This interview took place a month after Bolivia’s Gas War, a massive social uprising against the proposal to export the nation’s gas to the US through a Chilean port. Bolivia has the second largest natural gas reserves in Latin America. Instead of selling these reserves to the US for a meager sum, many protesters demanded that the resource be nationalized to benefit the neediest sectors of Bolivian society.
On October 17, after nearly all protesting sectors in the Gas War demanded his resignation, ex president Sanchez de Lozada left the country and previous vice president, Carlos Mesa took power, as stipulated in the Bolivian constitution. All plans for the exportation of the gas have been postponed. Opposition leaders, including Evo Morales have expressed their support for Mesa, but have stated that continued support depends on the fulfillment of the opposition’s demands.
Though Evo Morales is well known for his participation in the Gas War, for years he has been an active leader in politics, coca grower groups and social movements in Bolivia. He is a congressman and leader of the political party, Movement Towards Socialism, (MAS) and leader of the coca growers in the Chapare, a tropical region in Bolivia where much of the coca is grown. He has been the center of continued controversy from the viewpoint of the US government, as he represents a large sector of coca growers in the country. Morales came in second in the 2002 presidential election losing to Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada by 1.5 percent of the votes.
In this interview, Morales speaks about the gas issue, the production of coca in the Chapare, the influence of the US government in Bolivia, Mesa’s presidency and the FTAA agreement.
BD: Recently, at the Hispano-American Presidential Summit in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, you spoke with Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil. How did this conversation go and what topics did you talk about?
EM: The main issue that we spoke about was how we can construct a political instrument of liberation and unity for Latin America, specifically in regards to hydrocarbons and other natural resources. The state should be in charge of the exploration, the industrialization, and the commercialization of hydrocarbons. This could be an economic solution for our countries, but meanwhile, these hydrocarbons are being stolen by transnational corporations. In Bolivia we are convinced that the gas is our property and we must defend it.
BD: Some say that you are the best presidential candidate in the country, and that you have more national support than any other candidate. What do you have to say about the possible pressure you may receive from the US if you are elected president? The US ambassador in Bolivia has stated that if you are elected, the US will pull out their financial support from Bolivia.
EM: After more than 500 years, we, the Quechuas and Aymaras, are still the rightful owners of this land. We, the indigenous people, after 500 years of resistance, are retaking the power. This retaking of power is oriented towards the recovery of our own riches, our own natural resources such as the hydrocarbons. This affects the interests of the transnational corporations and the interests of the neoliberal system. Never the less, I am convinced that the power of the people is increasing and strengthening. This power is changing presidents, economic models and politics. We are convinced that capitalism is the enemy of the earth, of humanity and of culture. The US government does not understand our way of life and our philosophy. But we will defend our proposals, our way of life and our demands with the participation of the Bolivian people.
BD: Why has President Carlos Mesa maintained the same view in regards to the eradication of coca as previous administrations?
EM: Mesa is just a part of the neoliberal system, part of the economic model. But, the US has not changed their stance on the eradication of coca…and they have imposed this political pressure on the Bolivian government. There is permanent aggression from the US government, even in the most recent days, and I am not sure if this is to end Mesa’s presidency or to create social convulsion in the country.
BD: Are there US troops in the Chapare?
EM: Yes, they are in the Chapare and they are armed. In the Chapare there have been confrontations…between US soldiers and Quechua and Aymara indigenous people who resist. From our point of view this is unconstitutional and illegal.
BD: What percentage of the coca grown in the Chapare goes to the production of cocaine?
EM: It is difficult to say, but at this moment there are legal and illegal markets for coca. To penalize coca is an error, because the object does not commit crimes; you shouldn’t penalize the object, you should penalize the subject.
BD: Has alternative development been successful in the Chapare?
EM: We have never seen alternative development. An alternative to coca? Impossible. Unfortunately, alternative development and the fight against drug-trafficking is a vicious cycle. One US agency says, “eradication is successful this year”, and another says, “no”. In this way they both justify their work and remain employed. The fight against drug-trafficking is a vicious cycle because, in the end, there is no fight against drug-trafficking, it is just a pretext. For the US government, drugs are just an excuse for the US to increase their power and control over other countries.
BD: How much longer will Mesa last as president?
EM: It is hard to say how long Mesa will last as president. We have given him time and we understand that one month is not enough time to change a political model. He needs time, and we’ll give him time. A lot will depend on some clear signs that he is trying to change the economic model and political system. A lot depends on him.
BD: The Free Trade Agreement of the Americas was recently discussed in Miami. Can this agreement function with Latin American countries at all, or must it be rejected completely?
EM: Where do the causes of the conflicts in Latin America come from? Neoliberalism and the politics of the free market. The FTAA is the radicalization of the application of neoliberalism, and neoliberalism is the cause of the social conflicts to the point that it controls the activities of presidents in Latin America. Whatever commercial agreement between countries can take place, but only with just and fair business deals. The FTAA is the law of the jungle, only the strongest survive. Therefore, how could we permit the application of this agreement? From the point of view of the indigenous people here, the FTAA is an agreement to legalize the colonization of the Americas.
BENJAMIN DANGL works at the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Dangl can be reached at email@example.com