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

March 27, 2007

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

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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.

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?