BY BENJAMIN DANGL
COCHABAMBA — This interview with socialist leader Evo Morales took place a month after the massive popular uprising against the Bolivian government's proposal to export the country's natural gas to the US for a meagre sum. Huge demonstrations demanded that the gas reserves be nationalised to benefit the neediest sections of Bolivian society. On October 17, President Sanchez de Lozada was forced to flee to Miami and the gas export plan was postponed. Lozada's vice-president Carlos Mesa took over the presidency.
Morales played a central role in mobilising opposition to Lozada's plan. For years, he has been an active leader of social movements in Bolivia. He is a member of congress and the leader of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party. He is also leader of the coca growers in the Chapare, a tropical region in Bolivia where much coca is grown. Morales narrowly failed to be elected president in 2002, losing to Lozada by just 1.5% of the votes.
Morales' role as both the most prominent socialist in Bolivia and a top leader of the coca growers (coca is the raw material from which cocaine is made) has meant that he is not popular in Washington.
At the November Ibero-American summit in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, you spoke with Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil. What did you talk about?
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 the use of oil and gas, and other natural resources. The state should be in charge of the exploration, industrialisation and the commercialisation of hydrocarbons. This could be an economic solution for our countries, but meanwhile Latin America's hydrocarbons are being stolen by transnational corporations. In Bolivia, we are convinced that the natural gas is our property and we must defend it.
Many in Bolivia say that you should be president and that you have more support nationally than any other candidate. What do you have to say about the pressure you may receive from the US government if you are elected president? The US ambassador in Bolivia has stated that if you are elected, the US will pull its financial support from Bolivia.
After more than 500 years we, the Quechuas and Aymaras [the Indigenous people of Bolivia], are still the rightful owners of this land. We, the Indigenous people, after 500 years of resistance, are retaking power. This retaking of power is oriented towards the recovery of our natural resources, such as the hydrocarbons.
This affects the interests of the transnational corporations and the interests of the neoliberal system. Nevertheless, 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.
Has President Carlos Mesa maintained the same view in regards to the eradication of coca as previous administrations?
Mesa is just a part of the neoliberal system. The US has not changed its stance on the eradication of coca and they have continued to impose political pressure on the Bolivian government [to eradicate coca]. There is permanent aggression from the US government, even in the most recent days, and I am not sure if this is [aimed at] ending Mesa's presidency or to create social convulsions in the country.
Are there US troops in the Chapare?
Yes, they are in the Chapare and they are armed. In the Chapare, there have been confrontations between US soldiers and Quechua and Aymara people who resist. From our point of view, this [US presence] is unconstitutional and illegal.
Have alternatives to coca as a source of income for the peasants been successful in the Chapare?
We have never [been offered] any alternatives to coca growing. The fight against drug trafficking is a vicious cycle. One US agency says, "Eradication [has been] successful this year", and another says, "No, it hasn't". In this way they both justify their work and remain employed. There is no fight against drug-trafficking, it is just a pretext. For the US government, the "war on drugs" is just an excuse for the US to increase its power and control over other countries.
How much longer will Mesa last as president?
It is hard to say how long Mesa will last. 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 Mesa providing some clear signs that he is trying to change the economic model and political system.
The Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) was just discussed in Miami. Is this agreement acceptable or must it be rejected completely?
Where do the causes of the conflicts in Latin America come from? From neoliberalism and the politics of the free market. The FTAA is the radicalisation of the application of neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism is the cause of the social conflicts in Latin America. Commercial agreements between countries can take place, but only with just and fair business deals. The FTAA is the law of the jungle, in which 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 legalise the colonisation of the Americas.
[Ben Dangl works for the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia.]
From Green Left Weekly, December 3, 2003.
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