Being the centre of attention does not come easy for Evo Morales. The day before our Buenos Aires interview he had smiled awkwardly as hundreds of poor Bolivian immigrants crowded around him for autographs. On the morning of our meeting he had been besieged by journalists, documentary makers, local politicians and activists. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to meet the peasant farmer who earlier this year was almost elected Bolivian president.
Wearing jeans, a V-necked sweater and a cheap anorak, a tired looking Morales resisted all pressure to whisk him off to another event at the meeting of the World Social Forum. Instead he sat down with me in the lobby of the central Buenos Aires hotel where he was staying. Now and again, a smartly-dressed porter handed him the lobby phone: yet more requests for meetings. Some business types in suits sipping coffee nearby looked on curiously. In Buenos Aires, Bolivians with Indian features – known derogatively as bolitas – don’t normally sit in hotel lobbies, let alone receive this kind of attention.
Water wars A tireless campaigner for the rights of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, Evo Morales is at the forefront of the cocaleros movement in the jungle region of Chapare. The movement has pitted peasant farmers against US-sponsored attempts to eradicate the production of coca leaves. (The latter are used – but by no means exclusively – to make cocaine.) Morales has been involved in struggles over land and resources since he moved to Chapare as a teenager.
Two years ago the population of the Chapare city of Cochabamba fought an epic battle against the selling off of its water. First the World Bank refused to renew a $25m loan unless water services were privatised. Then US water giant Bechtel stepped in and took control. It raised water rates by an average of 35 per cent, meaning Bolivians earning $100 per month were paying a monthly rate of $20 for water. People even had to obtain licenses to collect rainwater from their roofs.
The people of Cochabamba took to the streets – tens of thousands protesting daily against the rate hikes and subsequent water cut-offs. The so-called ‘water war’ led to months of confrontations, the killing of demonstrators by the police and a state of siege in the region. Eventually, the escalating protests ignited a general strike that shut down the city’s economy. At the protests’ height, Bechtel abandoned Bolivia and filed a $40m lawsuit against the government, claiming compensation for lost profits under a bilateral investment treaty.
Many of the participants in the cocalero and campesino organisations, Morales included, were schooled in this conflict. Their campaign’s strong anti-globalisation focus struck a chord among large sections of the local population who spent months facing down violent repression that included mass arrests, internal exile and killings. Significantly, these local activists began to reach out to form valuable connections with anti-globalisation and ecological groups across the world.
Not surprisingly, Morales has also become something of a public enemy for the US. He has been mocked in the US press as a ‘coca-chewing Aymara Indian leader who would nationalise Bolivia’s industries, stop payment of its foreign debt and halt US-backed efforts to end coca growing’ (New York Times, 6 July, 2002). But this has done little to arrest his rise to popularity in Bolivia.
Earlier this year, after three police officers were killed in a confrontation at the attempted closure of a coca market, Morales’s links to coca farmers led to his expulsion from congress and the threat of imprisonment. No evidence was provided proving his involvement.
The week before the election, the US ambassador in La Paz Manuel Rocha declared: ‘As a representative of the US, I want to remind the Bolivian electorate that if you elect those who want Bolivia to become a major cocaine exporter again, this will endanger the future of US assistance to Bolivia.’
If anything, the ambassador’s threat boosted Morales’s campaign. It allowed him to present himself as the only candidate not following orders from the US. Morales was able to tap into a deep undercurrent of nationalism and local resentment over the way political decisions were seemingly being made, with the compliance of an ever more malleable La Paz elite, far away in Washington.
And when I met him Evo Morales seemed, despite the bags under his eyes, a happy man.
The Ecologist: What are the origins of your movement?
Morales: ‘MAS (the Movement to Socialism) is about seven years old.'
‘After long experiences of broken promises in the countryside we had come to the conclusion that what we needed was a way to change the whole political system. As long as we carried on voting for the mainstream parties, we knew we were going to keep seeing massacres, militarisation and bad economic policies.'
‘So, in 1995 we attempted to form a party – the Political Instrument for Peoples’ Sovereignty. We had continual legal problems because the Supreme Court refused to recognise us. Eventually, an older party, MAS, agreed to transfer to us its electoral registration name, to which we are now in the process of adding "communitarian" or "pachakuti", which means "the new world" in indigenous language.'
‘In 1999 we took part in local elections and won seats in seven of the nine provinces that make up the country. In the 2002 elections we became the second largest party in congress, and came close to winning the presidency.’
The Ecologist: Why do you think the movement grew so fast?
Morales: ‘I think above all because we represent honesty and not corruption.'
‘I am someone who has no academic formation, and couldn’t even finish secondary school because I had no money. I had to go to Chapare when I was still young in order to survive, when I had just finished my military service.
‘Nobody can say that we have sold out, that we have received money – and I have received so many offers. The ex-president, Jaime Paz Zamora, offered me the vice-presidency of the republic. Other parties wanted to make me senator. But I have always tried to stay at the service of the social movements.'
‘In the 2002 campaign, lots of middle class people – and even upper class people – told me: "Evo, you are not prepared to be in the government, but at least you are honest". And many of them even voted for me. I also had a lot of poor people say to me: "I’ll vote for you, but afterwards don’t you negotiate my vote". That’s why we didn’t make a deal with the other parties so that I would be elected president by congress. It would have meant having to horse-trade for all the posts in the government, and we would have ended up with all kinds of corrupt people.’
The Ecologist: It’s very typical for parties in Bolivia to start off in the opposition but then end up being co-opted and supporting neo-liberal reforms. What guarantees do you have that this won’t happen with your movement?
Morales: ‘MAS does not have its own separate structures, but is really just the same structures as the social movements, and it is these structures that are in control. We do not manage things vertically, imposing things from above. This is the best guarantee, that the grassroots controls the congressmen, the senators and the leadership of the union. If I had been elected, I would have been president, but the power would have been in the organisations and not in Evo Morales. Nothing like the traditional presidents, who stuff the government with their children and friends. We really want all the nepotism and corruption to end right here.’
The Ecologist: Why is this happening in Bolivia now?
Morales: ‘I think that every millennium brings its change, and that this is the millennium of the united nations of indigenous people. Why now? Ever since I was a child we have had different indigenous movements in Bolivia, but they always ended up divided or co-opted by the government. This movement is different, both because it is massive and able to incorporate a whole diversity of figures and social organisations, and because we have our feet firmly on the ground. In fact, it took years for the other people in the movement to convince me to stand for congress, yet alone as president.’
The Ecologist: The other congressmen expelled you from parliament…
Morales: ‘I was the congressman with the highest proportion of votes for his area and "obeying an order from the US" they voted to expel me from congress. It is only recently that the constitutional court finally declared the whole farce illegal, and now they are having to pay compensation for what they did.’
The Ecologist: What are the main planks of MAS’s politics?
Morales: ‘More than anything, the struggle for dignity and sovereignty. And not just in terms of territory, but sovereignty in terms of food production, in terms of the decisions that the people make. We believe that the indigenous people, the Quechua and Aymara, are the absolute owners of the land.’
The Ecologist: What does the US want to achieve in Bolivia?
Morales: ‘The US is seeking hegemony on a world scale and has always sought to dominate Latin America. The "war against drugs" is just a pretext for the US to control our countries.'
‘The war against drugs is false. The origin of the narcotics trade is the US itself, which constitutes the principal market for cocaine. Why don’t they eradicate the demand? If it weren’t for the money that the US drug trade moves not a single leaf of coca would go towards the drug trade. And it’s not just consumption. According to the UN, 50 per cent of drug money is laundered in the US. You can only stop that by getting rid of banking secrecy laws.'
‘I think the main interest in the war against drugs is penalising social protest. In the 1960s they accused the Bolivian miners of being communists in order to persecute them. Then they accused poor people of being "narcos" in the 1980s and 1990s, and now after September 11 they are calling us terrorists. These are forms of criminalising protest.’
The Ecologist: What is the relationship between the coca produced for local consumption (for tea, chewing and medicinal purposes) and the coca grown for export and for the drugs trade?
Morales: ‘There is a difficulty in producing all the traditional coca products due to competition from cheaper imports. This means a lot of the excess coca production goes into the illegal drug market, which we are against. There is also export of coca leaves for legal purposes, such as pharmaceuticals, herbal teas, alcoholic and soft drinks. There are even US front companies that buy coca leaves in Chapare, although it is not clear what the purpose is.’
The Ecologist: Do you think more markets will open up for coca?
Morales: ‘There is a lot of interest at the moment. Portugal is buying legally from Bolivia, and so are Holland and Italy where they make a special wine.’
The Ecologist: What is life like for a typical family in Chapare?
Morales: ‘It depends on the market, and on the eradication campaigns. Usually crops are eradicated, planted again, eradicated and so on. This permits a kind of survival. Given the complete lack of markets for non-coca agricultural goods, though, it’s hard to say to a peasant that they should not produce any coca.'
‘For the indigenous movement, having land means having work, but the problem is that there is no market. Poor people in the cities cannot buy, and we cannot sell. Most peasants have chickens, and plant corn, potatoes, manioc and fruit for their own consumption. But there is no surplus to buy tools or pay for education. ‘That’s where the coca comes in. Some can be sold in the legal market, and some is sold illegally. Paradoxically, with the eradication campaigns the price has gone up in the legal market – making it more difficult for people to buy. But the price has also gone up in the illegal market, making it more attractive to grow. A pound of coca is now about 20 bolivianos – around $3, which is much more than before.’
The Ecologist: How do the eradication campaigns work?
Morales: ‘On any given day the bullets are flying. The eradication teams come accompanied by helicopters, small planes and ploughing machines that root out the crops. They used to cut them just above the ground, but that just led to better growth. Now they tear them out at the roots. However, when they know the army is coming many people pull the plants out and hide them on the mountain, then plant them again later in the day. Sometimes this happens several times a day.'
‘We are challenging the eradication campaigns in congress, and calling ministers in for congressional hearings. Much of what is done is illegal. What we want to do is find non-violent solutions for the coca growers. We need to create a voluntary and concerted programme for crop substitution, which allows the peasants to grow alternative crops and be able to live from them.'
‘Another question hangs over the US Drug Enforcement Agency commanded by Francisco Alvarez, a former colonel from the Vietnam war. Its active participation in Bolivia is unconstitutional, as the constitution does not permit armed foreigners to operate here or command our armed forces or police.’
The Ecologist: What are you going to do now that you have strength in parliament?
Morales: ‘Neo-liberalism is a savage and inhumane type of capitalism that permits the concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands. We are starting co-operatives and companies that are run collectively by their workers, and we are looking at the experience of the swap market in Argentina.'
‘State capitalism is finished, and now it’s the people’s turn. We want self-managed companies instead of state companies and multinationals. Of course, the state will have to promote the collective, self-managed companies and strengthen the struggle for self- determination. This is basically the centre of our programme.’
The Ecologist: How will you achieve this?
Morales: ‘On a political level it’s about refounding Bolivia on a new basis. On an economic level it’s about stopping and reversing privatisation. We want to get our companies and natural resources back, because we can’t allow them to be concentrated in the hands of a few transnational corporations. On a social level we have to end corruption and repression – for example, the state financing of mercenaries. That money must be used for social costs, such as education and health. On the level of justice it’s important to replace the system of injustice with one of justice. Today they call what can be bought justice. Rights depend on money. This has to end.’