Che Guevara, our only difference is the armed struggle--I don't
accept armed struggle. Maybe it was the way in the '50s and '60s,
but we want a democratic revolution.
There are many progressive leaders in
Latin America right now; presidents like Fidel and Chavez, but
also Kirchner [in Argentina], Lula and Tabarez Vasquez [in Uruguay].
The social movements are very strong and interesting and they
move from union struggle, to local, to national struggle. If the
19th century belonged to Europe and the 20th century to the United
States, the 21st century will belong to America, to Latin America.
I have a vision of integration, like the European Union, with
a single market and a single currency and with the corporations
subordinate to the state.
I am sure that America would be better
off without the United States and the IMF controlling all of its
Right now [in Bolivia], people power exists
in theory, but not in practice. That has to change. If I become
president Bolivia will support ALBA [Alternativa Bolivariana para
las Américas], the alternative to FTAA that was launched
by Venezuela. Of course, everyone would like free trade but as
long as the world is so unfair, free trade is not combating poverty
but combating the poor.
What is your political history?
I have gone from social struggle, to trade
union struggle, to local politics and then to national politics.
I am candidate for president because the people want me to be.
We are the most militant force against neoliberal politics. The
trade union I was heading [the Federation of Coca Farmers] is
in daily direct confrontation with the United States, which controls
our country under the pretext of fighting against drug trafficking.
What many people don't understand is that
the coca leaf is an important part of our culture. Zero cocaine
cannot mean that zero people work with the coca leaf. Right now
we have an international campaign to take the coca leaf off the
United Nations list of drugs; the coca leaf is not a drug, it
is a healthy herb.
What is your strategy to avoid confrontation
with the United States?
They have to respect us, to respect the
outcome of the elections. Recently, Bush has said that he will
recognize the elections if they are fair.
Condoleezza Rice has said that she is
"very worried" about you being president of Bolivia.
What is your reaction to that?
That is part of intrusive U.S. politics:
their constant threats, repression and lies. The White House says
that I'm a drug trafficker who belongs to the mafia, that I receive
money from Fidel and Chávez. Ridiculous! Luckily, the Bolivian
people don't believe them.
Is there a risk that they will try to
declare the elections unconstitutional if you win?
I have to concentrate on the campaign
and trust what the constitutional court has said: that the elections
America Vera-Zavala is a Swedish journalist
who writes regularly on economics and participatory democracy.