Big Think Interview With Evo Morales
Juan Evo Morales Ayma has been President of Bolivia since 2006. Born in a mining village in Bolivia's western Oruro department, Morales claims to be the country's first fully indigenous head of state. He is the leader of the Bolivian political party "Movimiento al Socialismo," which goes by the Spanish acronym MAS. The group's aims include transferring more power to the country's indigenous and poor communities, and when Morales took office he pledge to reduce poverty, ease restrictions on coca farmers, re-nationalize the country's energy sector, fight corruption, and increase taxes on the wealthy. He was elected to a second term in January, 2009 with a 63% majority.
Question: You’ve made a point of defending the environment, yet a growing percentage of Bolivia’s economy is based on gas and mining. Is this a contradiction?
Evo Morales: Bolivia historically made and still makes a living from natural resources. Before it was tin, but also silver, gold, and other minerals were plundered by many foreign countries. Europe after the United States.
And now Bolivia also depends not only on tin and other minerals, but also depends on the gas and oil. A rational extraction should be made, taking care of the environment. We should give added value to this natural resource, and generate revenue to fight poverty with more resources, that come from natural resources.
It is one thing to plunder the natural resources of a country for the benefit of another one. It is another thing to use those natural resources for the benefit of the people. And therefore we nationalize hydrocarbons, so now the economy is improving and the fight against poverty is also improving in Bolivia
Some take advantage of these natural resources to put the capital in the hands of the few, while some use these natural resources to benefit the majority, as we do in Bolivia. Additionally, this exploitation is done in close consultation with indigenous peoples with care for the natural environment.
Question: Your government has announced that it will take more control over Bolivia's economy. What will these changes mean?
Evo Morales: Well, we have already started overseeing the national economy. Before we arrived, the private sector had full control of the economy, 70 to 80 percent. The state controlled only 20 to 30 percent.
Now, the 70 to 80 percent is controlled by the Bolivian state, and the other percentage by the private sector. We admit that it's legal, constitutional, that the private sector is entitled to its own economy, but to ensure these profound changes that clearly this government is promoting, including profound changes in the food industry, what we are doing is an important step. There are industries focused on the metallic and non-metallic fields, and in minerals, to benefit the Bolivian people.
The moment we give added value to our natural resources, the national economy will improve. Therefore state control is so important for the people who have always been excluded from the claims of social and economic development.
Question: The new Bolivian constitution has declared the country a secular state. Why?
Evo Morales: It is religious freedom, religious faith. In Bolivia there are Catholic, Evangelical, Methodist, Baptist churches, and so on. In Bolivia there are indigenous religious beliefs like the rite of Pachamama Mother Earth, which shows us that Mother Earth is our life, we are born out of the Earth we live on the Earth and return to the Earth. With our goddess, the Pachamama, and it is not possible to continue having a monopoly of religious faith, only Catholic. We have therefore adopted the new constitution as a secular state where all religious beliefs will be respected.
And as president I have an obligation to meet with the leaders of Catholic and Evangelical churches, as I have close relations with the Methodists and the Salesians, but also I have the right to meet with the Pope.
I am Catholic but I want to say something to the Catholics. Thank you for some of the bishops who live in rural areas, and are still Catholic. These bishops of the Catholic churches still pray for the poor, and pray for their president who works for the poor, while the leaders of the Catholic Church only defend oligarchy. Now I'm much more convinced that the hierarchy comes from the monarchy, and that the hierarchy stays apart from the oligarchy. So the oligarchy is hurtful to the majority in Bolivia.
These days a father, a bishop named Eduardo Perez Iribarne, a Spaniard who heads the Radio Fides presented a documentary, a film about the priest Luis Espinal, who was killed by the military dictatorship. He gave his life for the poor, his life for the truth, his life for justice. Because of that I am still a Catholic. Absent those people I would not be Catholic any longer because of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Question: What are the biggest misconceptions that Americans have about Bolivia?
Evo Morales: One thing is the American people and another thing the U.S. government.
Last night I met with many members of the USA to talk about the rights of Mother Earth. Tonight, same on water, water in Palestine, water as a human right. I am surprised that, at these conferences with representatives of civil society, they applaud me and show much love, much admiration for our proposals. For the defense of the environment, the fight for the rights of Mother Earth.
We have raised an issue that is already in the Bolivian constitution, that water is a universal human right. And we asked the United Nations to recognize water as a human right. Three to four weeks ago U.N. approved water as a human right. That's for everybody. All peoples of the world recognize this legalization, recognition of social policies that come from the social struggles in Bolivia, but worldwide.
I, therefore, feel that the people, even if they are from the U.S. or Europe, support these democratic processes and transformations. Now goverments are a different thing. Presidents who do not want me. As I said, an African-American discriminates against an indigenous Bolivian. Well, they have their reasons, but sooner or later we will all be judged.
Question: Has President Obama been better for Bolivia than President Bush was?
Evo Morales: Internally, I have no reason to make an evaluation. The people, the U.S., are the ones who will evaluate the Obama Administration.
But, with Bolivia, I had hope that a discriminated African-American, with another discriminated indigenous peasant leader, I hoped that together we could work for justice and equality. Not only for just two countries, Bolivia and USA, but for equality around the world.
Then he killed my hopes with his comments, for example, about the issue of our fight against drug trafficking. Mr. Obama acknowledged to Congress that we have provided our economic resources, congratulated the national police for drug busting.
He recognizes the peaceful efforts we make in reducing coca cultivation. However he does not give us credit for it. But because of the U.S. government, because of America's growing demand for cocaine, clandestine synthetic drug factories are growing rapidly. The U.N. says there has been a 1 percent growth in coca cultivation in Bolivia. But Obama said that in Bolivia there has been a growth of 9 percent in coca cultivation. Who should we believe? The U.N.? Or the U.S. State Department?
I think that of course we should trust the U.N., as he is twisting numbers and results in the fight against drug trafficking, but why? To blame Evo Morales for drug traffickers. Unfortunately, in this Obama Government, we have charges of drug trafficking and terrorism. For Evo, it's drug trafficking. For Hugo, it's terrorism. Evo Morales, drug trafficking. Hugo Chavez, terrorism. They make these charges, but his target is to get control over these countries, maybe militarily as the U.S. did in Iraq.
In Iraq, they said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction endangering mankind. With this pretext, the U.S. intervened militarily, and all they did is take control over oil fields, and oil wells.
Geopolitical interests are behind the so-called war on drugs and terrorism. Another issue: we comply with all we can do, as Bolivians, in combating drug trafficking, but they take away our tariff preferences. This is a boycott, economic sabotage against Bolivia. But thanks to the solidarity of Argentina, Brazil, and especially Venezuela, we are selling our textiles in South America better than in the USA now.
Of course, we do not want to lose that market but that does not mean that it is not another form of economic blockade to Bolivia. Again, thanks to the solidarity of South America, we are selling textiles to our sister countries.
Question: You have allied yourself in recent years with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? What does Bolivia have in common with their countries?
Evo Morales: Also with Cuba, with Fidel. I am quite an admirer of Fidel. For me, Fidel is the first and the best man in solidarity with the peoples of the world. Fidel shares not just what he does not need, but every little thing he has. That is called solidarity. There are countries that send us garbage. There are countries that send us their outdated technology as their cooperation. With Fidel it is totally different. Fidel is the first and the best one to stand for peace in the world denouncing the interventionist policies of the U.S. government.
But the fight against capitalism has many aspects, particularly the distinctive economic models that concentrate the capital in few hands. He questions the various methods of intervention to countries. That is happening not only with Hugo Chavez, Venezuela, Iran... but also with the countries of Central America, and South American countries with presidents as Lula, Correa, countries as Paraguay, Uruguay.
It is a democratic uprising. I'd say a democratic revolution against imperialism and against capitalism. So the agreements between us, more than that, any cooperation means unconditional credit, while the US and some capitalist countries want to help us under conditions, under blackmail. And they use the IMF as a major instrument of economic and financial domination.
Fortunately, in Bolivia, we have begun to liberate ourselves economically. If we do not accompany social and cultural liberation with economic liberalization, the country will continue to be subjugated. Fortunately, social and cultural liberation go along with economic and financial liberalization.
Question: You have said that you want the world to build a global communitarian socialism and end war. Given human nature, is this really possible?
Evo Morales: Sooner or later we will reach a point where communitarian socialism turns global because capitalism is not even the solution to capitalism itself. Capitalism is destroying Mother Earth, and to destroy Mother Earth is to destroy humanity.
In Latin America, in the past, it was almost impossible to guarantee democracy. There were military dictatorships, and nowadays there are not so many military dictatorships. Although we have a dictator in Honduras, as a result of a coup, now as a president, he is almost the only one I would say. But again led or managed, gestated by the U.S. government.
I was told one thing: Throughout Latin America there has been military dictatorships. The only place where there has not been a coup ever, that's the U.S., because there is no U.S. ambassador in the U.S. As there are U.S. ambassadors all over Latin America, it's the ambassadors the ones that organize those coups, military coups.
And now we are immersed in deep democratic revolutions, for the recovery of our resources, and to transform a resource into a basic human right. And that is spread around the world. Of course, there will be neither capitalist governments nor capitalist court precedents that will make changes to seek equality and justice.
I'm still convinced. We all fight for freedom, but the foundation of freedom is equality and justice. And we are all on the road. And if governments do not ensure that, the peoples through their own efforts will ensure these changes, what we call communitarian socialism. Why communitarian socialism? Now not only do we have the pursuit of happiness for man, as a government, as a program or as our principles. But as well to live in harmony with Mother Earth.
Again we see how capitalism is destroying Mother Earth. I remain convinced that the Earth can exist without man but man cannot live without the Earth, without the Mother Earth. What is more important to defend: the right of man or the rights of the Mother Earth? In this new millennium it is more important to defend the rights of the Mother Earth to guarantee human rights.
These are our deepest differences, even with a simple left, with a single socialism. We are aiming firstly for the defense of Mother Earth, to protect life, to ensure humanity. That is what we call communitarian socialism. That is what I would like to be in the world. To what pretext does the U.S. invade the world? National security. We're not just national security. We stand for global security and so we take care of everyone's life.
To talk only about national security, national defense, means to be selfish, ambitious. It is discrimination, isolation. "It is just me. What do I care about others?" We share our deepest differences. That is under discussion and will continue to be debated.
Of course, it will not only be Evo Morales who resolves this. And my duty, temporarily as president, is to guide, discuss with them so that the peoples of the world realize the damage that capitalism causes. The solution, is it capitalism, or is it communitarian socialism? Of course this is an initiative, which will continue to be debated.
Question: How will the increasing demand for lithium affect Bolivia's economy in the coming years?
Evo Morales: Lithium is like a beautiful lady, very much sought and pursued, especially in Bolivia. There is data indicating Bolivia has the largest reserves of lithium in the world.
Our policy is clear: that the state takes advantage of this natural resource, giving added value. But if the state has no capacity to invest in lithium, it will look for partners—not owners of lithium. The best partners would be national firms. But if we can't find a national company that we can partner with to industrialize lithium, private companies will enter the market.
We welcome private investment, but any company or national firm will be a partner of a venture where the result will go mainly to the Bolivian people. Of course, any investor is entitled to recover their investment and take profits. But be assured that these new functions with our partners will also be reinvested in our country for the benefit of the Bolivian people. The idea, as the central theme, is that any exploitation of lithium needs to be done in a way that respects the environment.
Recorded September 22, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman
A conversation with the President of Bolivia.