Bolivia's vice president on indigenous rights, coca crops, and relations with the US

Staff writer Sara Miller Llana's interview with Bolivia's Vice President Álvaro García Linera of the Movement Toward Socialism Party (MAS).

What has been your personal motivation for supporting indigenous causes?

When I was in high school in the 1970s, Latin Americans were taking back democracy from military dictatorships. Practically everyone in my high school was on the left. I was a participant in the political awakening of those times. Back then, you couldn't excite people if you didn't talk about Lenin, Trotsky, Hegel, or Gramsci.

In 1979 I witnessed the first siege of the city of La Paz by Aymaras. It was eye-opening how the siege aroused, among the upper and middle classes, the fear of rebellious Indians. But I was most interested in how this peasant – indigenous – blockade didn't answer to the trade unions. It was a very different thing. Its social impact here in the city, and the power of its language, of its symbols, left a very deep mark on my intellect and on my commitments. That's when I took it upon myself to find out who [the Indians] were, where they came from, what was going on here.

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Three things have fascinated me about the indigenous world ever since: first, the history of their struggle for equality, for Indians and non-Indians to be equals before the state and society; second, the question of how to create mechanisms for correcting mistakes in the management of our state and society that have done injustice to the indigenous world; and third, the communal component of indigenous social structures, which I consider to be a vein of a future postcapitalist society, a tiny, almost invisible vein that is nonetheless present.

I don't have a romanticized idea of the indigenous world: in the indigenous world there are social classes, personal appetites, personal interests, divisions and injustices, but deep down there is also a small, communal nucleus that could be strengthened.

A goal of Evo Morales's government is to improve the lives of Bolivia's indigenous people. In the year since the MAS took power, has this been achieved?

Last week I was visiting a town in Potosí with the president. A young peasant boy, who couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 years old, walked up to the president. He was wearing his best poncho because the president was there. The president asked him if he'd received his Juancito Pinto voucher yet, and the boy said, "Yes." Then the president asked, "What are you going to do with the 200 bolivianos?" And the boy responded very proudly, "I'm going to prepare myself to be like you, Mr. President."

Indians used to see themselves as servants, peasants, laborers, or in a best-case scenario, as salaried workers. That would be the limit or ceiling of their ascent. Now Indians see themselves as having rights on all levels.... President Evo Morales has brought about the most important symbolic and cultural revolution in centuries.

Just as important, in one year of government, per capita income has risen from US$950 to $1,035. That isn't a huge difference, but it's still an 8 to 9 percent increase. We are improving access to information technology by bringing computers to high schools in the countryside, some in areas where there wasn't even electricity before. We are also carrying out what we are calling a "technological revolution" by implementing modern machinery for agricultural work.

Members of the political opposition have claimed that the government's efforts to "re-found Bolivia" are causing division. Some say that the president and the vice president are governing for the indigenous people and not for the rest of the country. How do you see this issue?

It's not true that we've caused division. This country has always had terrible, profound divisions between indigenous and nonindigenous people. We didn't invent this. The elites were used to thinking that there was no problem because they didn't want to acknowledge it, but the problem was there. These fissures from colonialism, from discrimination still exist, and what we're doing is ... seeking out their resolution through practical, democratic measures of equality, justice, structural reforms, improved earnings distribution, and the broadening of rights. What is happening in Bolivia can be summarized this way: the broadening of rights and the redistribution of wealth. The idea that we're only governing for the indigenous people is a biased ideological interpretation.

What do you think of the recent criticisms from the US over Bolivia's coca policies?

The latest report from the [US] State Department has a balanced reading of what we're doing in terms of drug interdiction, but in terms of coca production, we believe that it commits a series of mistakes, and, in some cases, injustices, regarding what the Bolivian government is doing. The [previous] governments established a vicious cycle that was unsustainable. They militarized everything, detained people, killed people. More people have been killed in democracy than in dictatorship. Human rights were brutally violated. Coca cultivation was reduced from 100,000 to 8,000 hectares in a single year; they showed the international community their achievements, with dozens of people injured and tortured, and then the very next year the previous level of coca would be produced. We don't want to play this kind of phony game with the international community.

To what extent might the government's new policies for capturing more [revenues from] natural resources for the benefit of the Bolivian people serve as a model for other countries in the region, such as Ecuador?

We offer our humble contribution to what we see as 21st century-style nationalization, which means that foreign companies with capital and know-how are present in the country with their machinery, and they can earn profits, but never again can they be the owners of the gas and the petroleum.

Today, sovereignty has acquired a new dimension. Sovereignty can't be viewed as it was in the 20th century, as virtual autocracy, enclosure. Sovereignty is the ability to decide the kinds of links and relationships you want to have to globalization processes. Sovereignty doesn't disappear; it is modified. We can't return to the 20th-century sovereignty of enclosure, because we are profoundly tied to the markets, to the financial markets, to the labor force and to the power of capital.

There has been talk of "a new Latin American socialism." If this exists, how would you define it? Is Bolivia part of it?

We debate this amongst ourselves, and we haven't defined a position. If you will allow me a very personal view on this issue, what is happening in Latin America today is a search for diverse paths to post neo-liberalism. The experience of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, mainly, and Uruguay in its own way, is a search for a road to post- neo-liberalism, of ways to disassemble the processes of financial colonization and public resource privatization of the 1980s and 90s. But where is socialism? I think it's part of a horizon, of a future that you have to start building now. Fortunately, it's no longer possible to associate socialism with the statism that characterized the [former] USSR for almost 70 years. The debate of socialism as statism has been tossed aside, and today the debate is about defining socialism, socialism understood as a post-capitalist society, and not just a post neoliberal one like what we have today. I think we are just seeing the beginnings of this.

There is no single model for socialism; every country has to find its own internal post-capitalist forces. In Bolivia, I think post-capitalism will be grounded in the medium or long run in two forces: in the force of modern industry and in the nonmodern, communal tradition. For Bolivia, and perhaps Peru, perhaps Ecuador, perhaps Guatemala, it's unimaginable to envision postcapitalism without taking into account the communal strength of the indigenous communities. This is what makes us different from other parts of the world.

One criticism by opposition parties has been that the government of Hugo Chávez has too much influence on [Bolivia's] government, citing Venezuela's economic and military cooperation. What's your view on the matter?

Look, the most important business dealings we've had as a government have been with Brazil and Argentina, not with Venezuela. We have excellent relations with Venezuela. The impact of Venezuelan aid is felt in many areas, and we are very grateful for it, and we want to maintain it. But this doesn't mean we can't do business and have friends in other parts of the world.

You mentioned the military issue, and it's very important to clarify that Venezuela has not sold us planes or weapons and hasn't brought us missiles or bullets. Ninety-five percent of Venezuelan aid is aimed at production: hydrocarbons, microcredit, agriculture, and the military sector. But Venezuela has not and will not sell us weapons.

Can you say how many Venezuelans are currently working for the government?

Venezuelans, Argentinians, Cubans, Brazilians, and Americans are present in the social area. American pediatricians are coming, we have Cuban eye specialists, Cuban and Venezuelan teachers are working on the literacy issue, computer technicians are helping to prepare ID cards, and Argentine officials are working on reconstruction and providing civil support for the flood victims. The number varies, because they do a job and then they go. We don't have any advisers or collaborators in political areas or in areas that aren't social.

There is a possibility that the US Congress will not renew the Andean Trade Preference Act [known in Spanish as the ATDPEA]. How is the government preparing for this?

We started to fight for our own ATDPEA because Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru, which also benefit from this treaty currently, were moving forward in their free-trade negotiations. We said that a free-trade agreement would be problematic for our economy, that it didn't take into account the asymmetries [in relation to the US]. We're talking about a country with a 16th-century level of agricultural development and another one with a 21st-century level. This is why we don't think a free trade agreement is convenient. But we clearly wanted, still want, and are working to try to link ourselves in a lasting way to the most important economy in the world, which is the US. While these countries negotiate free-trade agreements, we will negotiate the ATDPEA because it takes into account these asymmetries. It doesn't provide for the unlimited opening of our borders, in which case we would have to compete in everything.

So the government of Evo Morales would never sign a free-trade agreement with the USA?

A free trade agreement, no. But a just and lasting trade agreement, yes. We need to move ahead on that and we want to move ahead. And we hope that the authorities responsible for international commerce in the US understand.

The international press has asserted on various occasions that your political ideology is more leftist than Evo's. Is this true?

We are here to collaborate with President Morales. I have a Marxist/Indigenous intellectual and academic background, and I don't know if it's more or less radical [than his]. But because my background is very rationalist, with a strong Hegelian influence – according to which all that is real is rational, and all that is rational is real – this allows me to have a very realistic view of the world rather than a utopian one. I don't have a utopian reading of the world today, as a part of this government. I have a more realistic reading of the possibilities, and in this sense I try to collaborate with President Morales. That's all I can say.

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