Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, 46, talks to DER SPIEGEL about reform plans for his country, socialism in Latin America, and the often tense relations of the region’s leftists with the United States.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, why is such a large part of Latin America moving to the left?
Morales: Injustice, inequality and the poverty of the masses compel us to seek better living conditions. Bolivia’s majority Indian population was always excluded, politically oppressed and culturally alienated. Our national wealth, our raw materials, was plundered. Indios were once treated like animals here. In the 1930s and 40s, they were sprayed with DDT to kill the vermin on their skin and in their hair whenever they came into the city. My mother wasn’t even allowed to set foot in the capital of her native region, Oruro. Now we’re in the government and in parliament. For me, being leftist means fighting against injustice and inequality but, most of all, we want to live well.
SPIEGEL: You called a constitutional convention to establish a new Bolivian republic. What should the new Bolivia look like?
Morales: We don’t want to oppress or exclude anyone. The new republic should be based on diversity, respect and equal rights for all. There is a lot to do. Child mortality is frighteningly high. I had six siblings and four them died. In the countryside, half of all children die before reaching their first birthday.
SPIEGEL: Your socialist party, MAS, does not have the necessary two-thirds majority amend the constitution. Do you now plan to negotiate with other political factions?
Morales: We are always open to talks. Dialogue is the basis of Indian culture, and we don’t want to make any enemies. Political and ideological adversaries, perhaps, but not enemies.
SPIEGEL: Why did you temporarily suspend the nationalization of natural resources, one of your administration’s most important projects? Does Bolivia lack the know-how to extract its raw materials?
Morales: We are continuing to negotiate with the companies in question. The current lack of investment has nothing to do with nationalization. It’s the fault of the right-wing government of (former president) Tuto Quiroga, who stopped all investment in natural gas production in 2001 because, as he claimed, there was no domestic market for natural gas in Bolivia. We plan to start drilling again. We have signed a delivery agreement for natural gas with Argentina, and we are also cooperating with Venezuela. We have signed a contract to work an iron mine with an Indian company. This will create 7,000 direct and 10,000 indirect jobs. We have negotiated much better prices and terms than our predecessors.
SPIEGEL: But there are major problems with Brazil. Bolivia is demanding a higher price for natural gas shipments. Doesn’t this harm your relationship with (Brazilian) President Luiz InÃƒ¡cio “Lula” da Silva?
Morales: Lula is showing his solidarity. He behaves like a big brother. But we are having problems with Petrobras, the Brazilian energy company. The negotiations are very difficult, but we are optimistic.
SPIEGEL: Petrobras has threatened to end all of its investments in Bolivia.
Morales: This isn’t coming from the Brazilian government, but from a few Petrobras executives. They print these threats in the press to put us under pressure. Brazil is a major power, but it has to treat us with respect. Compaaero Lula told me that there will be a new agreement, and that he even wants to import more gas.
SPIEGEL: Bolivia doesn’t sell natural gas to Chile because the Chileans took away Bolivia’s access to the sea in a war more than 120 years ago. Now a socialist is in power in Chile. Will you supply them with natural gas now?
Morales: We want to overcome our historical problems with Chile. The sea has divided us and the sea must bring us back together again. Chile has agreed, for the first time, to talk about sea access for Bolivia. That’s a huge step forward. The Chilean president came to my inauguration, and I attended (Chilean President) Michelle Bachelet’s inauguration in Santiago. We complement each other. Chile needs our natural resources and we need access to the sea. Under those circumstances, it must be possible to find a solution in the interest of both countries.
SPIEGEL: What influence did Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have on the nationalization of Bolivia’s natural resources?
Morales: None whatsoever. Neither Cuba nor Venezuela was involved. I managed the nationalization myself. Only seven of my closest associates knew about the decree and the date. Although I did meet Chavez and (Cuban leader) Fidel Castro in Cuba a few days before the announcement, we didn’t talk about nationalization. I had already signed the decree before I departed for Cuba, and the vice president gave it to the cabinet. When Fidel asked me in Cuba how far the project had progressed, I told him that we planned to announce the nationalization in the coming days, but I didn’t give him a date. Fidel warned me to wait until the constitutional convention. Chavez wasn’t aware of anything.
SPIEGEL: Chavez wants to install a socialism for the 21st century in Venezuela. His ideological advisor Heinz Dieterich, a German, was recently in Bolivia. Do you intend to introduce socialism in Bolivia?
Morales: If socialism means that we live well, that there is equality and justice, and that we have no social and economic problems, then I welcome it.
SPIEGEL: You admire Fidel Castro as the “grandfather of all Latin American revolutionaries.” What have you learned from him?
Morales: Solidarity, most of all. Fidel helps us a great deal. He has donated seven eye clinics and 20 basic hospitals. Cuban doctors have already performed 30,000 free cataract operations for Bolivians. Five thousand Bolivians from poor backgrounds are studying medicine at no charge in Cuba.
SPIEGEL: But Bolivian doctors are protesting the Cubans’ presence. They say that they deprive them of their livelihood.
Morales: The Bolivian state doesn’t pay the Cuban doctors any salaries, so they’re not taking anything away from the Bolivians.
SPIEGEL: Do you know how Castro is doing?
Morales: Yes, I spoke with him on the phone today. He has been feeling better for the last two days. He told me that he’ll be well enough to attend the summit of nonaligned nations in Havana in September.
SPIEGEL: And he’ll give a speech then?
Morales: Certainly. It’s an opportunity he won’t miss.
SPIEGEL: The Americans are worried that Chavez is gaining too much influence. Aren’t you making yourself dependent on Venezuela?
Morales: What unites us with Chavez is the concept of the integration of South America. This is the old dream of a great fatherland, a dream that existed even before the Spanish conquest, and Simon Bolivar fought for it later on. We want a South America modeled after the European Union, with a currency like the euro, one that’s worth more than the dollar. Chavez’s oil is unimportant for Bolivia. We only get diesel under favorable terms. But we are not dependent on Venezuela.
We complement each other. Venezuela shares its wealth with other countries, but that doesn’t make us subordinate.
SPIEGEL: The Latin American left is fracturing into a moderate, social democratic current, led by Lula and Bachelet, and a radical, populist movement represented by Castro, Chavez and yourself. Isn’t Chavez dividing the continent?
Morales: There are social democrats and others who are marching more in the direction of equality, whether you call them socialists or communists. But at least Latin America no longer has racist or fascist presidents like it did in the past. Capitalism has only hurt Latin America.
SPIEGEL: You are the first Indian president in Bolivian history. What role will indigenous culture play in your government?
Morales: We must combine our social consciousness with professional competency. In my administration, intellectuals from the upper class can be cabinet ministers or ambassadors, as can members of Indian ethnic groups.
SPIEGEL: Do you believe that the Indian peoples have developed a better social model than the white, Western democracies?
Morales: There was no private property in the past. Everything was communal property. In the Indian community where I was born, everything belonged to the community. This way of life is more equitable. We Indians are Latin America’s moral reserve. We act according to a universal law that consists of three basic principles: do not steal, do not lie and do not be idle. This trilogy will also serve as the basis of our new constitution.
SPIEGEL: Is it true that all government employees will be required to learn the Indian languages Quechua, Aymara und Guarana in the future?
Morales: Public servants in the cities are required to learn the language of their region. If we already speak Spanish in Bolivia, we should also be fluent in our own languages.
SPIEGEL: Are the whites treating the Indians better, now that you’re in power?
Morales: It’s gotten a lot better. The middle class, intellectuals and the self-employed are now proud of their Indian roots. Unfortunately, some oligarchic groups continue to treat us as being inferior.
SPIEGEL: Some critics claim that the Indians in Bolivia are now racist toward the whites.
Morales: That’s part of a dirty war the mass media are waging against us. Wealthy, racist businessmen own much of the media.
SPIEGEL: The Catholic Church has accused you of wanting to reform religious instruction. Will there be no freedom of religion in Bolivia?
Morales: I am Catholic. Freedom of religion isn’t at issue. But I am opposed to a monopoly when it comes to faith.
SPIEGEL: Some large landowners have threatened violent resistance to the planned land reforms. Whose land do you intend to seize?
Morales: We will expropriate large land holdings that are not being farmed. But we want democratic and peaceful agrarian reform. The 1952 land reform led to the creation of many tiny, unproductive parcels in the Andean highlands.
SPIEGEL: Bolivia is divided into the rich provinces in the east and the poor Andean highlands. There is a strong movement for autonomy in the east. Is the country at risk of breaking apart?
Morales: This is what a few fascist, oligarchic groups want. But they lost the vote over the constitutional convention.
SPIEGEL: Bolivia is an important narcotics producer. Your predecessors had illegal coca plantations destroyed. Do you intend to do the same thing?
Morales: From our standpoint, coca should be neither destroyed nor completely legalized. Farming should be controlled by the state and by the coca farmers’ unions. We have launched an international campaign to legalize coca leaves, and we want the United Nations to remove coca from its list of toxic substances. Scientists proved long ago that coca leaves are not toxic. We decided on a voluntary reduction in the amount of acreage being farmed.
SPIEGEL: But the United States claims that the majority of the coca harvest ends up in the cocaine trade.
Morales: The Americans say all kinds of things. They accuse us of not fulfilling the conditions of their development aid. My pro-capitalist predecessor administrations supported the massacre of coca farmers.More than 800 campesinos died in the war on drugs. The United States is using its war on drugs as an excuse to expand its control over Latin America.
SPIEGEL: The American Drug Enforcement Agency, the DEA, has agents stationed in Bolivia who advise the military and the police in their efforts to combat the drug trade. Will you be sending them home now?
Morales: They’re still here, but they are no longer in uniform or armed, as they were before.
SPIEGEL: How is your relationship with the United States? Do you plan to travel to Washington?
Morales: A meeting with (US President) George W. Bush is not planned. I do intend to travel to New York to visit the UN General Assembly. When I was still a member of parliament, the Americans didn’t let me into the country. But heads of state don’t need a visa to travel to the UN in New York.
SPIEGEL: You broke your nose while playing soccer a few weeks ago. Are you playing less these days?
Morales: Does my nose still look crooked? Playing sports has always been my greatest pleasure. I don’t smoke, I hardly drink alcohol and I rarely dance, although I used to play the trumpet. Sports helped get me into the presidential palace. My first position in the union was that of sports secretary. I was head of a soccer club in the countryside when I was 13.
SPIEGEL: Why don’t you wear a tie?
Morales: I never wore a tie voluntarily, even though I was forced to wear one for photos when I was young and for official events at school. I used to wrap my tie in a newspaper, and whenever the teacher checked I would quickly put it on again. I’m not used to it. Most Bolivians don’t wear ties.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, thank you for speaking with us.
The interview was conducted by Jens Giasing and Hans Hoyng and was translated from German by Christopher Sultan.