Morales, far right, is close to Hugo Chavez, left and Fidel Castro, former Cuban leader [EPA] 


Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, was born in one of the poorest parts of the country and became prominent as a leader of coca farmers. Two years ago he became the first Aymara indigenous Indian to be elected president of the nation.

At present he is facing fierce opposition from provinces demanding autonomy, and some are even threatening to break away from the country, however Morales remains as determined as ever to forge ahead with his proposals, including a push for a new constitution granting more power to the country's indigenous majority.

Lucia Newman, Al Jazeera's Latin America editor, spoke to the Bolivian leader.

First I'd like to start by asking about your very ambitious program to try to redress the centuries of discrimination and oppression against Bolivia's indigenous majority, which you have compared to apartheid in South Africa. It hasn't been easy for you, though, has it?

President Evo Morales: Thank you for inviting me. Our government, with the support of  our social movements, has implemented policies that make it possible to diminish the profound differences between families and regions, allowing us to repair the injustices of so many years of inequality.

But I'm very sorry to say that there are certain groups and families that resist the social policies we're implementing. The story of Bolivia is of internal and external colonialism, which always held the political and economic power here. And taking that power away from them has a price. 

The great advantage is that those people who decided to transform all this, continue to support our programme of change within democracy and above all with great openness before our people and the international community.

I know there is this resistance, from those who want a Bolivia in which they can continue to accumulate wealth [and] continue to keep sacking the land and its resources, its natural resources. Their only interest in the people is to have them to exploit. Those are the profound differences we have with some conservative groups in Bolivia.

I've been surprised to hear you speak very often about racism, do you still feel discriminated against, even now that you are president of Bolivia?

As a trade union leader and leader of  peasant  movements, I witnessed and  had to endure racism. And I thought that once I was in the presidency that would stop. But the racism from the groups I have  mentioned has only increased.

The things that some opposition groups and leaders are saying against the indigenous movement are increasingly more radical. For example, the governor of  Santa Cruz referred to President Hugo Chavez [of Venezuela] as the chief monkey, meaning that the other monkey, the other ape, was Evo Morales.

To think that in this new millennium we can be referred to as animals is unacceptable. But it's the  colonial mentality of these people, who cannot accept that the indigenous people have the same rights as any other Bolivian in this country.

But there are people, though, who do not consider themselves indigenous, who consider themselves mestizos, of European descent, who accuse you of actually practicing reverse racism, of promoting hatred amongst different races rather than governing for all Bolivians. What do you say to that?

It seems that it's a crime to seek social justice [and] equality among all Bolivians. Historically those who have been most abandoned have been the peasants and if you work to help them you are accused of being racist.

Morales has faced opposition from
eastern states demanding autonomy [EPA]
Our economic policies are for every Bolivian, not just for one sector. But if we do not resolve the problem of the indigenous people, who make up the majority of the population, it is impossible to think that there will be social justice in our country. 

So each and every one of us should seek to repair the damage done over so many years ... and so now, it's the racists who are accusing us of  practicing racism.

When they have no other argument, they try to twist things before the international community. But there are witnesses, especially the diplomats. When I talk to European, Asian or Latin American ambassadors, for example, they all recognise the work we are doing to secure equality in Bolivia.

I'd like to talk to you now about your new constitution. This is it, it's a major step in any country to have a new Magna Carta, but this one was approved by your supporters without the participation of most of the opposition. You consider that democratic?

It was nevertheless approved by the majority of the constituent assembly.

But without the opposition taking part.

Some opposition groups were there, PODEMOS, and some other small groups, everyone took part except one party, the MNR, and another small party.

Every other political and social group helped write the new constitution. But anyway, whether the majority of the opposition participated or not, the problem is that these conservative groups don't want democratic transformations. They do not want peaceful change, especially if it means promoting equality. 

What article can they object to in that constitution? Absolutely none.

Maybe the part that deals with autonomy. But the new constitution guarantees autonomy, which the majority of Bolivians have voted in favor of in a referendum. The only thing, as you point out, is that the constitution was not approved by the majority of the opposition.

Let the world tell us, let our opponents tell us, what articles do they object to ? None. According to international analysts, this is one of the most progressive constitutions in terms of social policies, That's what we wanted, to bring about profound transformations in our society in democracy. Peacefully.

And the new constitution seeks equality for all Bolivians.

We are such a diverse society. Like you, with blue eyes ... there are Bolivians with blue and green eyes, there are people with black skin, dark brown, mestizos ... I always say, we are all Bolivians, but there are Bolivians who've been here for centuries and Bolivians who're more contemporary.

Those who've been here the longest, the indigenous people, are the majority and they are the  poorest, and the others, who are the minority, are the richest.

Our constitution seeks to equalise these two groups. Because we are all Bolivians.

Nevertheless, President Morales, this country seems to be on a collision course between the West, most of those your supporters, and the east, provinces that are in some cases are even threatening to secede from the nation if you do not agree to give them the autonomy, the type of autonomy they are seeking. Is there any middle ground here, I know that you've asked for the mediation of the Catholic Church.

No, it's not a matter of west against east, it's groups, the oligarchy from the east against the policies we are implementing. There are many social groups in the East that support our policies. That is one of my government's greatest advantages. Before the social movements were always against the government, now they support it.

We said we would guarantee autonomy, but these oligarchical groups confuse autonomy with  independence, with secession. And we are right.

Now, what's the real problem? Before those who are now demanding autonomy were in the government, they governed for the last 180 years since we became a republic. They didn't want autonomy then.

Now, when they lost control of the government, they don't know how to keep sucking the blood of the Bolivian people, so they want autonomy for their provinces.

We say fine, let's have provincial autonomy, indigenous autonomy, municipal autonomy, and they don't want all that. I repeat, its not the whole region that wants to separate. The autonomy they seek implies a division of this  country, and the government will insist on the unity of the nation.

I'd like to ask you now, what will you do, if Santa Cruz, the department or the province that is one of the richest in this country, makes good on its threat to go ahead with an autonomy referendum in just about one month. You say this is illegal. Would you send in troops to stop it?

No, for now we are betting on  dialogue. We know this is tremendous concern about this among the Bolivian people, not just the national government.

We are betting on a dialogue to prevent Bolivia from being divided up. It's the responsibility of our institutions and also of  the international organisations. Thankfully, I have received messages from the international community, saying they will never recognize this separatism. And its our job to  find a peaceful solution through dialogue.

And if that does not work?

I haven't thought of that. I have faith this will be resolved through dialogue.

You recently said that the United States government was pushing to try to turn Bolivia into a kind of Kosovo. What proof do you have of that?

First the American congressmen that visited me recently asked me to support that division of Kosovo. It's impossible that we can support the division of a country. Secondly, the conspiracy against my government is headed by the US ambassador.

USAID, with funds that come American tax payers, who think they are helping the Bolivian people, is using the money in a dirty campaign against my government and especially against me. They meet with NGOs and other groups here, always with the intention of conspiring. They offer them money on condition that they take part in the campaign against Evo Morales. 

The mayor of a city, who recently visited me, told me he was offered money by the USAID agency to run as an opposition congressman. They even offered to pay for his campaign.

And the mayor told me that the people who work for the US agency go from house to house telling people that if they get rid of Evo Morales, they will have more money.  If we wanted to document this we could. We are going to present the documents to prove this to the US Congress.

You are a staunch admirer of Cuba's former president Fidel Castro, also a close friend of Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez. How much - or how similar - is your revolution, to theirs?

We are very different countries with very different political processes.  But all together, we  are pushing for greater social justice.

The goal is the same. I remember in 2002, President Fidel, in a big international conference, said "Don't do what I did." He referred to the armed struggle. He said, do what Chavez did. He won  through the ballot box, he won an election and guaranteed transformations and a new political constitution for Venezuela.

The president has strong support from
Bolivia's indigenous community [AFP]
And I understood that today its no longer the people who take up arms against the empire, but rather the empire that is using weapons against the people. Here we have said no to weapons, and yes to the ballot box to achieve profound changes. Therefore the democracies we are seeing today in Latin America are liberationist, not submissive to the empire.

Yesterday I mentioned in an interview with another journalist that I was very satisfied with the recent Rio Group Summit, where amongst ourselves, we Latin Americans have resolved a problem, a conflict in our region .

Before, who resolved all this? The government of the United States. We are beginning to leave all that behind us, that the United States can be like a giant referee or like a big owner that comes to decide our problems. And I feel  Latin America is advancing a lot in its democratic path of liberation, of dignity, and we will continue to do this. 

Before there was only one big nation, the United States. Then came Venezuela, with a leader like Hugo Chavez, and now there are others, with their own reality. For example, I respect Lula [Brazil's president Lula Inacio Lula da Silva] tremendously. He is working for the poor.

And there are others who are making great efforts. For example, Argentina five or six years ago it was a country that was falling apart. Then came President [Nestor] Kirchner, he put the country back on its feet, respecting private poverty.

In Venezuela they also respect private property. And in the new constitution of Bolivia, we also guarantee private property. I can't remember which article it is. But you see, we are so diverse, not just physically but also  economically, too. So we respect three types of economy: private, public and collective property. 

This is something very advanced. That's our reality. There may be some differences, but the goals are the same. That's where we all agree.

Well let me be the devil's advocate. The Bush administration has said that you, President Castro and President Chavez form an Axis of Evil of South America. So I ask you, explain if you can your new friendship with Iran. The Iranian president in fact came all the way to Bolivia. What is the basis of that relationship that you are forging?

Look, the world and  humanity will be the judge of who forms the Axis of Evil. As far as I know, Cuba doesn't send troops anywhere to take lives. We have Cuban doctors here who save lives. But before we had American soldiers who killed people. In the protest meetings there were American soldiers, with uniforms,who fired against us, they fired at us. 

While the Bush administration sends troops to kill people, Iran for example, does not. That's the big difference. Iran and Bolivia have signed a number of accords in the area of co-operation, investment. Our culture is one of dialogue and we have the right to broaden our diplomatic relations with the countries who cooperate and help our people. And our accords have nothing to do with killing people.

What sort of accords are you reaching?

I repeat, agreements of cooperation and investment, to resolve our social problems, in the area of  fossil fuel and agriculture, earmarked at meeting social demands of our people.

Let me finish by asking you, where do you see your country ten years from now. This is the poorest country in South America but you have tremendous wealth, natural gas, for example. Ten years from now where will this country be?

At the pace we are going Bolivia will improve, but if the exponents of free markets return, or the conservatives, who only want to use our people to exploit them, who only want our land , our Pacha Mama, to sack it, then Bolivia will remain as in the past. 

Thanks to the change of our fossil fuel law and the nationalisation of our fossil fuels, our economy is doing very well. Just one example: In 2005 our international reserves were 1.7 billion dollars.  Today we have more than six billion dollars, in 2003 and 2004 we never had more than one billion dollars in reserves. In two years we've grown enormously.

Therefore, Bolivia is trustworthy, Bolivia is viable, and not like before, when they used to say: "Bolivia is unviable." Unviable because our economic model was one of sacking of our resources. Now we have policies for structural transformations, but also social transformations. 

So, 10 years from now, at this rate, Bolivia will no longer be at the bottom of the list in South America. In fact in some areas we are no longer at the bottom. 

In 2006, when I became president, Bolivia had the lowest international reserves in the region, now there are three or four others who have less than us. And so on, I could mention others.

But most of all prosperity means attending to our nation's social problems.

Source: Al Jazeera