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An Hour with Bolivian President Evo Morales: “Neoliberalism Is No Solution for Humankind”

StoryNovember 18, 2008
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Bolivian President Evo Morales joins us in the firehouse studio to discuss the election of Barack Obama, US-Bolivian relations, the global economic crisis and more. Morales is visiting the United States at a time when relations between the two countries are deteriorating. Last month, the Bush administration suspended long-term trade benefits with Bolivia over its alleged failure to cooperate in the “war on drugs.” Meanwhile, Morales has given the Drug Enforcement Administration three months to leave Bolivia. He accused DEA agents of violating Bolivian sovereignty and encouraging the drug trade. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Today, a Democracy Now! special. We spend the hour with Bolivian President Evo Morales. He is here in New York for meetings at the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

President Morales told reporters Monday that he hoped to see improved diplomatic and trade relations with the United States under President-elect Obama. Bolivia’s first indigenous president noted the significance of the first African American being elected to the White House and said they “had a lot of things in common if we are talking about change.”

Relations between the United States and Bolivia have deteriorated in recent months. Last month, the Bush administration suspended long-term trade benefits with Bolivia over its alleged failure to cooperate in the “war on drugs.”

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The Andean Trade Preference Act allows us to suspend trade preferences with countries that do not live up to their promises. And unfortunately, Bolivia has failed to cooperate with the United States on important efforts to fight drug trafficking. So, sadly, I have proposed to suspend Bolivia’s trade preferences until it fulfills its obligations.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Meanwhile, Morales spoke out about this earlier this month and gave the Drug Enforcement Administration three months to leave Bolivia. He accused DEA agents of violating Bolivian sovereignty and encouraging the drug trade.

This Monday, President Morales told reporters at the United Nations he would never permit the US anti-drug agency back into his country. He said he would launch a new intelligence operation to stop trafficking, as well as campaign to remove the coca leaf from the UN list of prohibited drugs. Bolivia is the third largest producer of coca, after Colombia and Peru. The United States is the world’s largest cocaine consumer.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now here in our firehouse studio by the Bolivian president, Evo Morales. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: First, you come here after the election of the first African American president of the United States. You are the first indigenous leader of Bolivia. What is your message to President-elect Obama?

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] First of all, I thank you for the interview. I feel that the world goes round and round. Three or four years ago, it would be impossible to think that a peasant president would be there. Nevertheless, the awareness of the Bolivian people keeps on growing. All the excluded people, all the marginalized people, the most abandoned people in the history of Bolivia have a president now.

And I feel the same thing is happening in the US. According to the information we do have, our brothers, our Afro-American brothers, and Afro-Americans, whatever you call them, they were excluded. And the struggle on this sector has been so important. So there is a growth in the integration of our people. I feel that is what I would say about a brother, as Mr. Obama, as president of the US.

In the same way, in Latin American, women who were excluded had no right to be president. Now we have two women who are presidents, in Argentina and in Chile. And these two presidents are the expression of a plural national state. Fathers of the Catholic Church, Catholics, women, workers — that is Latin America. And now, we have a president — and excuse me if this is offensive, but black. And this is proof of the diversity we have in America. But what is coming, maybe it will be very different, but maybe we can complement each other to look for equality among people, people who are here on Mother Earth.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Mr. President, in the waning months of the Bush administration, relations between Bolivia and the United States have gotten worse. You asked the ambassador, the US ambassador, to leave the country, and now you have suspended relations with the DEA. How do you see — why do you see this getting so bad between the United States and Bolivia? And what’s your expectation under the new administration?

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] Our government, our culture has a very close relationship with human beings. We are the culture of dialogue. But we also saw in the presence of the ambassador of the US as a constant conspiracy. And I remember that I talked to you, and I actually denounced the ambassador, because he used to call me the Andean bin Laden. And the coca growers, he used to call them Taliban. That’s when I was a leader, and I was a candidate for the presidency. Permamently, from the State Department of the US, I have been accused of being a drug trafficker and a terrorist. And even now that I’m president, that continues on on the part of the embassy. I know it does not come from the American people.

I need ambassadors who are diplomats and that if there’s a possibility to cooperate, that they cooperate. If they have the possibility of doing good business, they should do it, but also that Bolivia would benefit it. But we don’t need aggression, conspiracies. Unfortunately, the financial resources that come from the US — they talk about corporation, that corporation really is financing destabilization. And so, that makes us want to be respected as a country.

Well, secondly, talking about the DEA, already during in the ’90s, the ex-commander or leader of the armed forces — his name was Moreira — he requested exclusion, that the DEA be excluded. Why? Because they didn’t respect the national police or the armed forces of my country, and they wanted to divide with others or conquer certain loyalties in the national police. I, personally, I’ve been a victim of the DEA, because sometimes they even protected drug traffickers. If they really fought against drug trafficking, it would be very different.

And when they do an operation against drugs, it’s always with political ends. When I was a representative and we had the proper documentation, they asked Evo the information about — personal information about Evo Morales and also the MAS officers. The DEA investigated directly the financial entities. Since they couldn’t find anything, they kept quiet. Once, a reporter from the newspaper called Opinion in Cochabamba told me, not publicly, just in person, that he had talked to the DEA, and the DEA were really doing investigations, but just with political ends. And that newspaper man told me that “the DEA investigated you, and they didn’t find anything.” And lately, when I was already in the government, but when the communications were in hands of the telecom company from Italy, a team of the DEA were listening phone calls to be able to spy on me. This is a political thing. And that is why that happened.

So by talking about drug-trafficking, the fight against that, I mean, this is the most advanced things in Bolivia, because we are talking about the coca growing and the confiscation of the shipments. And so, when we declared persona non grata the US ambassador, we — they say we are protecting, but that is not the culture of the indigenous people — drugs — but we want to reduce, with compensation — well, if we don’t do it the proper way, it’s not going to be any good.

And our proposal has been very clear. There is not going to be zero coca leaves growing. Therefore, we have to actually control the coca growing, but we have a very small portion, per family. It’s forty meters by forty meters — it’s not very big — per family. It’s very, very small. It’s just like the backyard of anybody’s house. And that will allow us to have a self-control, the social control. Even though we do have promise, this is how we are fighting. And we will fight drug trafficking with or without the help of the US, because this is an obligation my government has to fight against the evil that it happens, it causes on human beings.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’ll never let the Drug Enforcement agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration back in?

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] We are getting organized, and we are actually setting up a national intelligence in collaboration with our neighbors Argentina, Chile, Brazil. And that way, the fight against drug trafficking is going to be more effective, but it’s going to be something that has a political element into it. If we don’t permit the DEA to come back, that doesn’t mean we’ll break relationships with the US.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales. He’s joining us in our firehouse studio for the hour. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is the President of Bolivia, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, Evo Morales. He is here in New York. I wanted to ask you about this unprecedented meeting that took place in September, led by the presidents of Argentina and Chile, took place in Chile, as the crisis in Bolivia was deepening. You were accusing the right-wing opposition governors of staging a violent — attempting to stage a coup against you, a violent coup. A number of peasants were killed there in Bolivia. Do you think the United States was involved with this?

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] Well, from the time I was sworn in as president of the republic in 2006, the opposition continually tried to stop my presidency. During the first few months, they said, “Oh, poor little Indian,” that “he’s going to be four, five, six months as president, and then he’s going to leave. He’s not going to be able to lead, to be in the government.” Nevertheless, a year went by, and I was still president. I gave my speech to the Bolivian people.

And from that time on, what did the opposition do? They said, “We think that this Indian is going to stay here for a long time. We have to do something.” That something is like, get him out. In the financial and political issues, with false arguments that I was going to end with private property in Bolivia, they tried constantly to wear me down.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is they?

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] The opposition, the right-wing parties, the fascists and the racists, the rest of the neoliberalism.

And since they couldn’t do anything, well, they also realized with a dirty campaign against Evo Morales, they wanted a hard vote against Evo Morales. And this year in September or October, they decided to do a civil coup, a violent coup, even though last year a commander of the armed forces announced publicly that they wanted to use the armed forces for a military coup.

But this year, what are they doing? These opposition groups, first of all, they try to overtake the national police. They couldn’t do it. They hit the members of the armed forces, they attacked them. But they couldn’t occupy the headquarters. But they did — they were able to secure some airports in the eastern part of the country, so that when the president and the ministers had to use those airports, they couldn’t use it. And they overtook more than sixty communities in Tarija and other places. And this is terrorism. They bring guns. They destroyed gas tax between Bolivia and Brazil. So that is really messing up the patrimony of the state, really.

Finally, there was a reaction of the peasant movement to recuperate INRA, which is the National Institute for Agrarian Reform, the offices. It has the charge of actually giving back the land to the indigenous people and to the peasants. And then there was a massacre. Look, they tried to occupy and take over the armed forces [inaudible] — that is sedition — and then to take the national patrimony and to burn gas. And this is terrorism. And as UNASUL declare, that there was a massacre in Pando, and this is genocide. We went through that.

But in those three aspects, you can see that there was an attempted coup that didn’t succeed. And I want to salute that, and that is the reason why I’m here in the US. I want to express my respect to the international community, because everybody condemned the coup against democracy to the rule of law, but — everybody but the US, but the ambassador of the US. It’s incredible.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Mr. President, I’d like to ask you, in previous visits, we’ve talked about the long struggle to craft a new constitution for Bolivia. And our understanding now is it’s finally been crafted and that it will go to a referendum in January. What are your expectations on this referendum? And what does the new constitution signify for Bolivia?

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] I feel a great optimism, because we suffered a lot of discrimination, and they have called me monkey, animal, not capable of anything. And I don’t think that they have treated [President-elect] Obama the same way they treated Morales, by the opposition. Because I feel this optimism, I think we are going to succeed with the new constitution that will guarantee a united Bolivia, with guarantees for the people and a plural national state with everybody — black, white, mixed breeds, indigenous people — they are going to be united. And the law is going to include a plurality for people. It will guarantee private property, collective communal property, and also state property that belongs to the people, such as the state companies, such as the hydrocarbon industry.

But also, the new constitution will allow the Bolivian state — rather, that we are not going to allow any settlement of any military base on Bolivian soil. We will not. And we also renounce to declaring war against any of our neighbors, because war is not good for any country in any part of the world.

And the most important thing is that public services — water, telephone, energy, electricity — this is a human right. And so, it has to be a public service and not a private business.

Yes, we can talk about a lot of social achievements and civil liberties, and so on and so forth, and equality between men and women, but according some experts, this new constitution is one of the most advanced constitutions socially.

And for the first time in Bolivian history — 200 years of republican life, we’ve had — this draft law will be either approved or rejected by the people, by Bolivians. We had twenty different constitutions, but just a few, a few families, a few politicians were ruling. And they didn’t take into consideration the Bolivian people. We will have a referendum, and it will be either rejected or approved, but it will be with awareness through the vote and not through violence, as it happened before with the fascist and racist groups.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to go to break again, but when we come back, I want to ask you about the G20 summit and what is called here “free trade.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’re talking to the President of Bolivia — he’s here in New York in our firehouse studio — Evo Morales. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales. The G20 summit that’s just taken place in Washington, what are your thoughts on it?

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] Well, finally, everybody has a right to get together, to meet. But if we are talking about a financial crisis, all countries should actually be there, and it also should be talked about at the UN. If there was a meeting of the G20, I can imagine that they are the only ones who are responsible for the financial crisis, so they have to meet, because they are responsible. Well, as I say, we all have the right to meet in groups, but this is a world problem. And the government of the US and the president of the assembly should actually call for a meeting to listen to everybody and to find solutions all together to the problem.

And according to the measures that the G20 decide upon, they are investing millions and millions of dollars, but these millions only go to the people who caused the crisis, not to the people that need the money. So, those millions of dollars should go to the victims and not to the people who caused the crisis. And so, the people that had mortgages, who couldn’t pay, or loans, or people who lost their employment, I am sure that everybody would think that it would be better that the G20 would do otherwise. I think it’s important not only that the different states participate in this financial crisis. Otherwise, there should be like an authority that will be above nationalities, above the nations that will decide.

So, Bolivia is going to be affected how? Well, the prices of our natural resources are going to go down and also many remittances. But we are ready to face this crisis, this financial crisis, and we will overcome this problem of trade, because the state is an entity that regulates the national economy and not the free market. Besides that, an important question when I became president, the reserves for the Bolivian treasury was $1,700,000. And right now, we have $8 billion. Between 2004, 2005, and in 2004, the reserves were never more than $1 billion in Bolivia. In a little bit of time, we have improved. So this gives us security that we can face this very deep financial crisis.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What do you see this crisis that started in the United States and Britain and other European countries — what does it say about the economic model that the United States has been pressing on the rest of the world now for several decades?

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] Well, the present models in place are not a good solution for humanity, for human beings, because it’s based on injustice and inequality. And that’s why I think there is a rebellion in Latin America against that model, that business model. Trade which is actually posed by the International Trade Organization is not a good solution either. According to my experience in my country, it is important to have the state present to overlook not only in social issues, but basically also looking into structural issues. In summary, I want to tell you that the neoliberalism is no solution for humankind, because it’s not viable.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In that vein, Argentina recently decided to nationalize the private pensions that had been developed for many of its workers, something that was not looked upon well by the financial community here in the United States. Do you see Latin American leaders going more in the direction of nationalizing resources that were sold off in previous decades?

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] Yes, we started nationalizing in Bolivia the hydrocarbons, for example. That doesn’t mean that the investors are going to lose their investment. As a state, we need partners, but we don’t want them to be owners of our resources. The national government guarantees that the investment can be recovered, but also we have to watch how much of that is recovered.

We also nationalized Entel, which is the telecommunications company. It was in the hands of a transnational. This company invested only where there was more population and to be able to have a lot of clients. But this is a human right. Communication is a human right, as I was saying before. You have to go into the rural areas. It doesn’t matter if you lose money, because we have to give them telecommunications.

And I feel that this process will continue on, because just I’m talking about natural resources and basic services. We want the presence of the state or the different states in social issues and structural issues. But it’s important to have the participation of the state nationalizing different companies or entities.

AMY GOODMAN: President Morales, many saw the election in the United States of Barack Obama as a kind of global election. What do you think is the single most important thing President Obama can do?

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] I cannot tell him anything or advise. Well, I think that this is a democracy, and this president has been elected through the vote through the people. And I repeat what I said a few moments ago. The same way as I was talking about the discrimination and offenses that I suffered, in the history of Bolivia, the indigenous movement has kept going on, but it has been always the sector that has been the most humiliated and that suffered the most.

In the past, also here, the Afro-American movement suffered great discrimination. And now, since we have a president as we have, maybe this group won’t be discriminated against. I say that because I have gone through that same experience, because in Bolivia there are some groups who think that indigenous people cannot govern, they cannot be presidents. They think that they are the only ones who went to school and that are prepared to rule, to dominate.

AMY GOODMAN: In terms of attitude to Latin America, from Cuba to Venezuela, the President of the United States?

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] I hope enormously that relations can be improved. I hope that the US, with President-elect, will end the trade blockade. I hope that our relations will improve and that journalists will be able to help us and will be able to go deeper into the issues. We want to complement each other to serve our people. We all need each other. What is good for the people is good for the states. So we have a certain hope for our people, because of the elections that will favor the most discriminated-upon segments of the population.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, in today’s New York Times, influential paper here in the United States, calls for the Congress to approve a free trade agreement with Colombia. Your sense of how these free trade agreements have been operating in Latin America?

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] Any country has a freedom to sign a free trade agreement with any other country. Each region, each nation is different. For Bolivia, this is not a solution, a free trade policy. Trade is important, but we want a fair trade that will allow to solve poverty, that will favor the most poor segments of society. And we also are working on collective companies and also small companies and medium companies. And sometimes we actually have also the collaboration of people who work in these types of businesses. If, for some people, free trade agreements are the solution, well, test time will actually show whether it was good or it was bad. But I can talk about my country. My country, even the agro-industrial people, about five or seven years ago, they were actually protesting against the free importation of goods.

AMY GOODMAN: You are headed from here, New York, today to Washington. You’ll go to the Lincoln Monument. You will be honoring Dr. King there, Dr. Martin Luther King. Why?

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] I want to honor my brothers, the movement, the Afro-American movement. I have the obligation to honor the people who preceded us, the ones who fought for the respect of human rights and rights in general.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us. We have been joined for the hour by the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales.

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