- Interview by
- Denis Rogatyuk
- Bruno Sommer Catalan
Evo Morales’s fate after last November’s military coup in Bolivia follows the same dark pattern as that of many left-wing, progressive, and anti-imperialist leaders in the region. Parallels have been drawn with the coup against Chile’s Salvador Allende in September 1973, the attempted military uprising against Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in April 2002, and the Ecuadorian police’s bid to oust Rafael Correa in September 2010.
With Morales now in exile in Argentina, he has also been compared to that country’s leader Juan Domingo Perón after the September 1955 takeover by an ultraconservative faction of the army. The military dictatorship implemented a total ban on the Peronista movement, yet the exiled Perón continued to bear enormous influence due to the base he had built through the decade of radical social change and independent foreign policy he pursued under his presidency. Though his name was banned, the Peronist movement remained active, and after its candidate Héctor Cámpora’s March 1973 election victory, Perón was finally allowed to return.
Today, Evo Morales and the Movement for Socialism (MAS) find themselves in a rather similar situation. The period since the military coup in November has been marked by repression, massacres of dozens of trade unionists and indigenous activists, and attempts to ban MAS from standing in the presidential election currently slated for October 18. This is combined with an ongoing campaign of media manipulation and fake news designed to smear fourteen years of socialist government.
Despite this, MAS remains Bolivia’s strongest political force, with the latest polls indicating that its Luis Arce Catacora and David Choquehuanca should win the election in the first round with 44.4 percent of the vote — thus achieving the necessary 10 percent margin over second-place candidate Carlos Mesa, also loser of the October 2019 elections. Yet a free and fair contest is seen as increasingly unlikely, given the continual interference from the Organization of American States (OAS) and its secretary, Luis Almagro.
Ahead of the planned vote, Jacobin’s Denis Rogatyuk and Bruno Sommer sat down with ousted president Morales to discuss his record as a trade unionist and as head of state, his experience of the coup, and what MAS can do if and when it returns to government.
During the Cochabamba Water War of 1999–2000 — a mass revolt against water privatization — you were a union leader resisting the neoliberal government of Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga. How can you compare the struggle of those years with the current resistance in the Cochabamba tropics?
It is worth mentioning the group of young peasant and indigenous leaders, active since the end of the 1980s and early 1990s [of which I was part]. We asked ourselves — how long are we going to be ruled from above or from outside? How long would plans and policies keep coming from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank? And when are Bolivians going to govern ourselves?
Bolivia always has had forms of social power, union power, communal power from below. But when we asked how we could nationalize our natural resources and basic services, on the basis of this communal or social power, we could not do so.
So, it was important to promote a political instrument, yes, on the basis of the peasant movement of the tropics, but above all from Quechuas, Aymaras, the more than thirty indigenous nationalities. We proposed a political instrument of liberation, of the people, for the people, and with a program of the people.
At this point, we had to break with the capitalist system. In this system, the social movements are called “terrorists,” and trade unions aren’t meant to be involved in politics. But we said we have political rights and we cannot just be trade unionists only concerned with labor demands. If we want deep transformations, it is important also to produce deep transformations in the state structures. To a certain extent, we had problems with the workers, who insisted on their “trade union independence” and nonpolitical stance.
Then, the governments of Hugo Banzer [1997–2001] and Tuto Quiroga [2001–2002] came along. They privatized Bolivia’s electricity and telecommunications networks, while our natural resources such as gas were handed over to transnational companies. Several times, I went to negotiate with the national leaders of the COB [Bolivian Workers’ Center, the main trade union federation], as well as the peasant confederations, and in the different negotiations with neoliberal governments, we always put the subject of nationalization on the table. Our argument was that when the gas was underground, it belonged to Bolivians, but when it came above ground, it was no longer Bolivian. The unconstitutional contracts that were signed said — literally — that the owner acquires the property right at the wellhead. And who is the owner? The transnational company.
In the 2002 presidential elections, you were defeated by Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, after a campaign of falsehoods, fear, and intimidation against you and MAS. Today we are seeing something similar. What lessons for the present do you draw from this experience?
In 1997, it was proposed to me that I should be the candidate for the presidency, and I was subject to a lot of defamation by the Sánchez de Lozada government. They said of me, “How can a drug dealer, a murderer be president?” Then, I declined the candidacy. But in 2002, there was a consensus for me to run.
I doubted that I could get a good vote: one international paper said that the MAS could get 8 percent, and all the polls said 3 or 4 percent. Sánchez de Lozada allied himself with the Bolivia Libre (Free Bolivia) Movement, which before, in 1989, had grouped together sections of the Left, the social democrats; this party was based on NGOs and used to receive money from Europe in particular.
The US ambassador, José Manuel Roche, said, “Evo Morales is an Andean Bin Laden and the coca growers are the Taliban — so don’t vote for him.” The anti-imperialist people of Bolivia reacted against this — “Why does the US ambassador accuse Evo Morales of being the Andean Bin Laden?” President Tuto Quiroga had to stay silent; though today he says that there is interference in Bolivia by Argentina and other countries. I said that Ambassador Roche was my best campaign manager for having made those comments. And the result for MAS was 20 percent.
I want to be honest: till that moment, I was not so sure that I could ever be president, but from that point, I thought I could be — and now we really had to prepare ourselves. With a group of professionals, we began to develop a very serious and responsible program for the state, for the Bolivian people.
The Gas Wars — a popular revolt against the privatization of hydrocarbons in 2003–2005 — were a real turning point, both for Bolivia and for yourself. It was then that we saw the power of the social organizations, mainly in the city of El Alto. How do you compare that historical moment with today — and what role do you think such movements will play in the process of restoring popular sovereignty?
With these struggles, we could win some demands but no structural changes. When I got to the Chapare, in the Cochabamba tropics, [the indigenous peasant front] proposed major changes in the negotiations [over hydrocarbon]. The neoliberal governments’ representatives responded, saying: “No, you are doing politics,” “Politics for you is a crime, a sin,” and “The politics of the peasant in the tropics is ax and machete” — or, in the Altiplano region, the pick and shovel.
Then came the Gas War, a fight concentrated in the city of El Alto. What was the underlying problem? Apart from the question of nationalization, we could not understand why our governments wanted to install an LNG [liquefied natural gas] plant in Chilean territory — not state-owned facilities but private ones — and from there send gas to California. We were lacking in gas, and they were sending it to the United States — but why not first supply Bolivians?
The fight for nationalization was deepening, and there, the people of El Alto were more than ever united, in a single neighborhood council. Now they tell me that it has two, even three neighborhood councils, a weakness in my opinion. But the most combative and the strongest are not only patriotic but anti-imperialist neighborhood councils, based on the Aymara brotherhood.
We are convinced that we are going to overcome all these problems with the people’s struggle, with the struggle of the people of El Alto.
You managed to nationalize the country’s natural resources and create a stable and constantly growing economy. What do you recommend as key policies to solve the current economic crisis in Bolivia created by the coup government?
First, an important fact, of which people should be informed. At the moment we nationalized it in 2005, the [annual] income from oil was barely 3 billion bolivianos. After we nationalized, by January 22, 2019, on the anniversary day of the Plurinational State, we were left with 38 billion bolivianos of oil rent. [In 2005] they left us a GDP of 9.5 billion dollars. By January last year, we left it at 42 billion dollars — imagine the importance of this change.
Bolivia was the bottom country in South America for economic growth, but out of the fourteen years that I was president, for six of them Bolivia was first-placed. When I went to international forums, summits, or to some inauguration, these presidents would ask me: “Evo, this year how much economic growth will there be?” I told them 4 or 5 percent, and they asked me what I had done to achieve this. And I answered: “We must nationalize our natural resources, and basic services must be a human right.”
The privatizations are back again now. The Supreme Decree 4272 [imposed by Jeanine Áñez’s regime] of June 24 this year, proposed a return to the past, reducing the state to “dwarf” size, as the International Monetary Fund wants. The state is not going to invest in public companies, and it will contribute less to the expansion of the productive apparatus for the benefit of the Bolivian people. The idea of this supreme decree is to return to the state functioning only as a regulator and not as an investor in national projects.
The IMF’s recipes are all there in this Supreme Decree: privatizing electricity, telecommunications, health, and education. The privatization of education has already begun, because this year they did not set aside a budget for the creation of new schools. On September 14, they began privatizing energy in Cochabamba; the attorney appointed by Áñez resigned, because that privatization decree was unconstitutional. Basic services are a human right and cannot be a private business, health cannot be a commodity, and education is so important for the emancipation of the people. So, the people rise up in rejection of this.
Unfortunately, Bolivia currently has two pandemics: the pandemic that kills us with the virus — and paralyzes production through the quarantine — but also a government that paralyzes all public works and submits them to capitalist policies.
Our task is to defend the nationalizations and deepen industrialization. That is the goal we must achieve, so we can continue with economic growth. But first we have to recover democracy and take back our country.
Now we see our indigenous brothers again being persecuted by this racist regime, led by Áñez and her paramilitaries. What do you think the next MAS government should do to help eradicate racism in Bolivia once and for all?
It seems that in Bolivia we are returning to the times of the Inquisition. The racist right has used the Bible to make others hate. They use the Bible to steal, to kill, and to commit genocide. They use the Bible to discriminate, to burn Wiphalas [indigenous flags], to kick the downtrodden and indigenous women. It was racist groups with money that inserted that mentality.
Last December, Republican senator Richard Black acknowledged that the coup had been planned in the United States, taking advantage of this opportunity [opened up by the racist right in Bolivia]. I was surprised by what the owner of Tesla [Elon Musk] said on July 24: he confessed to having taken part in the coup.
So, the coup was directed against us and for [control over] our natural resources, for lithium. We had decided to industrialize lithium, and started on our international reserves. [Commercialization] deals had been signed with Europe, with China. As part of the patriotic agenda marking the bicentenary of our independence, we had planned to build forty-one plants, more than fifteen for potassium chloride, lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide, three for lithium batteries, and other plants for inputs but also for by-products. But I said, the United States does not enter here — and that was our crime.
The coup was also directed against our economic model. We demonstrated an economic model that did without the IMF, but that had growth and the reduction of poverty and inequalities. And then came the coup.
So, I think that we are going to have to look for mechanisms to bring Bolivians together, because we cannot have such confrontation. It is very regrettable that there are paramilitaries, armed groups.
Our Movement to Socialism is a political instrument for the sovereignty of the peoples, and this political movement for liberation is not only historic, unprecedented, but unique worldwide. For in colonial times our indigenous people were threatened with extermination — not just racism and discrimination, but extermination. In some Latin American countries, there is no longer an indigenous movement, but our ancestors, such as in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico, fought hard. After five hundred years of popular indigenous resistance, in 1992, we said: “From the resistance to the seizure of power.” And in Bolivia, we kept that promise.
When we began to demonstrate that when we govern ourselves there’s a lot of hope for Bolivia, a coup came along. That is our reality, and so we must seek to end this racism. We should be united, respecting our differences of an ideological and programmatic nature. But that demands politics without violence.
When you were president, you took Bolivia onto the international stage and joined the fight for a multipolar world. Unfortunately, we are seeing that many of these advances have been reversed due to the actions of the coup regime. In your view, what would be the best way to restore Bolivia’s place on the international stage in future?
When I was a trade union leader, I participated in some meetings of heads of state, in Vienna for example, on the fight against drug trafficking. With the help of NGOs that had consultative status, I could participate and listen closely to what my government said in those international forums.
“I associate myself with the proposals of the United States,” “I support the proposals of the United States,” it was just that. Bolivia never had a patriotic policy, a Bolivian proposal. When we arrived [in power], our proposals focused on the defense of Mother Earth and basic services. We brought a proposal to the United Nations that water should be a fundamental right for all human beings and not a private business: everyone backed this proposal, and only the United States and Israel abstained.
I could comment on much of international politics along these same lines. I laughed at the (video-link) intervention of Bolivia’s de facto president in the United Nations attacking Argentina, accusing the Argentine president of interference. What right does she have to talk about foreign interference! But thinking above all of Latin America, in the times of Chávez, Lula, and Kirchner — different times to now — we promoted important continental integration processes such as UNASUR and CELAC. Barack Obama began the process of destroying UNASUR, CELAC, using the Pacific Alliance [alliance of right-wing governments].
The current US president has organized the Lima Group to confront Venezuela. Faced with that, we need greater unity and deep thinking in the Puebla Group and other sectors of ALBA-TCP [Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas]. But we are not alone. I have great hope that our peoples, our social movements, are going to win back democracy.
We would like a plurinational America, because we are so diverse. How good it would be for Europe, for other continents, to recognize that diversity, for that diversity to be recognized by constitutions, by international organizations. We in Bolivia are so diverse — cultural diversity is the wealth of our identity, of our dignity. And based on our diversity, we fight for freedom, for equality — that is the profound struggle we are waging.
However, at this moment, we have really turned back to the past. What the neoliberal right-wing governments do is just to say whatever the United States is saying. That policy from the nineteenth century that states, “America for the Americans” — the Monroe Doctrine — has to end.
The United States and capitalism think that they are sent by God to dominate the world, that the only sovereignty is for the United States. So, when a people liberate themselves, then come military bases, military intervention, and coups.
What has exile been like for you? What are your feelings about the military that betrayed you, and what will MAS do once it returns to power to ensure that the army is loyal to Bolivia?
I did not want to leave Bolivia. I saw it as a question of “homeland or death.” But a group of assembly members, national leaders, some ministers, told me that first, “to save the process of change we have to save Evo’s life.” I was surprised by that and not so convinced it’s true.
Second, on November 10, before my resignation, after the police mutiny of the previous two days, the social movements were calling on Bolivians to take back the Plaza Murillo [in La Paz], and in the press, I heard that the Armed Forces were demanding my resignation. Following that, some leader of the COB union was also calling on me to resign. What did I think, at that moment? That if I had not resigned, the next day, with such heightened tension, a massacre would happen. To avoid the massacre, I chose to resign, because we are defenders of life.
Up till that moment, there had been so many conflicts, like the opposition strikes in Potosí and Santa Cruz in late August and September. We avoided deaths. Some asked me to militarize things and declare a state of siege, but I refused. I had so many meetings with the military and police commanders, and I told them that bullets are to be used to defend Bolivian territory, not against the people.
Imagine: Evo president, massacres, deaths. How would that have turned out?
Even when I arrived in Chimoré on Sunday afternoon, November 10, I said, “Now I’m going into the jungle.” At that moment, I thought that if I didn’t resign, there would be a massacre in La Paz the next day. The police and military were going to shoot my brothers and sisters who wanted to recover the Palacio Quemado [governmental palace], Plaza Bolivia, and the city’s main square.
They were going to blame me. I resigned so that there would be no deaths or massacre under my administration — for we are defenders of life, of peace, but with social justice. As a parenthesis, I’ll say the fight for peace is a fight against capitalism — if there were peace with social justice, there would be no capitalism, it would be defeated. So, on November 11, I left Bolivia.
That day, South American territory was under US control. They did not let the plane that came from Mexico to pick me up enter Bolivia’s air space. There were three, four presidents, communicating all day long on how to get me out. But for the [post-coup] regime, there were two acceptable outcomes: Evo dead, or Evo in the United States. When I was still in El Alto, the military itself commented that they had to send me to the United States; others compared this to the  coup in Chile.
During my trade union and political struggle, I have been jailed, prosecuted, and confined in Bolivia. But I hadn’t sought asylum before. So now that I’m a refugee, I have completed the full résumé of an anti-imperialist, of a leftist who doesn’t give up. These are the consequences [of what such a person does].
The heritage of the indigenous movement is its anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. In colonial times, they dismembered Túpac Katari, and now in the times of the Republic, they want to “dismember” us, shoot down our political movement, ban the MAS, ban Evo. That is what the United States plans. The United States said, “The MAS must not return to government, or Evo to Bolivia.” But I am sure that one day we will return, in our millions, and restore freedom to the Bolivian people.
If you could go back in time, what would you improve about your governance of Bolivia? And, looking to the future, what do you expect from MAS now — and what role would you like to undertake?
First, forming new leaders itself requires a lot of leadership — so, sharing my experience of trade-union struggle but also of electoral struggle and administration. Politics is a science of service, of effort, commitment, sacrifice for the majority, for the humble. Obviously, politics is a fight among various interests. And what distinguishes us is that we fight for common interests, collective interests, in favor of poor people. Our fight is not to concentrate capital in a few hands, but to redistribute wealth, to ensure a certain equality, social justice, peace with equality, with dignity, with social justice. When we return — and we must return, sooner or later — I really want to share that experience, share a small part of all this struggle.
When I first came to the Chapare to live — indeed, to survive, after my father’s death — suddenly they asked me to be a union leader. I did not want to do this, but there was confidence in me, and so I left my agricultural work. I got into the union leadership, and I was tortured, prosecuted, confined, threatened so many times. Since 1989, I have been put on trial for so many accusations, defamations, that have no argument behind them or basis in fact.
I did not come to the Chapare to be a leader and much less to become president. But my school was the trade union struggle, the social struggle, the communal struggle, not like those who say: “I come from the communist, or socialist, youth.” In living my life, I asked myself how come Evo got to the presidency without an academic education. I answered that I could do so because of our truth and honesty. This government tried to blame me for corruption — but couldn’t do it. After so many defamations against me . . . what is the point of this one?
We are sure that we will win the presidency many more times in the future.