Evo Morales: 'I have nothing to regret … this is an age-old fight'


Jo Tuckman

In interview in Mexico City, ousted Bolivian president says he renounced his candidacy in a future election ‘in the name of peace’

Bolivia’s ousted and exiled president, Evo Morales, says he has ruled out standing in his country’s next elections to stop the existing crisis sliding into a broader civil or ethnic conflict.

He told the Guardian: “This is what I am afraid of and it is what we have to avoid, which is why I am renouncing my candidacy. In the name of peace, sacrifices have to be made and I am sacrificing my candidacy even though I have every right to it.”

Morales, who became Bolivia’s first indigenous president when he took office in 2006, fled to Mexico on 11 November. This occurred three weeks after elections he claimed to have won sparked accusations of fraud and widespread protests, which culminated with the head of the army calling on him to go.

The following day rightwing senator Jeanine Áñez swore herself in as interim president. At least 32 people have died since then, most of them reportedly in army crackdowns on pro-Morales protests. There have also been signs of social and racial tension between the mostly poor and indigenous protesters and wealthier onlookers.

Bolivia’s new interior minister, Arturo Murillo, has vowed to jail the former president for the rest of his life, accusing the exiled leftist of inciting anti-government protests that he claimed amounted to terrorism.

From his new temporary home in Mexico City, Morales blamed the crisis in Bolivia on the “racist and vengeful” old elite he insisted has mounted a coup with the help of the US, which he described as the “empire in the north”. But he said his priority must now be helping to get the “de facto government” out by pushing it towards elections.

“They say no to Evo, and so I say OK, no problem,” he said.

Morales was speaking as Bolivia’s legislature, which is dominated by his Movement Towards Socialism party, was in the process of approving a law that would pave the way for new elections within a few months. It would also ban him from participating in them. Áñez signed the bill into law on Sunday.

Morales admitted that part of the reason he had backed away from his vow to serve out his term until 22 January was because demands for his return had weakened.

Talks between protest leaders and the interim government led to a promise on Sunday from Áñez to withdraw the military in exchange for lifting road blockades that had left several major cities hit by fuel and food shortages.

“They are not renouncing their struggle against the coup,” said Morales, who is living inside a Mexican military base and accompanied by plainclothes soldiers everywhere he goes. “But the truth is that of course people get tired after two weeks of resistance and so many dead.”

(below) A group of people carrying a coffin attempt to pass throw a police line during a funeral procession for victims killed during clashes with police at the Senkata fuel plant in La Paz on 21 November. Photograph: Getty Images

At the same time, the longtime icon of the Latin American left is facing efforts to prosecute him for terrorism and sedition. He insisted, however, that his long and extraordinary political career is littered with such “made-up” charges that have never deterred him before.

Morales comes from an impoverished family of highland llama herders. They moved to the fertile Chapare region where they grew coca leaves, a traditional Bolivian crop used by locals as a mild stimulant, as well as by drug traffickers to make cocaine.

During the 80s and 90s, Morales became a leading figure in the resistance to various eradication drives carried out under pressure from the US. His national profile grew when he was elected to congress in 1997 and expelled in 2002.

He then helped lead a social uprising that forced the president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, out of office the following year.

“Struggle, struggle, struggle, struggle, that is where I come from,” Morales said with obvious pride and some nostalgia.

Morales was swept to power in the elections of 2005 and easily won a second term in 2009 and a third term in 2014.

His governments brought stability to one of the world’s most politically volatile countries marked by radical workers, peasant movements and a mind-boggling number of military coups. They also shook things up fundamentally by putting the indigenous majority at the centre of electoral politics and government, as well as by slashing poverty and keeping the economy growing with state-led investment.

Loyalty to Morales waned, however, the longer he stayed in office. Even the former Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the leading light of the pink tide of leftist leaders that took power in Latin America in the noughties, said last week it was “a mistake” for Morales to seek a fourth term.

(below) The rightwing senator Jeanine Áñez was sworn in as interim president after Morales fled to Mexico. Photograph: David Mercado/Reuters

Morales was in no mood to agree. “I did not look for the candidacy,” he insisted on three occasions. “The organisations of the popular struggle asked me to be the candidate.”

Did he regret not rejecting them?

“I have nothing to regret because we won in the first round,” he said, repeating his dismissal of the fraud charges that were backed by the Organization of American States. “I have fulfilled the mandate of the people but these reactionaries can’t deal with an indigenous candidate supported by the workers. That is class struggle. This is an age-old fight.”

Morales called environmentalists who said he has failed to protect the country’s forests “the best tools of imperialism” because he said they were seeking to prevent Bolivia developing its own resources.

He laughed at the activists who said he deliberately stoked a “macho” polarisation of politics. “I am the feminist,” he said, insisting women’s participation in politics has soared on his watch.

After some thought, the only “mistake” Morales could think off was removing petrol subsidies in 2010.

It added up, he said, to a lifetime of political experience and achievements he was itching to put at the service of his country. This was why he will be returning to Bolivia as soon as possible, he said. It is also why his party is seeking to push through legislation guaranteeing him immunity from prosecution.

“Time is flying by and I really hope that I will be back by the end of the year,” he said.

Candidacy or no candidacy, Morales insisted there are still plenty of things for him to do, starting with helping his party find a candidate to replace him.

“This is not a simple thing to do,” he said. “And I also want to say that whereas before I was planning to leave after five more years in government, now, after everything they have done to me, it’s possible I seek the candidacy after that.”

2020 will be…
… a defining year. These are perilous times. And we're asking for your help as we prepare for 2020. Over the last three years, much of what the Guardian holds dear has been threatened - democracy, civility, truth. This US administration is establishing new norms of behaviour.

Anger and cruelty disfigure public discourse and lying is commonplace. Truth is being chased away. But with your help we can continue to put it center stage.

Rampant disinformation, partisan news sources and social media's tsunami of fake news is no basis on which to inform the American public in 2020. The need for a robust, independent press has never been greater, and with your help we can continue to provide fact-based reporting that offers public scrutiny and oversight. We are also committed to keeping our journalism open and accessible to everyone and with your help we can keep it that way.

"Next year America faces an epic choice - and the result could define the country for a generation. It is at a tipping point, finely balanced between truth and lies, hope and hate, civility and nastiness. Many vital aspects of American public life are in play - the Supreme Court, abortion rights, climate policy, wealth inequality, Big Tech and much more. The stakes could hardly be higher. As that choice nears, the Guardian, as it has done for 200 years, and with your continued support, will continue to argue for the values we hold dear - facts, science, diversity, equality and fairness." – US editor, John Mulholland

On the occasion of its 100th birthday in 1921 the editor of the Guardian said, "Perhaps the chief virtue of a newspaper is its independence. It should have a soul of its own." That is more true than ever. Freed from the influence of an owner or shareholders the Guardian's robust independence is our unique driving force and guiding principle.