No one ever said that governing Bolivia—a landlocked Andean nation that has grappled with hyperinflation, water crises, and commodity busts—would be an easy task. And indeed Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous president and a leftist ally of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, has presided over a deepening strain in the country's social fabric. Many in the wealthier eastern half of the country fear his populist rhetoric and see racism in his pro-indigenous policies. Last December four states moved toward "autonomy" and threatened to withhold tax receipts from the central government; those regions will hold a referendum on the move on May 4. Meanwhile Morales has had to navigate the global food crisis and the ramifications of his decision to nationalize the country's petrochemical industry. He met with NEWSWEEK's Barrett Sheridan in New York City. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: You're in New York City for a United Nations forum on indigenous issues, and the focus this year is on the impact of climate change. How is climate change affecting Bolivians?
Evo Morales: Natural disasters in Bolivia have been getting worse with the passage of time. It's brought about by a system: the capitalist system, the unbridled industrialization of the resources of the planet earth. That's why I think it's very important to review those policies, and we really have an obligation as human beings to seek solutions. If we don't responsibly take account of these policies, these systems that destroy the environment, then we're condemned to destroy ourselves.
You say that capitalism is destroying the earth and bringing about the environmental problems we see today, but what alternative do you suggest?
Respect for the Mother Earth. As we [indigenous peoples] understand it, the earth is a mother, and you can't, for the sake of accumulating capital in just a few hands, turn the Mother Earth into a commodity. If we don't understand this way of living in harmony with Mother Earth, the ecological and environmental problems are only going to get worse. We can pay the ecological debt by changing economic models, and by giving up luxury consumption, setting aside selfishness and individualism, and thinking about the people and the planet earth.
You accuse the capitalist system of creating a global food crisis due to the emphasis on biofuels, which takes away land once used to grow food. What is your government doing to lessen the impact on Bolivians?
It's important that presidents and movements have a social conscience, not just policies with a view to certain luxuries—having more expensive cars, for example. [The focus on biofuels means] we're practically setting aside land and output for luxury cars, land and output meant for human beings. Our appeal to the presidents and the movements who are thinking about biofuels—we are appealing to them to realize their mistake and that what they are actually doing is attacking life. If we rise up together, organize and mobilize, just like we stopped the Free Trade Area of the Americas, we can stop these kinds of policies, which are really antilife policies.
Other countries have undertaken radical policies to prevent the crisis from worsening. Argentina, which has used export restrictions, is one example. Will Bolivia undertake such measures, and don't you worry about the distorting effects it may have on your economy?
We've already adopted such measures in Bolivia.
And are they working?
The prices were going up, and now they're going down. The primary thing is the household economy. Indigenous families first produce food for the house, and if there's a surplus after that, then you sell, and if not, then you don't. Unfortunately, there are some businesspersons who are looking more for money rather than thinking about the good of the homeland. Money comes first, not people. As a result, for some products prices were shooting up. We adopted some measures, we stopped it, and they came down. It's the obligation of any president to guarantee food for his or her people.
Your country is the second-biggest producer of natural gas in South America. Your government took control of that sector in 2006. How have foreign investors responded?
In 1999 there was $600 million in foreign investment. This year $1.2 billion of investment is scheduled. That's a historical record. Now, [investors] always look for some argument after they've made a commitment to not follow through. But as of last December that's the amount of investment we had guaranteed through negotiations. There are some companies that distrust us, and I understand their distrust, but investors will recoup their money. These companies have a right to make a profit.
So you feel you've acquired the necessary level of investment to maintain production at the necessary level, and to even be able to expand, and to avoid the fate of Venezuela, which has seen declining production levels?
That's our goal: to follow through on our commitments to Argentina and Brazil, to cover the domestic market, and to expand. But in energy we're talking not only about tapping hydrocarbons but also geothermal. A study has been carried out jointly by the governments of Japan and Bolivia to discover geothermal energy, and we've received a line of credit for over $300 million in order to make an investment. We also want to tap our lithium reserves. This year the state is going to begin to build a $6 million pilot plant, and from there we will move to a much larger plant.
What will happen if the May 4 referendum in the eastern states is successful, and they vote to become autonomous from the central government?
The Bolivian government has promised to guarantee autonomy in the framework of unity, legality, and with the goal of equalizing the different regions of Bolivia. It's right there in the constitution. But some groups are pushing this autonomy statute for purely political reasons. For them the problem isn't autonomy, or economic resources, but Evo Morales. They're always talking about how to overthrow the Indian. After May 4 we will continue to explain to the people that that is not the path—it's an illegal path.
Your relationship with the U.S. has been rocky. Are you optimistic that, come a new administration, those relationships could improve?
The relationship between the government of the United States and social and indigenous movements has always been difficult. Not just in Bolivia but worldwide. We need to have bilateral relations characterized by mutual respect. This means the representatives of the U.S. government should not become involved in internal problems in Bolivia, and any cooperation should be totally unconditional, and not with any political, programmatic, or ideological blackmail.