Former president discusses Bolivia’s political crisis, why he has taken exile in Argentina – and whether 14 years was too long in power.
Evo Morales was the most successful Latin American president of the 21st century. And the Bolivian indigenous leader, who spent 14 years leading his nation, is conscious that his exile in Argentina comes at a cost to President Alberto Fernández.
In a feature-length interview, he talks about his homeland, his connection to Argentina and Washington’s role in his removal from office.
How would you explain the cosmovision of the Andes to those of us living in Buenos Aires? We’re more Atlantic, mostly the children of European immigrants, of the pampas...
Firstly, thank you very much for the invitation. I’m here for well-known reasons.
More than once I have proclaimed how nice it would be to have a pluri-national South America. We’re so diverse, some of us go back millennia, others are more contemporary. But we all share the same origins, whether born in Bolivia, Argentina, South America or elsewhere in the Americas.
The most important thing is how we make up our identity stretching back millennia. That is the difference some countries like Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala or Mexico have with countries like Uruguay or Argentina. That cultural diversity is fading. We thus have only one cause: independence, the struggle to found republics, to free peoples. We have our differences but in the final analysis we are one big fatherland, the patria grande. And we proclaim liberation, to live like states with sovereignty and independence, to be peoples with dignity and identity.
How’s the relationship with Pachamama?
I always say we’re all brothers, whether going back millenia or contemporary. We come from the soil and we return to the soil, that’s why we’re all brothers and that’s why we talk of “Mother Earth” or Pachamama. The human being cannot live without Mother Earth and she would exist better without mankind. We have the obligation to look after her, a pending issue in the United Nations. We have presented that as a government. Almost a century ago everybody started recognising human rights, then came political, economic and social rights. And in 2017, we at last approved after so much struggle indigenous rights. But where are Pachamama’s rights? If we don’t manage and respect them, within a short time the life of not only humanity but planet Earth itself could be affected. We Bolivians have a sort of double religion – we’re Catholics but we also have the Pachamama rites. We come and eat thanks to that.
You more than halved extreme poverty in Bolivia, from 36.7 to 16.8 percent between 2005 and 2015, also improving the distribution of income with the Gini index passing from 0.6 percent in 2005 to 0.47 percent in 2016. Per capita GNP also doubled between 2005 and 2013. To what is this Bolivian miracle owed?
I’d say to the struggle of the Bolivian people. According to our official data, extreme poverty was 38.2 percent when we came to power and under 15 percent by the end of 2018. From the outset we pursued three aims: the first political, to refound Bolivia, the second economic, to nationalise our natural resources and the third social, to redistribute wealth. That was my programme.
The most difficult was refounding Bolivia – leaving beSaturday, January 18, 2020 hind a colonial state to make the leap to a pluri-national state where we all have the same rights. Beforehand, the indigenous movement, the poor, women and various social classes had no rights, which needed to be enshrined in the Constitution alongside collective rights. That was another thing we developed hugely: the Constitution.
On the economic front, the most important thing was to nationalise natural resources. I learned that it was one thing to free ourselves politically, ideologically, socially and culturally, but if that is not accompanied by economic liberation, it does not have much future. We nationalised the oil contracts, which were totally unconstitutional previously.
When I participated, together with the COB trade union confederation, in the social organisations, we always called for the nationalisation of fossil fuels. The answer was that the gas was Bolivian as it long as it stayed below the ground but when it came out, it was no longer Bolivian since the contracts affirmed that ownership rights went with the oil-well. The international oil companies thus claimed 82 percent of the revenues with 18 percent for the Bolivians. I turned that around. I told them: “If you want to be in Bolivia, no problem but not as owners or bosses but as partners.” We have created what we call recoverable costs: if a company invests in exploring for oil or gas and doesn’t find it, we don’t return the money but if they do, we’ll return the money invested - those are the recoverable costs. Therefore 100 percent belongs to the State but the company investing receives 18 percent of the proceeds.
In your first 10 years, you lowered illiteracy from 13 to three percent while passing laws for free education and health – advances made in Argentina by Juan Perón in the middle of the last century. Was Bolivia behind and were you the architect of recovery?
I come from a very humble family background. We came to Argentina for the sugar harvest. I always thought that never again would I want to see a child like the Evo of the 1960s and 1970s.
We always concentrated on eradicating poverty and creating social programmes. When we reached the presidency in 2005, we presented a programme of austerity and I slashed my salary from 40,000 to 15,000 bolivianos with no expenses, while eliminating reserve accounts.
Might having been poor mark you out from other South American leaders?
I reached the presidency not thanks to money but to patriotism accompanied by truth and honesty. I’ve been a leader since 1988 and I know how they try to bribe authorities. I never accepted but expressed annoyance, including with some priests.
We created the “Juancito Pinto” bonus, aimed against the school dropout rate, which was almost seven percent when we came to power and which we reduced to 1 to 1.5 percent. I’m grateful for the Cuban programmes we’ve implemented.
How did we reduce poverty? We created various programmes, often productive mini-programmes on a family basis with US$1,000 to US£2,000 per household and US$5,000 to 10,000 for larger units. The State donated 70 percent while the beneficiaries provided the remaining 30 percent or even 20 percent if the local government chipped in with 10 percent. These programmes enabled me to reduce poverty.
You were in Mexico for only a month (November 12 to December 12), arriving in Argentina just two days after the inauguration of Alberto Fernández. How’s your relationship with Argentina?
My thanks to the president, government and people of Mexico. I felt good there. The haste to come here was due to Argentina being much closer to Bolivia. It was difficult to receive visits up there whereas living here comrades are popping up all the time, sometimes arriving for humanitarian reasons but also political. My relationship with Alberto Fernández is also very good. Even when still president-elect, he pitched in when I was hiding out in the sticks, showing concern over how to get us out.
When your life was in danger...
That’s a long story but I thank the Mexican and Paraguayan Presidents Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Mario Abdo Benítez, Alberto Fernández and also Nicolás Maduro. Foreign ministers elsewhere in South America also expressed concern about getting us out.
But there is something I want you to know. When on November 11, the military aircraft of Mexico was not allowed to enter Bolivia, the United States offered us a plane, saying: “We’ll take it to wherever you say.” My first thought was that it would head straight to Guantánamo. Obviously we rejected the offer.
Now the US does not want me to return to Bolivia or Argentina. I say that with the official information of Mexico and other continental authorities.
In your childhood you lived in Tucumán and Salta because your father went to work in the sugar harvest. You learned Spanish in an Argentine school and slept in a bed for the first time here.
When I was only four or five, I joined my father for the sugar harvest while my sister Esther also came to cook for the cane-cutters. I believe that under Argentine law the children of the harvest workers had to go to school.
Until then I did not understand Spanish. My father took me to the school in Calilegua in the Ledesma zone. The lady teaching us came to my seat saying: “Evito, Evito...” and stroking my hair: “What nice hair...”. When the sugar harvest ended there, I had to go to another camp with no more school. If you had not gone to that Argentine school and learned Spanish, might not your life have been totally different? I think so. In Orinoca [in western Bolivia] I went to my first school. There were no intercultural educational policies then but bit by bit they advanced...
We could say that the Evo revolution began in Argentina.
And now you return to Argentina, thereby kind of closing the circle.
Right. I remember my father working weekends and my telling my brother that Daddy should rest. My father’s reply was: “When we go on strike, I’ll rest.”
And so it was.
Why do think that Argentina cannot achieve what you did in Bolivia?
Excuse me, but I’m not going to comment on this subject. As a refugee I have certain limitations.
I understand perfectly. Did the United States ask you to avoid visiting Argentine provinces bordering with Bolivia?
Senior Mexican authorities told me that the US did not want me to return to Bolivia. When in Cuba my vice-president, Álvaro García Linera, also met with those Mexican authorities who told him in those words that they did not want me in Argentina. The US is also out to divide our caucus which has a two-thirds majority in both Houses. The US candidate is Carlos Mesa. When I arrived here, I was informed that I could not locate on the frontier, as decided by the US Embassy, according to my understanding. They just want to ban and eliminate us.
This de facto government in Bolivia isn’t governing, all they do is accuse, accuse, accuse everybody without any proof. They said I have a television channel here. What channel? They say it’s linked to a business group. Let them prove it – whether I’m a partner or the owner.
The Bolivian right, the coup-mongers, are worried because they cannot destroy MAS [Movement for Socialism]. We still top the opinion polls. I’ve come here, closer to Bolivia, to campaign for my country.
I wanted to quit politics when my term was up. We won in the first round and no international organism could demonstrate fraud because there was none. Even the final report of the Organisation of American states concluded that just 226 out of the 35,000 polling-precincts in Bolivia remain under observation. If all the votes in those 226 precincts went to the right, we would still have won in the first round.
Would you be prepared to leave Argentina if you saw that you were hurting the Alberto Fernández administration in its debt negotiations with the International Monetary Fund?
I want to return to Bolivia any way I can, don’t I?
So going directly to Bolivia would be the alternative?
I have no other path. I repeat and I hope I’m not wrong – I understand the enormous solidarity of brother Alberto and sister Cristina [Fernández de] Kirchner with whom I’ve conversed only once. I let them know every time I’m doing something. For example, we’re going to have a nice celebration on January 22, the anniversary of the pluri-national state. We asked permission for that and it was accepted, a civic deed for my beloved Bolivia.
You mentioned lithium and affirmed that you would apply the same policies as to oil. Would that be one of the causes of the coup?
I’m totally convinced that is the case. What we achieved was without the US, without the IMF and also without the World Bank apart from a loan. I would say they did it just to hurt us.
If they did that for lithium, how come your oil policies did not result in a coup?
Because we demonstrated that another world, another Bolivia without the capitalist system is possible. And talking of coups, we defeated various coups such as in 2008.
Among the possible coup causes, might it not have been an error to run again after 14 years instead of seeking a successor?
It might have been a personal error which stemmed from heeding the people. In my life, first as a union leader and then as a president, I have learned that you should never go looking for a post, the post must come looking for you.
I didn’t originally want to be a union leader, I came to the eastern altiplano plateau to survive. I was improving economically, learning to work at the Trópico de Cochabamba. I wanted to keep improving, marry and buy a house. That’s how I entered the trade union struggle, not the electoral.
Since I achieved results, all the social movements said: “Evo’s doing well, we must amend the Constitution.” Due to lies, we could not win the referendum for lack of 70,000 votes. With the National Congress dominated by MAS and others, all the social movements took the lead in seeking other legal formulae, such as that constitutional ruling. That would not be the first time it has been applied in Bolivia and there are other experiences in Latin America such as Honduras, Costa Rica (I think) and also Nicaragua. It was something legal and constitutional but I recognise the error of having heeded the people.
I also had my plans. I needed to complete my stewardship, I wanted to make more pools for tambaqui, which is a very popular fish in Bolivia. That was my plan. And we won the elections, we did not lose them. But a group of reactionaries organised themselves to crush that triumph.
Don’t democracies require alternation?
Every country has its own identity. Why did Bolivia rank last in South America, in all the Americas, until 2005 and now that is no longer the case? Because continuity allowed us to improve our situation. I have the experience as president. And I have to tell you that every time I changed one minister for another, even though they were both MAS militants, the newcomer always found everything wrong in the ministry. The same thing happens when you change the government, even with another president from the same party, everything is always wrong. That’s the problem we Latin Americans have.
How do you solve that? Because Bolivia seems to depend on you.
That goes back to the times of the liberators, like Simón Bolívar. It’s happened here with Peronism. There are cases of leaderships leaving legacies, something for everybody, but it is a problem we Latin Americans have.
I’m not insisting. In order to pacify the country I’ve renounced my triumph and any new candidacy. I resigned from the presidency so that there would be no dead or wounded and until the day I resigned there were none, defending the right to life above all else. And then in 10 days there were up to 38 deaths. I insisted with the commanders that the use of firearms against the people be banned.
How did you take the recommendation of Armed Forces commander-in-chief Williams Kalima that you resign?
As a betrayal. It is fundamental to respect the Constitution.
On the Sunday afternoon of November 10, the ministers told me upon arrival with tears in their eyes: “If we want to save our process, our democratic and cultural revolution, we must save your life.”
At that point before communicating to the media my resignation, I thought of plunging into the jungle with my comrades. The next day my comrades were gathering to regain the Plaza Murillo, the citadel of the people. At that moment I thought: “My comrades will overcome the reactionary civilians, even with some problems, but police mutineers will then massacre them and I shall be blamed for that massacre. Therefore in order to avoid a massacre, I prefer to resign.” I did that so that there would be no dead or wounded, renouncing my first-round triumph, a future candidacy, the presidency, a whole lifetime. And now several weeks later we are in the same position but with so many people dead.
Do you assign the US responsibility in these events?
Totally. With two months to go for the election, the chargé d’affaires sent a letter promising to pave streets if they did not vote for me. I demanded an explanation and was refused. He was campaigning for the opposition. He pledged himself to not campaign but he had eight plans for the referendum of January 21, 2016. The ambassador organised that dirty war with paramilitary groups. And unfortunately, the new MAS has been infiltrated by intelligence.
So for you the value of alternating power in a democracy is not universal, it depends on each country.
We question Bolivia, perhaps we question Venezuela. Why aren’t we also talking about Spain or Germany?
When you refer to Germany or Spain, are you referring to leaders up to 16 years in government?
How long has Angela Merkel been around? They have their norms. Some presidents could stay 20 to 30 years while respecting the Constitution in some European countries. It doesn’t happen because they are not re-elected. So why do we only look at Bolivia and Venezuela and not other countries and other continents?
Were the press and media also part of the opposition, or contributed to the current political crisis?
There is good and bad in every social sector. There are newspapers in Bolivia whose headlines are pure lies and others which tell the truth. During my administration we never restricted freedom of expression. Journalists were accusing me of arson or murder, I took it up with the media owners and they did nothing. A journalist once said: “Evo must be assassinated, eliminated,” and was arrested at the request of the prosecutor. Now you can see that there are media being banned. We’ve tried communicating with some media but they’re scared of being punished. People think that this is worse than the military dictatorships with an unimaginable level of persecution. First they searched my house and then an apartment I rented but found nothing. What were they going to find?
Are you familiar with Milagro Sala and her track record? What is your relationship with those people in northern Argentina who originate from Bolivia?
I don’t know her but she has all my solidarity. On January 6 (Reyes or Epiphany) a priest or bishop telephoned me to greet her, I would very much like to visit her where she is being detained.
Gerardo Morales, the governor of that province Jujuy, shares your surname and his father was Bolivian.
He visited me once in Bolivia, I recall, but no real friendship. You know, so many visits, so many meetings, so many photos, at times you forget.
They say that in the Aymara culture the past lies ahead. I’d like to ask you to reflect on time. You turned 60 around the time you resigned. Do you feel the passage of time in your body and how do you approach it now you are older? You started very young and have been a leader ever since.
Last October 26, I turned 60 but everybody thinks I’m 40 or 50.
Do you yourself feel younger than you are?
The force of spirituality is important but more important is to know how and where you can contribute. Who would have said from my family background that I was going to be a trade unionist? You must match your life to the needs of the people. You also need to respect the law but the law must fit the people, not submitting the people to the laws.