In the headquarters of the Coca Leaf Growers Assn. in Cochabamba, Bolivia's third-largest city, 150 delegates are attending a workshop on rural education organized by the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), a political party. As the group takes a lunch break, the delegates walk over to a basin and take turns spitting out soggy wads of coca leaves they've been chewing for hour to stave off hunger pangss. Then they rinse out their mouths with gourds full of water from an oil drum.
Upstairs, MAS President Evo Morales, who for years has led the coca growers, pours himself a cupful of Squirt and talks with BusinessWeek Latin America Correspondent Geri Smith about the pouplar uprisings that led to the ouster of former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in October, 2003.
Morales, who finished second to Sanchez de Lozada in the 2002 presidential elections, is considered one of the most charismatic indigenous leaders in Latin America. He says unless other Latin governments start listening to marginalized groups and improving the region's unfair distribution of wealth, they could run into the same kind of social unrest that hit Bolivia over the past year. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: How do you explain the rise of indigenous movements in Bolivia and the rest of Latin America?
A: For more than 500 years we, the Quechuas, Aymaras and Guaranis, the Indians who are native to this noble land, have been subject to slavery. Some European countries have attempted to exterminate the indigenous people to seize control of their riches. After exactly 500 years of resistance following the European invasion of Oct. 12, 1492, we met in Managua, Nicaragua [in 1992] and decided to form a continentwide effort to recover what is ours. We have decided to recover political power...and recover our territory, which consists of the natural resources below, in, and above the soil -- hydrocarbons, minerals, and forests.
In Bolivia, until 1952 we the indigenous didn't have the right to vote. It was said that the Quechua and the Aymara were Indians who didn't pay taxes, didn't know how to read or write, that we were like animals, and so we could not vote. The first time we could vote [in elections] was in 1956, but we only had the right to vote for them [the non-Indian elite] and not to be elected ourselves. The process has been advancing [since then].
Q: What is the indigenous position on the upcoming gas referendum?
A: Our people want to decide our own destiny, our own future. Because up to now, it has been families of expatriate [colonizers], along with policies imposed by the World Bank, the U.S. and the IMF that have decided the future of the country. And look at the results in Bolivia and the rest of Latin America. Neoliberal policies mean the looting of our natural resources and the concentration of capital in very few hands with no concern for the majority of the population. It is corruption, unemployment, conflict, and mourning. Neoliberalism is the same as the inhuman and savage capitalist system.
Q: Why is the referendum so important to you?
A: The referendum for us is really so that the people can vote and decide what they think about neoliberal policies. Whatever the people decide, the government must comply with. The referendum is fundamentally about the gas issue. The main question is whether we agree with abrogating the 1996 hydrocarbons law -- of course my vote is yes. That law is unconstitutional. Unfortunately it has auctioned off our hydrocarbons resources.
Q: Do you want the multinational oil companies to leave Bolivia?
A: Their participation is desirable, but not as owners, simply as companies providing a service, whether it's drilling or extraction, as long as their contracts are valid. But this is my house, and if I want to add another floor, I can hire you to do that but the house is still mine. We are not talking about nationalization [of existing wells].
No matter what, the oil and gas has to belong to Bolivians, not to foreigners, right? That's why the deal that [former President] Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada did, the auction [of concessions], was so bad. Unfortunately that's the situation we're in: If they contributed their technology and drilled the well, that well does belong to the multinationals. The rest [of the new wells] will be ours.
Q: And do you support the idea of raising royalty fees charged to multinational oil companies?
A: We proposed that the royalties rise from 18% to 50%. But when we recover ownership, we won't be talking about royalties. The state will ask [companies] how much it will cost to drill a well, and then they will be given a contract to drill and then to leave. There will be service contracts.
Q: Do you think the multinational oil companies will walk away that easily? They do have long-term concessions. They could go to arbitration to enforce them.
A: But the contracts are illegal, and they've never been fulfilled by the multinationals. In each parcel, they are required to drill a well, [which they haven't]. Since they haven't fully complied, there is no need to pay them any penalties or indemnify them for anything.
Q: You say the indigenous people of Latin America want to exercise power so they can make their societies fairer. Yet in Peru, voters elected an Indian, Alejandro Toledo, as President but he has just 7% popularity in opinion polls and hasn't managed to do much.
A: It's sabotage. They did the same thing to [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez. Chavez has fought off a military coup, an economic coup, and a coup of the justice system -- the 2002 military coup, the strike in 2003, and the sabotage carried out by the international financial system under the baton of the U.S., and this year they failed [sic] with the recall referendum. [Venezuela will hold a recall vote on Chavez Aug. 15]. When a leader defends his people, the people will defend their leader.
Q: Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva comes from the working class, but he seems paralyzed as well. He wants to carry out social reforms, but he has to keep public finances in order to satisfy international creditors.
A: If a leader cannot decide whether he's male or female -- because he can't be both things -- if he wants to be on the side of the people and he also wants to be with the multinationals, then he's going to have trouble.
Q: You've been the leader of the federation of coca growers for many years. You have said that if you are elected President you would expel the agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency who carry out coca eradication programs here in Bolivia. How could you expect to maintain bilateral relations with Washington if you did that?
A: It's one thing to expel the DEA, and it's quite another to throw out the U.S. embassy. We've never said we're going to throw out the U.S. embassy, but yes we would kick out the DEA. Countries need bilateral relations. But we cannot have uniformed, armed foreigners operating in the country. And the DEA operates here with uniformed, armed agents that have been involved in peasant massacres.
Q: And what of the concerns that some of Bolivia's coca leaf production goes to the processing of cocaine that makes its way to the U.S.?
A: I'm convinced...that the cocaine issue is a simple excuse for the U.S. to boost its control over our countries. Just as the idea in Iraq was to intervene to find weapons of mass destruction but all along it was really to win control over the oil supplies for the U.S. In Latin America, the pretext is "narco-terrorism.". Since September 11, we [indigenous coca growers] are all considered terrorists -- imagine! It's just a pretext.
Q: How could Bolivia and the U.S. cooperate?
A: I challenge the U.S. ambassador, I challenge [President George] Bush to sign an agreement to carry out a real fight against narco-trafficking on all fronts [not just in Bolivia but in the U.S.]. First, the peasant movement would mobilize against all illegal [coca processing]. And the U.S. would make sure that no chemicals needed to process coca leaves into cocaine would be allowed to be sent [to Bolivia]. Because where do these chemicals come from? From industrial countries.
And the U.S. controls banking secrecy laws. The people who process cocaine handle millions and millions of dollars, and they're not in Chapare [Bolivia]. They are the white-collar, tie-wearing people, not the people here wearing sandals and ponchos. Banking secrecy laws protect narco-traffickers.
That's why I challenge the U.S. government to sign a real agreement to fight drug trafficking. We will study what we can contribute, and they should contribute on their end as well. That way, drug trafficking will cease to be a pretext for these geopolitical interests that are behind the mega-projects of multinational companies.
Q: What do you think of the crop-replacement efforts of the U.S. government in Bolivian coca-growing regions?
A: These U.S. AID programs don't end up doing anything. Maybe the road [they built in the Chapare region] with the European Community -- I won't deny that. But their efforts to introduce alternate crops have done absolutely nothing. Their plan is to have zero coca production -- they aren't thinking about how to really resolve the economic problems of our peasant brothers. The European Community is working on strengthening municipal governments and education -- that is excellent.
Q: You have described capitalism as a plague. What do you propose as an alternative development model for Bolivia?
A: We advocate a system of living together in solidarity, with reciprocity and distribution of wealth. In Bolivia, there is no lack of wealth -- unfortunately it is poorly distributed. In Bolivia, it's not a question of [lack of] production. There is plenty of production, but there are no markets for that production because products are freely imported. Lands have to be redistributed because our constitution does not permit large landholdings. We have to make profound but peaceful transformations so that we have economic equilibrium.
In the Andean world, the indigenous world, reciprocity and solidarity are vital components. We don't want to be rich. We want to live well, but we want all to live well, and so we have to help each other. We don't want to concentrate capital in few hands. We want to redistribute our wealth and resources.
Q: But how are you going to create jobs? That's what Bolivia really needs, isn't it?
A: Of course. To do that, we have to cut back government spending and waste. And government servants must understand they must live to serve the people, not live off of the people. They must serve the community. They should regulate, but right now all they do is loot, rob, and commit corruption.
We need those savings to face our fiscal deficit. We should end government funding of political parties, and there we would save at least $20 million dollars. The electoral court could easily publicize the party proposals [instead of giving parties money to do it]. Because every time there's a political campaign, there is huge corruption.
And land distribution is important. For unemployed people, having land is like having a job. If you also [exercise government] control over the local market for products made by small producers, that would solve their problems. And if you reactivate Comibol, the Bolivian state mining corporation, that would revive the mining industry.
If you recover the oil and gas resources, or at least make the multinationals pay 50% royalties and then submit the companies to two or three [tax] audits [to make sure they pay], then you will have more money to spend on the economy. The resources that come from those hydrocarbons resources should be invested in agriculture. And the government should subsidize small exporters [and encourage import substitution]. Bolivia spends $60 million importing wheat. I would prefer to invest $20 million to produce that wheat here for the domestic bread market.
Q: You have been outspoken in your criticism of the proposed hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas (known as the FTAA, or by its Spanish acronym ALCA, which stands for the Area de Libre Comercio de las Americas). Do you think a regional free trade agreement would hurt Bolivia?
A: Yes, totally. Commerce should be country-to-country, and it should favor small and medium-size producers. The ALCA is an agreement to legalize colonization of the Americas. ALCA really stands for Agreement to Colonize the Americas, right? Or from an economic point of view, instead of being called ALCA, it should be A-L-G-A??greement for the Free "Ganancias" [Profits] in America for multinationals. How can we let them invade us with their products when they have so many state subsidies? We have no subsidies here.
Q: Do you prefer the idea of Mercosur, the customs union grouping Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, which Bolivia and Chile belong to as associate members?
A: [As long as] Mercosur thinks along the lines of country-to-country, balanced trade, yes. If I have to buy 50 tons of computer equipment from Brazil, then that country has to buy from me the equivalent of 50 tons of a product I make.
Q: You have moderated your political views recently and are working more within the political party system than before. Some of your fellow indigenous leaders, such as Felipe Quispe, are more radical. He has talked about resigning his congressional seat [for the Popular Indigenous Movement party (MIP) that he heads] to go underground for an armed struggle against the system.
A: He [Quispe] is my Aymara brother, and I don't want to talk about my companions in this struggle. We all are engaged in dialogue, and we all are very committed [to the struggle]. Felipe is simply asking that the government fulfill its promises. I have always opted, not for confrontation but for dialogue, which is the best way to solve our economic problems. In previous governments we had to block highways to force the opening of a dialogue. It's very different now.
Q: You have attended several meetings in Europe, invited by political parties there that seem fascinated by Latin America's indigenous political movement. How are you received there?
A: They are very receptive. I get more invitations [than I can accept.]
Q: Do you feel they take you seriously or view you more as someone exotic?
A: Perhaps they view me as exotic, but they do want to listen to what I have to say. In many conferences they give me a standing ovation. That has surprised me.
Q: Do you want to be President of Bolivia? You are widely expected to be a candidate in 2007, just as you were in 2002 when you were runner-up.
A: That all depends on what the social movements decide. I never in my life thought I would be where I am today. We want to win elections through democratic means, through the vote. We are not here for an armed struggle. An armed struggle is not the solution for Latin America's current problems. It is important that we enter elections peacefully so that we can carry out profound, but peaceful transformations in the government power structure.
Q: You head the Movement Toward Socialism party, but you have said you've never read Marx, Lenin, or Trotsky. What is your ideology?
A: We don't need to import ideologies. Here we have Quechuas and Aymaras, a community-based socialism. In the town where I was born, there is no private property, it is collective. They tried to carry out an agrarian reform by parceling out land. It didn't work. [Bolivia's indigenous style of socialism] means living in solidarity, collectively, in a community.
Q: Is that system compatible with modern ideas of human rights? In some areas around Latin America where indigenous groups rule, such as Chiapas in southern Mexico, some of the decisions taken at community levels are viewed as violating the human rights of individuals, such as women.
A: For the indigenous people, democracy means rule by consensus. The majority governs. In Western-style democracy, there is no consensus. It's majority vs. minority, and you even see "pre-sales" [vote-buying] so that the minority often governs. In the indigenous world, the majority always governs. And the government is there to resolve problems, not to create conflicts. We have profound differences with the Western world.