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Bolivia's Two Leading Indigenous Leaders Speak in the Aftermath of the "Gas War"

by Bill Weinberg

In Bolivia, they call it "Octubre Negro" or "la Guerra de Gas." For weeks, Indians and campesinos blocked the country's roads with barricades and their bodies, paralyzing the economy to demand the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. At issue was Sanchez de Lozada's approval of a controversial plan to build a pipeline linking natural gas fields in Bolivia's south to a terminal on the Chilean coast for export to California. The security forces responded to the protest wave with repressive violence, leading to at least 80 dead--and international fears of a coup d‚etat--before Sanchez de Lozada fled to Miami on Oct. 17, breaking his pledge to remain in office. His vice president, former journalist and political novice Carlos Mesa, assumed power and pledged to hold a popular referendum on the pipeline project. Sanchez de Lozada, still in Miami, now faces charges in Bolivia of murder, human rights violations and even genocide.

The most obvious issue for the movement opposing the pipeline is the plan for it to meet the sea in Chile--on a strip on coast taken in an 1883 war, leaving Bolivia landlocked. Some suggested a Peruvian route to the sea as an alternative, but this was rejected by the consortium--led by Sempra Energy of California and including Shell Oil--as too costly. However, movement leaders emphasize issues other than the nationalistic rivalry with Chile. Another concern is that the gas is to be refined in California under the plan--relegating impoverished Bolivia to the less lucrative role of supplying raw material. Also at issue is the general privatization of natural gas and petroleum resources, which has been underway since 1996--initiated, once again, by Sanchez de Lozada, in his first term as president.

Under Sanchez de Lozada's 1996 Hydrocarbons Law, the royalties that foreign companies must pay to the Bolivian state was dropped from 50% of net profits to less than 20%. A 1997 Capitalization Law established that the state company Bolivian Fiscal Petroleum Resources (YPFB) must open at least 50% of all projects to private investment, with Shell and the notorious Enron quickly grabbing pieces of the country's pipeline network. As YPFB was phased out of pre-existing projects, new projects were to be entirely in private hands. On Aug. 4, 1997, just two days before he left office, Sanchez de Lozada signed Supreme Decree 24806, establishing that gas and petroleum become property of the company mining them as soon as they leave the ground. Critics assailed this as contrary to the Bolivian constitution, which establishes the state as sole proprietor of hydrocarbon resources.

The Bolivian indigenous and campesino movement has also held militant protests in recent months over a campaign pushed by Washington to completely eradicate coca crops outside the small Yungas region of La Paz department where they are legally permitted, and against the economic program of free trade, or "neoliberalism." These two concerns are linked, campesino leaders say--as the push to eradicate coca comes at a time when falling tariffs on agribusiness imports from the US and elsewhere are making traditional food crops unviable for Bolivia's small farmers.

The two top leaders of the movement which brought down Sanchez de Lozada--and may paralyze the country yet again if the pipeline plan proceeds--are Evo Morales and Felipe Quispe, who goes by the nom de guerre of "El Mallku," Aymara for condor. Both are Aymara Indians, and both are federal deputies. Both accused of being demagogues by the Bolivian right, Morales is more a traditional leftist and Quispe more of an Aymara cultural nationalist. They are frequently portrayed as rivals, although they cooperated in the movement against the pipeline, and avoid public criticisms of each other.

Morales‚ party, the Movement to Socialism (MAS), has its base of support among the coca growers of Chapare, the tropical lowland region of Cochabamba department, where the government eradication campaign is focused. He openly identifies as a coca grower, and is Bolivia's top advocate of expanding the legal market for the leaf. He challenged Sanchez de Lozada in last year's presidential race, and is frequently named as a likely bet for Bolivia's next president.

Quispe, who serves as president of the Sole Sindical Confederation of Campesino Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB) as well as leader of his own party, the Pachacuti Indigenous Movement (MIP), has his base of support in the Aymara heartland of the Bolivian altiplano. Formerly the leader of an indigenous armed group, the Tupac Katari Guerilla Army, he spent much of the 1990s in prison before he emerged as leader of both the resurgent Aymara movement and Bolivia's largest campesino union.

On Nov. 10, this reporter spoke with Morales at his office in Bolivia's national legislature building in La Paz. Quispe was interviewed the following morning at the offices of CSUTCB. Both spoke about the future for the movement, and the need to re-establish public control over Bolivia's hydrocarbon resources--thought to be the greatest on the South American continent after Venezuela.


BW: Would you be opposed to exportation of the gas to the US if pipeline doesn't pass through Chile?

EM: At this moment the central issue is not whether we export via Chile, Brazil or Peru. The central theme is ownership of the hydrocarbons. Unfortunately, under neoliberalism the government has put on auction not only the state companies, but the very wealth of the hydrocarbons. Once we recover ownership of the hydrocarbons, and overturn the current national laws, regulations and contracts, we can have the possibility to industrialize and sell the gas to the United States or anywhere else. As for Chile, we are two neighbors and we cannot continue as enemies, we have to seek friendship and a resolution of the historical problems between us. But we will never sell the gas just as it is--only after we have industrialized and can sell it with an added value.

BW: Including to the US?

EM: Including the US, whichever country pays best. It is about how the gas will benefit the Bolivians, not how it will benefit the transnationals.

BW: What are your proposed changes to the Hydrocarbons Law?

EM: First, overturning Law 1689, the last Hydrocarbons Law, and secondly overturning Decree 24806 of Aug. 4, 1997. As of this weekend, our expert and professional compaĖeros are in the final stages of preparing a proposal for a new Hydrocarbons Law in alliance with the social forces. It will re-establish Bolivian Fiscal Petroleum Resources as an entity of the state, with control of exploitation and industrialization with the participation of and in the interests of the Bolivian people. No? And third, that the resources from the gas should be invested publicly, in the mining and agriculture sectors. This is our program, and soon, with the social forces behind us, we will be going to the new president with this law establishing the wealth of the hydrocarbons as the property of the Bolivian people.

BW: Do you support the current 50-50 public-private model?

EM: That is something we would not even consider. There is no 50-50 proposal even on the table. This is about sovereignty. The constitution says that the resources of the land are the absolute dominion of the Bolivian people, not any individual. And the constitution says that foreign companies operating here are under the same laws as the people of Bolivia. That is why the Bolivian people demand the total recuperation of the hydrocarbons.

BW: There are rumors that you recently had contact with US embassy to discuss the issue of coca eradication.

EM: We would like to talk. We have never been able to have contact. As a representative of popular and indigenous movements, I do not want to lie to the US embassy or to the international community. We are open to dialogue. But to speak of "zero coca" is to speak of zero Quechuas, Aymaras and Guaranis. This would be an apocalypse. So instead of talking about "zero coca," it is necessary to determine how much can be produced by each family for the legal market. And this is what we are ready to discuss. Let us look at what has happened with forced eradication of coca and the struggle against narco-trafficking up to this moment. Sadly, it is vicious circle, for the international bureaucracy and also for the national bureaucracy. It has become an instrument for the illicit enrichment of these authorities, knowing that they will never have "zero coca," or even a real struggle against narco-trafficking. I am challenging the embassy and the government of Bush to make a real pact for the struggle against narco-trafficking. At this moment, our governments are not making a real struggle against the narco-traffic.

BW: How is it a vicious circle?

EM: We are getting all this aid for alternative crops, but 70 or 80 percent is going to bureaucratic costs. There are international experts here making ten or fifteen thousand dollars a month, when they should be learning from us. There will never be zero coca, and these experts are wasting the international community's money. As long as there is free importation of agricultural products, there will never be an alternative to the coca leaf.

BW: Do you deny that any of the coca grown in Chapare is going to the narco gangs?

EM: No. Imagine that this is a coca plant [indicates his pen]. If it is from the legal area, the leaf could go to either the legal or illegal market--just as if it were from the illegal part of the country. It is an error to define legal, illegal or transitional areas. It is an object. We cannot criminalize an object. Do you imagine this pen could be illegal because it is in the wrong part of the country? The crime is in the subject, not the object. We have to penalize the subject, not object. There is a legal market for the coca that is grown in Cochabamba. With the embassy and international community, we must determine where the legal market is in Cochabamba. And then we would produce only for this legal market. However, as long as there is a market for cocaine, there will be an illegal market for coca, and a part of the solution is to attack that too.

BW: In what year was MAS founded?

EM: In 1995. I want to say that the MAS was not founded by a group of intellectuals or politólogos [political scientists] discussing things in a cafe. The MAS, as a political instrument of the people and for liberation, convened a big national congress of the campesino movement, attended by Sole Sindical Confederation of Campesino Workers of Bolivia, the National Confederation of Colonists of Bolivia, the Women's Confederation of Bolivia, as well as some of the indigenous movements. But our accords with the government have never been upheld, even after all our marches and blockades. We have political power because we have the people behind us, but now we need a political instrument to be able to use our political power. To use this political instrument, we need to overturn the political class. When I was in the altiplano as a child, they said the politics of the Aymara are the shovel and hoe. Then when I arrived in Chapare, they said the politics of the campesinos are the ax and machete. But when the elections come, the political class always says, "vote for us." This is why we founded the MAS.

And the MAS is not an instrument of Evo Morales, but of the campesino movement. Now, fortunately, the workers, intellectuals and sectors of the middle class are joining us. But in the beginning they considered us just indigenous idealists. Now we understand that we need to live together--mestizos, whites, campesinos and indigenous. It is not just a problem of one sector, but a national problem, and that is why we must re-found the country through a constitutional assembly.

BW: You are from an Aymara family, but most of the cocaleros in Chapare are Quechua. Do you identify with both groups?

EM: I have identified as Aymara since I was a child. Now I live in a Quechua area, Chapare, which is the synthesis of Bolivia's poverty. Now, just as there are Quechuas in La Paz there are Aymaras in Chapare, and we are all together in the same organization. So we use Spanish, not to leave anybody out.

BW: What is your opinion of Felipe Quispe?

EM: As long as he is Aymara, he is my Aymara brother, and as long as he is leader of the campesino movement, he is my compaĖero in the struggle.

BW: How do you propose to achieve socialism in Bolivia?

EM: By recovering the way of life of our ancestors--the solidarity and reciprocity--and, fundamentally, through redistribution of the wealth. In Bolivia, the problem is not the lack of wealth, but the maldistribution of wealth. It is not a question of lack of production, but lack of a market for products. That is why there is poverty. We need to fundamentally change the model.

BW: Do indigenous cultures play a central role in your vision of Bolivian socialism?

EM: They already live in socialism. In the community where I was born, there is no private property--it is collective, it is communal. They say as a community, "this is an area for grazing, this is an area for agriculture." In the agriculture part, they use rotation. There is no private property. This is how the indigenous communities have always lived. Now there is a confrontation of a cultural character. The indigenous cultures defend life itself, and occidental culture defends death. We need to change this occidental death culture, so that everybody can have life.

BW: What is your solution to the problem of landless campesinos?

EM: Simple. If I was Carlos Mesa right now, I would return all the properties that were illegally usurped during the dictatorships. There are at least 14 million hectares that we can return. It doesn't make any sense that people don't have land--you have to be a cow to have 60 hectares in Bolivia. If we return this land to the people, we are permanently assisting campesino communities. It shouldn't even be an issue.

BW: Do you consider yourself the leader of all the campesinos of Bolivia, or only the coca-growers?

EM: If this is about trying to "cocalize" me or Satanize me or criminalize me--the entire movement of the Quechuas and Aymaras and the whole country. My friends are not only indigenous and campesinos, but mestizos and even businessmen--but not businessmen who are parasites of the state, but those who provide work for the people. It would be wrong to speak of an absolute socialism that does not respect private property--I admire and respect businessmen who fight poverty and are in solidarity with the campesinos.

BW: Do you have a final message for readers in the United States?

EM: I have no relationship with the government of the US, but I do have one with the people of the US--with the people who struggle against globalization and marched against the war and intervention in Iraq. That spirit of solidarity and equality and justice must keep going forward, so that, as they say in the forums and protests, another world is possible.


BW: Would you be opposed to exportation of the gas to the US if the pipeline doesn't pass through Chile?

FQ: This is a trick question, I believe. We have been very clear that we must nationalize the gas, because it is now in the hands of the transnationals. And then we must industrialize, so that it won't leave either from Chile or from Peru as unprocessed gas. This is what my brothers gave their lives for, this is why we have been spilling our blood. That is why we had to overthrow Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.

BW: Then you oppose the export of natural gas under any circumstances?

FQ: Crude natural gas, that has not been processed--it cannot be done. It would be to give away prime material so that the US and other countries would benefit, and with that very money they will kill us, as they are killing in Iraq, and as they are threatening Colombia and Venezuela--and perhaps they will threaten us eventually. We are all threatened by North American gringo imperialism.

BW: If the gas is processed here in Bolivia, are there possibilities for export to the US?

FQ: When it is processed here, we can sell it to any country--not exclusively to an imperialist country which is monstrously cruel and extremely reactionary, that kills entire peoples, that has a genocidal plan for the indigenous peoples that do not conform to the North American ideology.

BW: What are your proposed changes to the Hydrocarbons Law?

FQ: We have a different proposal than the traditional political parties. We cannot alienate the products of our Pachamama. The gas comes out of the womb of our Mother Earth. We cannot make a gift of the energy resources that we have here in this country. We are going to demand that the government hold its referendum, and we are going to demand that the referendum reaches the last hut of the Indian living in the worst misery.

BW: What is your vision for Bolivia's future?

FQ: While we are dominated by the rule of the descendants of the colonialists, we will fail economically, as we are doing now. We need to change the system. The neoliberal system is old and outdated. We are putting forth that this capitalist, imperialist model should be changed for another model--a model which is communitarian, based on the ayllu [traditional communal land holding]. Do you know about the ayllu system? I know you are afraid are socialism, afraid of communism. But we have a different way of organizing ourselves economically, where there is no capital, where there is still the direct interchange of product for product, and we have lived like this for many generations in Tawantinsuyu [the Inca empire], in our Kollasuyu [the Aymara realm]. This is what we want to implement--our own autochthonous and original model. This is how we can save this country.

BW: What is your solution to the problem of landless campesinos?

FQ: This is very simple. We don't even have to comment on it. If I was the president of Bolivia, I would solve this in five minutes. Simple--because there is a tremendous racism here, with fertile lands reserved for the foreigners. Those foreigners around Santa Cruz--they have three, four thousand hectares for just one person. And if they have cattle, they occupy 25,000 hectares--imagine that. Meanwhile, we have to fight over a mere furrow of land. We are obligated to take these lands and give them to the people who want to produce. We have had this land since time immemorial, this is our land--it is not theirs. They are strangers who have invaded this land. We are ready to re-occupy these lands. We are the only organization of campesino workers of Bolivia, and we are preparing to re-take the land. Where are we going to go? Are we going to go to the sky?

BW: What year was MIP founded?

FQ: Nov. 14, 2000. We founded it as a consequence of the mobilizations that took place in April and September of that year, when the communal masses said that an indigenous movement without a political instrument, without a guide and direction, cannot work. So we have to develop an ideology and direction, and that ideology and direction is the Pachacutic Indigenous Movement. 60,000 men and women founded it in peĖas [local meetings], and we are now working as a political party recognized by the laws of our oppressors, we have various representatives in the Chamber of Deputies...

BW: How many?

FQ: Five at the moment. We know that as a movement we are going to succeed.

BW: Do you identify with all the campesinos of Bolivia or only the Aymara?

FQ: This organization represents the entire territory of Bolivia. There are nine federations and 20 regionals, and they are all organized and directed by my own person. Right now, we are only advancing in La Paz, but soon, little by little, we will reach the valleys and the East, and we will occupy the entire country.

BW: But you are speaking of the CSUTCB. What about the MIP? Is it a party of all the campesinos or only the indigenous?

FQ: I should say only of the indigenous. The campesino might be rich--there are senators who are campesinos. They have their tractors, their trucks, their lands, their cattle. But we, as indigenous people, are poor. We feel like we are foreigners in our own land. You have to take this into account. Don't just say we are campesinos--this is very campesinista. On the other hand, we are not campesinista or indigenista, the MIP embraces non-indigenous. In this last movement that we made, our brothers in the cities joined in hunger strikes, assisted the movement.

BW: Then the MIP can represent non-indigenous as well?

FQ: That is what we are working for.

BW: What is your opinion of Evo Morales and the MAS?

FQ: I don't want to say anything about this.

BW: I have heard that you made some positive comments about the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City. Is this true?

FQ: This is why they hate me. It looks to me like you are an agent of the CIA. I was supposed to go to some meetings in the US, and I was not allowed in. Perhaps they will kill me, but I have utterly decided to be a leader for my country and to liberate my country. And the entire indigenous movement gives its fraternal revolutionary salutation to those who acted on that memorable day against the twin towers of the United States.

BW: You are aware that hundreds of Latin Americans were also killed in the attacks?

FQ: Why did they go to the US to begin with? They should live here, we have lots of land here.

BW: Do you have anything to say to readers in the United States, especially to American Indian readers?

FQ: It doesn't seem that this is going to reach the indigenous, this interview is going to go straight to the Pentagon! [Laughs]

606. Evo Morales at his office at the national legislature in La Paz
605. Felipe (El Mallku) Quispe at his office at the campesino federation headquarters in La Paz
626. Enron-Shell pipeline transversing Altiplano
616. Enron-Shell pipeline cuts through Quechua community in the Altiplano
628. Popular barrio overlooking La Paz
611.Campesino community in Altiplano
642. Campesino plot in the Altiplano
631. Campesino oxen-drawn plough in Altiplano
634. Aymara fiesta in the Altiplano
640. Traditional dance at fiesta
639. Passing around the bottle at fiesta
633. Author conscripted into dancing at fiesta
622. Quechua women at protest in Cochabamba
637. Quechua girl outside Cochabamba
613. Army drug checkpoint on road from Cochabamba to Chapare
607. Air strip at army-police drug patrol base in Chapare
641. Photographer with driver at ruined colonial-era church in Altiplano
615. The author on La Paz-Cochabamba road, in the Altiplano
647.Coca plant in Chapare
648. Street political meeting in La Paz
649. Political graffiti, La Paz
650. Family in popular barrio, La Paz
652. Author interviews Evo Morales
653. National Police patrol La Paz
627. Campesinos demand expropriation of land of exiled cabinet minister, Cochabamba

Photos:Maria Anguera de Sojo


Translation: Maria Anguera de Sojo

Nov. 22, 2003

Reprinting permissible with attribution.