[Green Left Weekly, July 5, 2006]
On July 2, elections for a constituent assembly and a referendum on regional autonomy were held in Bolivia. A week earlier, Pablo Stefanoni spoke with President Evo Morales about the new assembly and Morales’s first five months in government. The following is abridged from the interview.
The opposition says that Bolivia has changed its dependence on the US for dependence on Venezuela.
There is no dependence on Venezuela and Cuba. These two sister nations have expressed a grand unconditional solidarity in favour of Latin American integration. We recognise this aid — for example, from Cuba — which is helping us in achieving literacy, along with countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Canada. Italy and Spain are supporting projects in the areas of roadways and irrigation.
Argentina collaborated on medicines and food after the natural disasters; I want to pay homage to the Argentine soldiers who died in Bolivia [last March] while giving us their solidarity.
Why is Podemos [Social Democratic Power — a right-wing opposition party] so scared of [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez? Because Chavez is confronting the US — and the instruments of Bush’s empire … like [ex-president] Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, are also confronting Chavez. But there is no interference [by Venezuela in Bolivia], there is cooperation based on solidarity. Thanks to Venezuelan investment we will be able to industrialise our gas.
Have Chavez’s visit and his statements in Bolivia worsened relations with the US embassy?
The embassy and the US government have a defined line: to attack, provoke and conspire against our governments. For example, there is the case of Leonilda Zurita. Previously as a union leader she had a US visa, yet now that she is a senator [for Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party] her visa has been removed. The same happened to the vice-minister for water, Rene Orellana.
Secondly, there is the North American military presence, camouflaged as students who supposedly come to study Quechua, when, according to trustworthy information, they are actually gathering intelligence. It was not Chavez’s visit that affected relations. The position of the US has already been decided: to conspire against our government.
Colombia and Peru have already signed free trade agreements (FTAs) with the US, and Venezuela has said the Community of Andean Nations (CAN) is “dead”. Why do you insist on resuscitating the bloc?
If CAN returned to its founding principles — to strengthen national and regional economies — it would be very different. CAN was weakened by the FTAs, which destroy small producers and rural communities. Nevertheless, we have the obligation to return to those principles and to strengthen this bloc — not for the benefit of the transnational economy, but rather of the communal and popular economy in the Andean region.
How do you see your balance sheet after five months in government?
In five months we have consolidated ourselves as a government that attends to social demands, and at the same time is taking on structural issues. We have increased wages and repealed ”labour flexibility.” We have promoted literacy and identification programs along with health policy projects for the most vulnerable, such as Operation Miracle [providing treatment to recover eyesight, with Cuban support]. All this has been accompanied with a firm austerity policy [e.g., halving the salaries of parliamentarians and other highly paid public servants] and a struggle against corruption in the public sector.
We nationalized hydrocarbons and passed the law for the convoking of the constituent assembly, which will become the space where we can refound our country. In these five months we have followed the slogan of governing by obeying and today we have garnered greater support from the Bolivian people. [A recent Grupos Mori survey gave Evo Morales an 81% approval rating and 80% for vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera.]
What distinguishes Evo the president from Evo the union leader?
I see myself more as a union leader than president of the republic; sometimes I still do not believe that I am president. I prefer it when people refer to me as Evo — companero Evo — because it represents a greater confidence in me. My security guards used to call me ”Mr President’‘, now they just call me president or “presi”. We eat together as equals and that has generated a greater closeness with the people from the police and the armed forces.
Why do you continue to be the president of the six federations of cocaleros [coca growers] of Chapare?
It was the unanimous will of the six federations, but it is also a guarantee for them, my extended family. My political learning began in peasant union activities. We marched together, we bore the brunt of the repression together, we cried for the dead and injured of the Chapare and we also danced together and celebrated our triumphs. It is something that I will never forget. Because of that brotherhood I have accepted continuing to be a union leader.
What is the government’s response to the medical corporations’ rejection of the presence of Cuban doctors in Bolivia?
Some doctors say “Cubans out”, but those doctors have no feelings for the national majorities, for the poor, for the peasants and indigenous people, who for the first time have free health care. The ophthalmological centres, built with the cooperation of the Cubans, have the latest technology and include specialists. I very much lament that some of the doctors are opposed to them, when the great majority of the population is supporting their presence. The Bolivian doctors have often treated the indigenous peoples as pigs, whilst the Cubans work with a lot of friendship and affection.
You recently accused the Monasterios family, which owns the Unitel media network, of having acquired its land illegally and announced that your government will promote the creation of community radios as alternative media. How do you see your relationship with the media?
The employers should not be the only ones to have their own media. The poor and the peasants also have the right to have their own media. Today, the only opposition is the large media networks, which defend the interests of a handful of families that have lived off politics and concentrated economic power in their own hands. That had to change, and now that we have removed their baby’s bottle, [the large media corporations] have become annoyed and so each day they attack the popular movement and the MAS government.
How far will your “agrarian revolution” reach?
We are beginning to prepare the agrarian revolution, which is not a simple distribution or redistribution of land, but also establishing markets for the products and the mechanization of the countryside. We have begun to redistribute public land and we will continue with the [redistribution of land owned by the] latifundios [large landowners] who do not comply with their social and economic function.
Many ask “why do we want the constituent assembly if we already have a president who represents the social movements?” What purpose should the constituent assembly serve?
The constituent assembly is about peacefully changing the structure of the state, about the recuperation of territory and natural resources, to incorporate communitarian justice — at this time the justice system is based on blackmail and corruption — and to refound our nation incorporating the national majorities. This is how we will revert the original sin of Bolivia: the exclusion of 90% of the population when it was founded.
In the election campaign you declared yourself a socialist. Do you continue to be a socialist?
Of course, that is the goal.