BTL: Evo Morales' Election as Bolivia's President
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Jan. 10, 2006
- Interview with Jeff Vogt, senior associate for rights and development, with the Washington Office on Latin America, conducted by Scott Harris
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After years of political conflict, Bolivia joined a growing progressive wave sweeping South America when Evo Morales, an indigenous activist and advocate for the poor was elected president on Dec. 18. Morales -- who as leader of the Movement Towards Socialism, or MAS Party, led protests that forced two presidents from power over the past four years -- will take office on Jan. 22. The nation's first indigenous president won with an unprecedented 54 percent of the vote in an election where turnout was an estimated 85 percent.
Bolivia's poor farmers and majority indigenous population enthusiastically supported Morales and his campaign promising to maximize state revenues from energy resources, fight for Indian rights and legalize some cultivation of the coca crop.
Morales' post-election visit with Fidel Castro in Cuba and his close relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have underscored the Bush administration's frustration about the rise of another popular leftist leader opposed to Washington's economic policies. With Morales' election, 80 percent of South America's population now live under left or center-left governments. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Jeff Vogt , senior associate for rights and development with the Washington Office on Latin America, who assesses the historic election of Evo Morales and the many challenges he'll face.
JEFF VOGT: What the MAS represents, and the platform of this government is looking for really is re-inserting the state as an actor in the politics and the economy of the country. Over the last 20 or so years, the state has been systematically corrupted from within, dismantled and withdrawn from the market -- or as an economic force in the country so that you saw more privatization, more neo-liberalism being adopted as a model wholesale without much of anything to show for it after 20 years of following and being good students of "the model." Which, again, I think is why MAS swept into office, or will sweep into office on Jan. 22nd with such a mandate for reform.
Additionally, what I think will probably be the biggest point of concern between the U.S. and Bolivia is on the issue of coca -- Evo Morales getting his formation in being a union leader of coca farmers and trying to protect what is seen as a traditional use of coca as a plant, taking a firm line against cocaine as the drug. Unfortunately, there hasn't been the recognition of that division among U.S. policymakers that have been seen for the longest time and probably continues to see coca use for traditional use as a threat.
The platform of the MAS government is "Coca Si, Cocaina No." There's a very clear division and there's a clear understanding that coca has been used as a traditional remedy for everything from altitude sickness to headaches and so forth for thousands of years. They see the cocaine being more of a demand issue that needs to be addressed in the countries that are demanding the cocaine, and allowing the producing countries, such as Bolivia, to produce a small quantity that is used solely for domestic consumption.
BETWEEN THE LINES: As far as the issue of energy in Bolivia, it's been quite volatile, where at least two recent presidents were thrown out of office by popular uprisings -- upset, very upset about the lack of progress on giving average Bolivians a stake and some sense of revenue stream from the natural resources of the country, mainly natural gas and oil.
JEFF VOGT: That is going to be a difficult issue for this government, but it will be interesting. You have economists like Joseph Stiglitz, (former chief economist of the World Bank) coming out and saying that (the MAS energy platform) is legitimate and is workable.
I think that it's important to note that MAS and Evo in particular have been in the center of the struggle on this issue. And I think that is something that has been lost in all this.
The most extreme position on one side is a complete nationalization, actually an expropriation of the wellheads, the means of transportation and refineries. Then you have the MAS position which is one in which the state will be a much larger actor. And I think if you talk to folks in the MAS they're looking at other models, like Petrobras (the state oil company) in Brazil and others, in figuring out a way to allow the state to, as far as the extraction of oil, to be a much larger actor and demand the purchase of all the oil and gas that's being extracted, while allowing national or international companies that actually do the work be guaranteed a return on their investment. But allowing the state to actually market, sell and manage the gas and oil. And then with transportation, buying in controlling shares of those companies -- and in some cases refineries, if refineries are not willing to move toward different contracts, maybe the possibility of expropriating some of those refineries. But Petrobras, which is by far the most important player in Bolivia, is already negotiating and trying to work out something with the new government.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, just a final question for you, Jeff, and that is: How do you see Bolivia's election of Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (party) there being tied in with the progressive political movements sweeping Latin America? What role do you think Evo Morales will play in that movement?
JEFF VOGT: I think a key one. The vast majority of states in South America now have moved to, what has been called a "Pink Tide," those kind of center left to left governments as a response to decades of U.S. -- backed economic policies which have not shown really any (positive) results in the region with very few exceptions.
If you look at reports coming out of the United Nations or the International Labor Organization there's still very high levels of unemployment. The informal sector is the largest economic active sector in many of the countries. So there's a real wakeup, "we've been down this road, this what the result has been -- more income inequality, little growth which translates into jobs or decent wages for the majority of the population."
I think you saw this also at the Summit of the Americas in Argentina in November of last year. The Bush administration coming down to Argentina with its "panacea," the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which was supposed alleviate all the problems of unemployment and poverty -- and it got quite a round rejection from the MERCOSUR countries -- from Venezuela, from Bolivia looking for a different way. I think Bolivia will play a role in participating in that dialogue and constructing a new path.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Will there be any special relationship you think with Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela?
JEFF VOGT: I mean it's clear that there is. They're friendly, they share similar ideas on certain things. I wouldn't go so far as to say -- as you hear many commentators on mainstream news saying -- as if there's some direct line from Caracas or Havana to La Paz as far as policy.
I think they're going to be in dialogue and I think they'll certainly share ideas, but I think the reasons that brought Evo to power are very local to Bolivia, very particular to Bolivian conditions, Bolivian history. So just to say that this is somehow something orchestrated by Cuba or Venezuela is to horribly misread the situation.
Contact the Washington Office on Latin America by calling (202) 797-2171 or visit their website at http://www.WOLA.org
Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Jan. 13, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.
Between The Lines Executive Producer Scott Harris' live, 2-hour "Counterpoint" program is now archived in its entirety. Visit our webpage at http://www.btlonline.org for more information!