Interview: 'Our Own Hands'

On Dec. 18, six months after Bolivian President Carlos Mesa was forced to resign by a wave of street protests spearheaded by indigenous peoples, South America's poorest country will again go to the polls. If Congressman Evo Morales, a full-blooded Aymara Indian, wins, Latin America will see its first indigenous president in more than a century. NEWSWEEK's Jimmy Langman spoke to Morales in La Paz. Excerpts:

MORALES: Totally. In Bolivia there is xenophobia, discrimination, exclusion. They consider us almost as if we are animals or wild. Now we are telling the middle class, the wealthy and businesses that we have rights.

I want an agreement or a partnership with the United States to reach zero drug trafficking. Not zero coca but, yes, zero trafficking, zero cocaine. Cocaine and narcotrafficking are not part of the Andean culture. But coca is. The World Health Organization has studies that show it is safe. Coca can be industrialized and put to safe uses.

The people in the White House who have said this are fools. First, they accused me of being a narcotrafficker, a narcoterrorist and an ally with the FARC [guerrillas] of Colombia. That's ridiculous. Then, they denounced me for receiving a human-rights award from Libya. The year before it was given to Nelson Mandela, and I have a lot of respect for Mandela. Now, they accuse me of accepting money from Cuba, from Chavez. It's totally false. The most valuable capital Evo Morales has is his honesty and transparency.

We are not speaking of expelling the gas companies. But that does not mean they are going to own our natural resources. We are going to nationalize natural resources. The contracts with the gas companies will be modified to make it clear that they must answer to Bolivians. If companies want to invest here, welcome. But no more will companies operate here without paying taxes. We need to improve the gas law so that it benefits the state while allowing companies to recover their investments.

Indigenous people need to become actors for their own development, actors in the politics of their countries. This is essential to change the Latin American story. Indigenous peoples should be at the core of any effort to attain justice, equity and social peace in the region. The United Nations declared the Indigenous Decade in 1994. We are tired of announcements. We want to take our destiny in our own hands.