Interview Conducted by Jens Glüsing
Bolivia’s long-time president, Evo Morales, has fled to exile in Mexico. DER SPIEGEL spoke to him about what led to his departure and the conditions under which he would consider returning.
Morales, 60, was Bolivia’s first indigenous president. The former head of the coca-farmers’ union is a symbolic figure among the Latin American left. His tenure as president began in 2006 and lasted until his forced resignation two weeks ago. Election observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) found “irregularities” in his fourth election on October 20, which has led to violent unrest. Last week, the military called for him to step down. Fearing for his life, Morales fled into exile in Mexico and he is now living in a secret location in Mexico City. The Mexican government has provided him with four bodyguards and an armored SUV.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Morales, how should we address you? Mr. Ex-president?
Morales: After my resignation, you can’t actually call me president any longer. On the other hand, the parliament has not yet accepted my resignation. My parliamentary group has thus far been united in support of me.
DER SPIEGEL: Your opponents claim you willingly stepped down.
Morales: It was a coup that had been planned for a long time. It started when they started burning dolls that looked like me. Then they destroyed election documents and set fire to the homes belonging to members of my party and to union leaders. Then the police mutinied and the armed forces rose up against the constitutional order and called for my resignation. That is supposed to be a voluntary resignation? I stepped down so they wouldn’t kill even more Bolivians.
DER SPIEGEL: The OAS has accused you of having manipulated the outcome of the election.
Morales: That is precisely the reason why progressives, the left and moderate governments distrust this organization. It serves the rich and powerful, as I am personally experiencing. I was wrong when I trusted the election observers. They allied themselves with those behind the coup.
DER SPIEGEL: Yet election observers presented evidence of manipulation on the night of the election.
Morales: It is a preliminary report. It says that there were irregularities and other problems, but it does not accuse me of fraud. Of the 35,500 urns in the country, the election observers inspected 72 of them and now say I received more votes than in previous elections. But these were urns from rural and indigenous regions, where people have always voted overwhelmingly in my favor. I asked OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro to wait a couple of days before publication, because otherwise there would be deaths in Bolivia. But he refused. It was a political decision, not a technical or legal one.
DER SPIEGEL: You needed to beat your opponent Carlos Mesa by at least 10 percentage points to avoid a run-off. When the first results came in, it looked like you wouldn’t achieve that margin. Then the counting was suddenly interrupted, and when it continued, things suddenly started lookin better for you.
Morales: The irregularities the OAS found hurt me more than it hurt the opposition. The official count was never interrupted. Only the quick count was stopped. The official count is done publicly, with the participation of the parties. This result was not contested and the ultimate outcome is based on this count. For this reason, I called for a new count, urn by urn, vote by vote. I recognized that normal mistakes had been made, as happens with any election, but no fraud. Mistakes are human, one needs to recognize and rectify them.
DER SPIEGEL: Why was the count interrupted?
Morales: In the first projection of the results, I was seven percentage points ahead, so I said: Okay, with the votes from the countryside, we will win.
DER SPIEGEL: The general who called for your resignation last week was appointed by you. What role did the military play in your resignation?
Morales: I always had a good relationship with the armed forces. I’m the only president in the history of Bolivia who completed military service. I treated the armed forces well and equipped them with airplanes and helicopters. Now I have to watch on television as they use these weapons against the people. But the worst was the police. If they hadn’t risen up against me, we would have been able to put down this coup.
DER SPIEGEL: Since your resignation, over 30 of your supporters have been killed in clashes with government troops. Is Bolivia in danger of erupting into civil war?
Morales: The plotters are responsible for the deaths. Up until my resignation, the police and armed forces had not shot a single person. I watched on television as they fired from helicopters down at the protesters in Cochabamba. It scares me and makes me very sad. They are killing my indigenous brothers and sisters. Simple farm workers.
DER SPIEGEL: Your followers have supposedly called for civil war and they are blockading important cities in the countryside. Do you not have them under control?
Morales: I reject violence. I have said that multiple times. But it is a natural reaction, given the degree to which the poor have been humiliated. The plotters even burned the Wiphala flag, the symbol of the indigenous peoples and our national emblem.
DER SPIEGEL: Who is responsible for this upheaval, in your view?
Morales: All those who do not recognize the election results. Opposition leader Carlos Mesa, who lost the election, and Luis Fernando Camacho, the president of the so-called Santa Cruz Civic Committee. He comes from a very racist family. His father supported the dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer and earned a lot of money that way. The supposed electoral fraud was only a pretense for these people to topple me.
DER SPIEGEL: You have also argued that the U.S. government is partly responsible.
Morales: When I was elected president the first time, the mine workers who had suffered under the military dictatorship warned me: Be wary of the U.S. Embassy! In 2008, we expelled the U.S. ambassador from the country because he was conspiring against us. During the most recent election campaign, I called in the deputy head of mission, because he agitated against me in the countryside. Washington was also the first government to recognize the plotters’ regime.
DER SPIEGEL: Jeanine Añez, the vice-president of the senate, has declared herself the interim head of state, basing her claim on the constitution. Do you recognize that claim?
Morales: Where does her legitimacy come from? She has proclaimed herself president of her own accord and the military hung the sash on her. That is not a transitional government. It is a dictatorship.
DER SPIEGEL: You have called for a national dialogue. Does that call also apply to Jeanine Añez’s interim government?
Morales: We have asked the international community to facilitate a dialogue. We have three conditions. First, before negotiations begin, a commission must be appointed that names the people responsible for the murders of our supporters. The attacks are crimes against humanity, and they cannot go unpunished. Second, if someone is brought to court, they need to be accorded their constitutional rights. At the moment, people are being persecuted simply because they belonged to my government. I feel guilty, because my ministers are being persecuted while I am outside of the country. Third, the murders must stop.
DER SPIEGEL: The country is extremely polarized. You have called for peace, but does peace even have a chance in these circumstances?
Morales: That is, in any case, my greatest wish. Reconciliation needs to happen fast. The military needs to understand that we are all a big family. Some believe they can rule the country because they have a lot of money. This mentality needs to change.
DER SPIEGEL: According to the constitution, the new president needs to call for new elections by January. Do you believe that will happen?
Morales: The deadline is January 22. I have no idea how the plotters intend to accomplish that.
DER SPIEGEL: Will you run again?
Morales: I am legally entitled to run, but if it helps establish peace in the country, I will abstain.
DER SPIEGEL: You already have three terms behind you. Why did you decide to run for a fourth time at all, given that a majority of Bolivians rejected that idea in a referendum that you called yourself?
Morales: I am not clinging onto power. The constitutional court made my candidacy possible. I come from extremely poor conditions and started to work when I was eight. I didn’t want to become a union leader either, but when the coca farmers pushed me to do it, I accepted. And so it continued, until I had the possibility of becoming president. It was not my dream. It was not planned. I could simply have gone home and been happy. I took it on because I could no longer stand the repression and the injustice.
DER SPIEGEL: But it does seem like you are clinging onto power. Opponents accuse you of wanting to establish a socialist dictatorship in Bolivia like in Venezuela or Nicaragua.
Morales: For me, socialism is social justice. It is worth dying for. Without social justice, there is no peace. With our social programs we managed to lower extreme poverty from 15 percent to 8 percent. We have supported an economic model that allows us growth while keeping the International Monetary Fund at bay. We recently had higher economic growth than Chile, which was always heralded as a role model. Contrary to the suggestions of the IMF, we nationalized the energy sector. But nobody forgives us when the model of a socialist, pluralist, left-wing and anti-imperialist country works. It is a class struggle.
DER SPIEGEL: But you also controlled the judiciary, allowing you to acquire powers.
Morales: I always respected the laws. If, one day, I am going to be put on trial for abuse of my powers, it would only be because I don’t have a good lawyer. I did not become president out of a desire to become rich, but out of patriotism.
DER SPIEGEL: Bolivia has a lot of mineral resources, including lithium, which is coveted internationally for its use in batteries for electric cars and mobile phones. You have repeatedly claimed that this played a role in your removal? Why?
Morales: We had a nice agreement with Germany that included plans for the construction of a lithium factory of our own. But several multinational conglomerates did not approve. They are against us processing our raw materials ourselves.
DER SPIEGEL: But it was said that your own government wanted to stop the project.
Morales: I had a strategy for how we would carry on, but since I am no longer president, I no longer have influence over these big projects. The plotters will no doubt cancel the agreement.
DER SPIEGEL: Interim President Jeanine Añez has announced that she will charge you with corruption and electoral fraud if you return. Are you afraid?
Morales: I am not responsible for organizing the election. I was already charged with murder and drug dealing under previous governments. The evidence was faked. So I know how this goes. I am not afraid, because I am not corrupt and did not carry out any electoral fraud.
DER SPIEGEL: Your opponents describe you as godless and possessed by the devil. The interim president entered the presidential palace with a big Bible under her arm. How do you explain this religious fundamentalism?
Morales: Before we decided on a new constitution, Catholicism was the state religion. We made it so that Bolivia became a secular country. All churches have the same rights, no religion is given priority. Faith is something holy. It transmits values and should serve reconciliation. But the plotters are misusing it in order to spread hate and racism. I am Catholic, but I also believe in Pachamama — Mother Earth — and in our indigenous gods. Now my opponents claim that Pachamama is the Devil’s work and that I am Satan incarnate. I don’t understand it.
DER SPIEGEL: Jeanine Añez also claims that the Bolivian conflict is being controlled from outside the country and that agents from Venezuela and Cuba had infiltrated your movement. Is that true?
Morales: In truth, many Venezuelans came into the country in recent months in order to campaign against me. We deported over 1,000 Venezuelans because they became politically active. As for the Cubans, I always admired Fidel Castro. He helped us with our health services and Cuban doctors carried out cataract operations on over 700,000 Bolivians free of charge. That is what I call solidarity among the poor.
DER SPIEGEL: Latin America is more ideologically divided now than any time since the Cold War. That is largely due to the crisis in Venezuela.
Morales: I admire Venezuela, first Chávez, then Maduro. Maduro triumphed against the interventionism of the Americans and overcame an attempted coup. He will also overcome the economic blockade.
DER SPIEGEL: Maduro takes brutal measures against opposition figures and journalists. Do you seriously see him as a role model?
Morales: For how long has Ms. Merkel been in power in Germany? I won’t claim she is authoritarian just because she has been in office for 16 years.
DER SPIEGEL: That is a poor comparison. Germany has a parliamentarian system and the government can be voted out at any time. In presidential systems like in Venezuela, that is not possible. When do you intend to return to Bolivia?
Morales: If it were possible, immediately. I miss my homeland a lot. I miss my work, too. I worked every day from 5 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m. Now it looks like future generations will have to carry on this struggle.
DER SPIEGEL: What is next for you personally?
Morales: My safety in Bolivia needs to be guaranteed. If they want to put me on trial, they should go for it. I’ll withstand it. But they cannot put me in jail, because I am innocent.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Morales, we thank you for this interview.