Excl: Former President of Bolivia says he has been “persecuted” by a US-backed “coup”
In a rare interview, Kapil Komireddi and Evo Morales discuss the US election, Elon Musk, and solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn
Evo Morales was the longest serving president of Bolivia. In his thirteen-year tenure, from 2006 to 2019, he presided over a radical transformation of his country—natural resources were nationalised, living standards of ordinary people were raised, and the diversity of the population was recognised and respected. After the departure of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, Morales—the first indigenous President in Bolivia’s history—emerged as the figurehead of the Latin American left. His popularity soared even beyond Bolivia.
Four years ago, he held a referendum asking Bolivians to allow him to seek a fourth consecutive term. Unexpectedly, he lost that vote by a narrow margin. But what the people denied him the courts granted, and Morales stood for re-election last year. To be declared the winner in the first round, he needed to secure a 10-point lead. He was lagging by three points after the majority of the votes had been counted. The counting was halted. When it recommenced, Morales was ahead by just over 10 points.
The opposition, accusing the President of rigging the tally, organised huge protests. Supporters of Morales organised counter-protests. Bolivia juddered to a halt. Morales agreed to allow the Organisation of American States to verify the count. Its observers found many serious irregularities in the process. Morales called for a new election. The commander of Bolivia’s armed forces went on television and asked the President to step aside. The Mexican government interpreted the statement as the inaugural moment of a military coup and dispatched an aircraft to fly Bolivia’s President to safety.
On 11 November 2019, Morales left the country. In the days that followed, his colleagues tendered their resignations. One of the most formidable governments in South America—led by one of the most popular leaders in the continent—dissolved like sugar in water. The new government accused Morales of terrorism, issued a warrant in his name, and disqualified him from holding office. Morales relocated from Mexico to Argentina. Nobody expected his party, MAS, to stage a comeback anytime in the near future. But led by Lucho Arce, the Minister of Economy under Morales, MAS was voted back into power in October.
Fortunes have again changed. There are no complaints of cheating, the warrant against Morales has been scrapped, and his protégé has already collected the certificate of election. The swift and peaceful transfer of power that is taking place in Bolivia puts mature democracies to shame. It also breeds scepticism about the claim by Morales that his overthrow last year was masterminded by Washington.
In an interview with The Critic, Morales—busy preparing to return to La Paz after a year in exile—directly addressed that point and many others, including the role of religion in geopolitics. Speaking by video link with me from Argentina, he dismissed the US election as a charade, expressed solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn, urged socialists to “organise” to “fight against hegemonism”, and declared that he will seek no formal position in the new government of Bolivia.
The transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.
Kapil Komireddi: It has been almost a year since you left Bolivia. The warrant against you has been annulled. And you will return to Bolivia—if I am not mistaken—one year to the day that you were forced to leave. Do you see the election as a referendum on what happened last year?
Evo Morales: Last year we won in the first round. There was no fraud or coup. And on 18 October, exactly one year later, the Bolivian people once again said that there was no fraud, that the best proof was the result of 55 per cent in the elections.
KK: And you see the recent election as a referendum on the unfairness of forcing you out?
I have been persecuted from at least the first moment I became a union leader in 1989
EM: I have been persecuted from at least the first moment I became a union leader in 1989. There were terrorism proceedings against me by [Bolivia’s 45th President] Victor Paz Estenssoro. Jaime Paz Zamora [Bolivia’s 60th President] hounded me for sedition, for conspiracy, as did Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada [Bolivia’s 61st President]. There were so many trials for drug trafficking and for terrorism. Tuto Quiroga [Bolivia’s 62nd President] in 2002 expelled me from Congress as a terrorist and as a drug trafficker. That expulsion was at the instruction of the United States. After expelling me from Congress in 2002, the plan was to prosecute, sentence, and disqualify me as a candidate for the presidency of Bolivia. For each election, the same processes—slander, slander—and this was partly a referendum on those many accusations.
KK: What do you say to those who point to the ongoing peaceful transfer of power as evidence that what happened last year was not a US-engineered coup—because had it been a coup, your party could not have returned to power so quickly?
EM: Look, [picks up a sheaf of papers] this Republican Senator from the United States, Richard Black, what he said on 21 December last year. I’ll read it all: “Regarding Bolivia, the legislator said that the Trump administration promoted the coup against President Evo Morales because of the special interest he has in his large lithium deposits, a fundamental mineral for electric car batteries and modern technological components. There was concern on our part that the Chinese could begin to exert influence within Bolivia. And that somehow could have made it more difficult for the United States to obtain lithium for the batteries we are now using in electric cars.” That’s the first test.
Second: on 24 July of this year, textual press release: “Owner of an electric car company confesses to having participated in the coup. In a conversation on Twitter, the owner of the US electric car company Tesla, Elon Musk, gave himself away. He said he had participated in the coup in Bolivia in November 2019 with the aim of appropriating lithium. He was asked: You know what wasn’t in the best interest of people? The US government organising a coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia so you could obtain the lithium there. He answered: We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it. The tycoon’s response reveals that the US electric car company financed the promoters of the coup in Bolivia, including [former Bolivian President] Carlos Mesa, [Bolivian businessman and politician] Luis Fernando Camacho, and [Bolivian politician] Marco Pumari. Before the coup, during the coup, and after the coup, Elon Musk distributed millions of dollars to politicians, the police, the military, the media.”
Well, these are the press releases that came out. This shows that the United States participated in, organised, and financed the coup to obtain lithium. Now, of course, with patience and conscience, the Bolivian people have imposed themselves against the external and internal coup. As far as I know, humanity’s fight is for natural resources. Neither the Bolivian right, nor capitalism and imperialism—they did not forgive me because the indigenous and the Indians [have] nationalized our natural resources. And that model, the economic model of Bolivia, without the International Monetary Fund, was better than the economic models subjected to neoliberalism, and therefore to imperialism. In almost 20 years of neoliberalism, the oil revenue was 3 billion dollars. After we nationalised hydrocarbons, in 3 years we had 38 billion dollars in oil income.
From the founding of the Republic in 1825 until 2005, they left us a colonial state with a GDP of 9.5 billion dollars. In 13 years, we left with a GDP of 42 billion dollars. Can you imagine? Before, in 180 years, 9.5 billion dollars! Under our management, 42 billion dollars! Besides that, Bolivia was a country with economic growth, with reduction of poverty, reduction of inequalities. Of the 13 years of our public management, Bolivia was the first in economic growth in South America for 6 years.
KK: Last year, the Organisation of American States—whom you allowed into the country to audit the counting of the votes—said there had been “serious irregularities” in the process. You describe what happened as a US-backed “coup”. Did you feel your life was in danger when you left Bolivia?
As long as imperialism and capitalism exist, the struggle of humanity will continue
EM: As you say there were irregularities—not fraud. In any election in the world there are irregularities. Eight international investigations show that there was no fraud. Second: our political movement and social movements defend life. We love life! Until I resigned, we had only two deaths—two dead in Montero Santa Cruz as a result of a confrontation between civilians. With a mutinous police force, an armed force demanding my resignation, the people mobilised to recover. That was a massacre waiting to happen. Precisely to avoid the massacre, so that they would not continue to burn the houses of ministers, assembly members, governors, mayors, our relatives, I resigned. Besides that, on the recommendation of comrades, to save our democratic and cultural revolution, to save Evo’s life. Now what does the United States say? In Mexico they informed me that they did not want Evo to return to Bolivia. The United States also said that Evo cannot come to Argentina, and when he arrived in Argentina, they did not want him to go to the border with Bolivia to organize the political movement.
KK: Do you feel that you are safe now? And do you feel the newly elected leadership of Bolivia—do you think they are safe?
EM: No. There are always risks. Politics is a permanent struggle. We fight for the interests of the majority, the humblest, for the rights of the natives. And I remain convinced that as long as imperialism and capitalism exist, the struggle of humanity will continue.
KK: Do you fear that the new government is also under threat from the same forces that engineered your overthrow?
EM: When the natural resources belong to the people, under the administration of the state, and not as before, when the owners were private, under the looting transnationals, the struggle continues.
KK: The presidential elections in the USA are being described as a struggle for the survival of democracy itself. How do you view the contest? Will Joe Biden, in your opinion, be any different from Trump?
EM: For me, no matter who wins, things don’t change. The American people are being deceived by the elections. They supposedly vote to elect a president. But whether the Republicans win or the Democrats win, they do not even rule. The transnationals rule. Fortunately, in Bolivia, there is a new rebirth of a movement to liberate people as in the times of Chávez, Kirchner, Lula, Correa. And there is also the struggle of social movements, for example, in Chile and now in Ecuador. This is impressive—the revolt across governments, presidents, anti-imperialist parties.
KK: Coming to the UK, Jeremy Corbyn was one of the first international leaders—I think the first British politician—to express solidarity with you when you were forced to leave office and the country. He was attacked for his support. Now he has been suspended from the Labour Party for saying that allegations of anti-Semitism in his party were being overstated. What do you say?
EM: I say thank you, and I send all my solidarity. I very much regret—not only in Bolivia but in the world—that those who defend the popular forces, the humble, those who fight for sovereignty, for independence, for dignity, for our freedom or for our diversity, are condemned and punished. It hurts me a lot. That’s why all my solidarity with my partner.
KK: And to Bolivia’s friends and Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party? Should they leave the party? What do you say as a fellow socialist?
EM: Socialists—those who fight for their independence, for their dignity, for their sovereignty, and above all they fight for the most humble— [should learn] how to organize ourselves, how to unite to fight against hegemonism.
KK: From Turkey to the USA to Brazil to India, strongmen rule. Are you hopeful that the election in Bolivia is the beginning of the turning of the tide—or is it an exception?
EM: There has always been rebellion, uprising of the peoples, against those who threaten life and humanity. But what has happened in Bolivia is something unprecedented—something unique in the world—because, in exactly one year, we recover democracy, and by recovering democracy we recover the homeland. With conscience and patience—not with violence as the right does. Not killing or burning, not stealing. This movement, the triumph in Bolivia, is not only for Bolivians but for all Latin Americans. When they are organised, mobilised, and with class consciousness, and with ideology and programme, it is possible to change, and I am hopeful that this will also be the model to change the world.
KK: After Fidel and Chávez, you are arguably the Latin American figurehead of the Left in the world. You talk about oppressed nations. How do you feel about states that are using religion to divide people—that are using religion to incite people? Are they part of the anti-imperialist combine, the anti-imperialist friendship group, or does the Left have the responsibility to tell them to put religion aside?
Those who abuse religion for politics in Bolivia do a lot of harm to human beings
EM: We will never be able to reach Fidel, especially, or Hugo. They are liberating leaders. However, I believe it is important to respect the particularity of each country, each region, and each continent. Some revolutions have been based on religion, some have not, but for me religion is something sacred. Religion is something that has to do with ethics and morals. And in Bolivia they used the Bible to make others hate others. They used the Bible to kill and to steal. It is as if we are returning to the time of the Inquisition. So far, what does the Catholic Church in Bolivia say, the hierarchs of the Catholic Church? That it is important to have an external audit on the elections. Another is to look for Luis Almagro [the Secretary General of the Organisation of the American States] or his team to say that there was fraud, which we ask ourselves. I feel that religion cannot be for me, it cannot be done in politics. Those who abuse religion for politics in Bolivia do a lot of harm to human beings.
KK: You are no longer the president, but your vision has been validated at the ballot box. What role do you envisage for yourself in Bolivia after your return? Will you seek to find a formal position in the new government—or will you remain outside and guide the government as an elder statesman? Because many people who went and voted, they voted for you. Where do you see yourself in the future?
EM: I know they voted for me and especially for the achievements of the past thirteen years. I will not be in the government, but I will take care of Lucho Arce [Bolivia’s President-elect] and help in carrying out the process of change from the social forces also as leader of the Movement for Socialism.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe