In Bolivia, the country’s first-ever indigenous president–Evo Morales–was sworn in on Sunday. He focused his nearly two-hour inaugural address on bringing justice to the country’s indigenous majority and reaffirmed his pledge to nationalize the country’s vast natural gas reserves. We speak with author and journalist James Petras. [includes rush transcript]
In Bolivia, the country’s first-ever indigenous president–Evo Morales–was sworn in on Sunday. He focused his nearly two-hour inaugural address on bringing justice to the country’s indigenous majority. Morales spoke of the years of discrimination against Indians and compared Bolivia to apartheid-era South Africa. He also reaffirmed his pledge to nationalize the country’s vast natural gas reserves and asked wealthy nations to write off Bolivia’s $3.4 billion dollars in foreign debt.
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, but it has the second-largest reserves of natural gas on the continent. The 46 year-old Morales won the presidency in December with more popular support than any Bolivian president in decades. He is the latest in a string of left-leaning leaders to assume power in South America in what many see as a backlash against U.S.-backed free-market policies. Bolivia has had five presidents in four years.
Morales rise to power began with his leadership of the coca growers union and his high-profile opposition to the U.S.-funded eradication of the coca crop. He helped to lead the street demonstrations by Indian and union groups that toppled the country’s last two presidents.
During his campaign, Morales said he would be the United States’ “worst nightmare.” He blasted the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, saying the idea was a sure way to enslave Latin Americans to the interests of American big business.
The U.S has criticized Morales for his close ties to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Cuban president Fidel Castro. But on Saturday, U.S Assistant Secretary of State, Thomas Shannon met with Morales and reportedly expressed a desire to strengthen diplomatic relations with Bolivia. After meeting with Shannon, Morales told reporters: “Relations between Bolivia and the United States are going to continue.”
An opinion poll released this weekend by the Bolivian firm Apoyo said that support for Morales stands at 74 percent, an unprecedented level in the country’s recent history. Morales broke into tears on Sunday as he donned the presidential sash and medal.
- Evo Morales, inauguration ceremony, Jan. 22, 2005.
On Saturday, a day before the official swearing in ceremony, thousands of supporters came to the Indian ceremony that was held for Morales at Tiwanaku, a pre-Incan site that Indians believe confers strength on visitors. There, barefoot and dressed as a sun priest, he received a baton, encrusted with gold, silver and bronze, that will symbolize his Indian leadership.
- Evo Morales, Indian ceremony, Jan 21, 2005.
World leaders from 11 nations attended Evo Morales’ inauguration on Sunday. They included Nestor Kirchner, the President of Argentina, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and the outgoing president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos. Also in attendance was Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez who had this to say about Morales” victory.
- Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan president, Jan. 22, 2005.
For more on Bolivia and Evo Morales we are joined by:
- James Petras, author and journalist, Professor Emeritus at SUNY Binghamton. He has written about Latin America for many years and is author of the book, “Social Movements and State Power: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Evo Morales speaking at his inauguration.
EVO MORALES: [translated] We are here to say enough of the 500 years of Indian resistance. From 500 years of resistance, we pass to another 500 years in power.
AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, a day before the official swearing-in ceremony, thousands of supporters came to the Indian ceremony that was held for Morales at Tiwanaku, a pre-Incan site that Indians believe confers strength on visitors. There, barefoot and dressed as a sun priest, he received a baton, encrusted with gold, silver and bronze, that will symbolize his Indian leadership. Here is some of what Morales said at that event.
EVO MORALES: [translated] Today is the beginning of the new year for the original peoples of the world, in which we seek equality and justice. With the strength of the people, with the unity of the people, we will put an end to the colonial state and to the neo-liberal model.
AMY GOODMAN: World leaders from 11 nations attended Evo Morales’s inauguration on Sunday. They included Nestor Kirchner, the President of Argentina; Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil; and the outgoing president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos. Also in attendance was Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez who had this to say about Morales’s victory.
HUGO CHAVEZ: [translated] If you want to know what is the path to hell, take the path of capitalism and the neo-liberalism and of the so-called neo-liberal globalization. So, the triumph by Evo represents a strong thrust for change in South America and the Americas and the universe, because we are the time of universal mutation.
AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Bolivia to speak with Sacha Llorenti. He is the former head of the Human Rights Permanent National Assembly of Bolivia. He is also a current member of the national council for the constituent’s assembly. After break, we’ll go to Bolivia.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll try to make contact in Bolivia, but right now we go to Binghamton, New York, to speak with James Petras, author and journalist, Professor Emeritus at SUNY Binghamton, author of the book Social Movements and State Power: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador. James Petras, we welcome you to Democracy Now!
JAMES PETRAS: Good morning, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you on. Your response to the inauguration of Evo Morales and its significance in Bolivia and Latin America?
JAMES PETRAS: Well, obviously, it has aroused enormous expectations in Bolivia, some trepidation in Washington, and in Europe and the rest of Latin America, it’s a welcome to have a new government headed by the Indian president. I should remark for openers that Evo Morales has adopted a program that is clearly in line with welfare politics, rather than a revolutionary or socialist politics. The expectation in the financial press is that he’s going to press for increases in taxing the natural resource companies. He’s going to look toward industrializing and processing the raw materials for value added, and they look toward him setting up some state companies to join as partners the — to existing or new investors. His trip, certainly, to Europe pacified investors a great deal in affirming his defense of existing investments and inviting new investments from European companies.
So, the image of a radical Indian leader, I think, is greatly exaggerated. He is what we might call a classical social democrat reformer who is looking more toward welfare reform, social programs to overcome the gross inequalities that exist in Bolivia. Now, there’s a big problem with that, because, especially among the Bolivian trade unions, the COB, the Miners Federation and some of the more radical community organizations, as in El Alto, with 800,000 people, they’re demanding immediate nationalization of petroleum and gas. Though Evo has spoken about nationalization, what I think he really is talking about, reading closer, is increasing the national share of the revenues that are generated. I think that’s where he’s going. That’s what he has announced. He said that he’s going to defend private property. He said he’s going to negotiate new contracts with the companies, which implies they’re there, that as long as they pay their taxes, he said, and don’t engage in chicanery, they have nothing to fear.
So I think this is the real picture that you get, and, of course, a social democrat who is at least willing to pursue redistributive politics is seen in some rightwing circles as some kind of a radical threat. But I must insist under Secretary Shannon, the United States has announced that they’re sending a delegation to discuss with Evo the coca issue. Evo has taken [inaudible] route to coca plants, but will fight narcotics traffickers and those who convert coca into cocaine. So there probably might be a point of negotiations there. He has already met with the ambassador on January 2, Greenlee, to Bolivia, and the meeting was pronounced cordial.
So I think even in Washington there is a recognition that Evo is not quite the firebrand, he’s not going to be, quote, the “nightmare” that some newspapers have repeatedly said he stated. I think you have to discount a lot of the radical rhetoric that occasionally has been articulated. His vice president, who I think is less prone to that, has announced that their line of program is to produce an ambient capitalism, ambient Amazonic capitalism, which essentially means they’re going to promote small and medium-sized businesses in addition to the large foreign-owned enterprises that exist in the country.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Petras, the issue of the coca leaf, Evo Morales this weekend prominently wearing the coca wreath.
JAMES PETRAS: I think that Evo is not going to support eradication. He can’t. That’s one of his main mass bases. His line is very clear on that. He said he will cooperate with the D.E.A., the United States, in fighting drug trafficking. He doesn’t consider, and most people don’t, the coca leaf is like a tea leaf. And I think he is going to explain this to the United States, and he’s hoping that the U.S. understand there’s a difference between coca farming and coca leaf production, coca tea, and cocaine. There is an obvious distinction, which hopefully Washington will recognize, if it doesn’t go off on the — if it’s not looking for a confrontation and wants to use so-called coca production, make it equivalent to cocaine. So, I think there’s a basis — Evo has laid out a very pragmatic basis for resolving that problem.
It remains to be seen whether people like Greenlee, Shannon are on top of this issue, or whether some of the ultras, the Cuban American extremists will intervene. My feeling is that Evo’s trip to Europe gave the green light that this is not a radical government, this is not a revolutionary government. And I think his biggest problem, and I could be wrong on this, is going to be from many of the more organized and radical trade unionists and peasant organizers who are looking for him to fulfill his maximum program, his program of nationalizing gas and petroleum, and I think down the road there’s bound to be some conflicts.
Now, one last point on that, he announced last night he’s going to fight corruption, and he is going to eliminate the reserve funds of many of the functionaries, and that he’s going to lower the top salaries in the public administration. So he has launched right off a campaign of austerity and anti-corruption, a moral campaign, and he hasn’t spoken yet about any measures to nationalize, in any meaningful sense, gas and petroleum. And I doubt if he will.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, just 30 seconds, but this picture now of Latin America, election after election, of left-leaning leaders throughout Latin America?
JAMES PETRAS: I don’t think they’re left-leaning, because — for many reasons. Lula, for example, has opened the country up to more foreign investment. He’s paid more on foreign debt than any previous, supposedly, conservative president. Certainly Bachelet is not anything leaning to the left. She’s led the arms race, free trade agreements, promoted enormous increases in arms spending. Chile leads per capita arms spending.
I think you have to look at what the business press says, what they’re saying in Washington, and when you get pronouncements from Condoleezza Rice and others, saying that Chile is the U.S.'s best ally and we're talking about the U.S. that has been aggressively pursuing bellicose policies, we have to moderate that that perception that is left-leaning. Washington has shown an enormous capacity to tolerate rhetoric, as long as it’s not consequential. And the main problem for Washington continues to be Chavez, because of his increasing nationalism and, of course, Cuba. And their attitude to the rest of Latin America is one of accommodation by necessity and also a recognition that big property interests are not going to be effect. In fact, they’re being promoted by some of these governments.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor James Petras, I want to thank you very much for being with us, author of Social Movements and State Power: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador.