President Evo Morales of Bolivia visited Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus on Nov. 17 to share the story of his unlikely rise from poverty, and to promote his plans to help Bolivia’s indigenous poor.
Morales is a founder and member ofMovimiento al Socialismo (MAS, or Movement Toward Socialism), a grassroots political party that gained a foothold by calling for the nationalization of industry and fair distribution of resources in the energy-rich South American nation.
Addressing “The Realities of Democracy,” he told a packed house at the McNally Amphitheatre that he came from peasant stock, and recounted his family’s experiences as coca farmers in the 1980s.
During that decade, Morales said, the Bolivian government began working against the interests of farmers by instituting a U.S.-supported program to eradicate the coca plant, forcing the poor further into poverty by destroying their crops or buying their land at unfair prices.
The United States has a keen interest in deterring coca growth, as the plant is used to make cocaine.
He joined the coca union and became a leader in the cocalero movement, the union’s struggle to end the government’s eradication efforts and to secure viable options for farmers. His opposition landed him in jail on several occasions and led to his being severely beaten in 1989.
But it also led to the realization, he said, that the movement had tremendous grassroots support.
“[But] it was not enough to have union power,” Morales said. “We needed a political instrument for liberation, to help us control all the natural resources. We were not people who were experts in politics; we were the indigenous people, the rural people, who decided to create our own political instrument.”
After being expelled from Congress in 2002, Morales ran for president later that year and finished second in a surprising show of support from the Bolivian people.
Joking, Morales credited his showing to the U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Manual Rocha, who had called Morales a “danger” to further relations with the United States.
“Because of him, the people of Bolivia united behind me,” he told the audience.
He was elected president on the MAS platform in December 2005 with approximately 54 percent of the popular vote, becoming the nation’s first indigenous president; Morales is of Aymaran Indian descent.
Morales said that before he took office, private industry was reaping 88 percent of the gas revenue from the country while 12 percent went to the Bolivian people. Now, he said, the percentages are reversed.
Bolivia has the second-largest gas reserves in South America, after Venezuela.
“We’ve changed the social and cultural framework and now we have cultural institutions for the most vulnerable,” Morales said. “Before, people were slaves to government. Now, government is slave to the people.”
He also outlined key points he is seeking to add to the nation’s proposed constitution, which will be put to a national referendum in January. They include:
• providing education for students from first through eighth grades.
• creating a universal income for people over 60 in rural areas, where poverty is the worst.
• ensuring that public services, such as water, electric and telephone, cannot be privatized.
• guaranteeing a pleura-national state.
• accepting no military bases within the nation’s borders.
• adopting a no-war policy with the nation’s immediate neighbors.
Morales acknowledged his detractors who “don’t accept the transformation,” he said. Last August, his political opposition forced a recall referendum on his leadership. More than two-thirds of voters who participated in the recall vote supported him, however.
“I’ve been accused of being the terrorist of terrorists,” Morales said. “I have to be frank—even the U.S. has sent military to work against the resistance and intimidate and create fear. But I said we have to start to get over these differences and work together. Also, we must live in peace and harmony.
“We’ve been through oppression and fighting, and as long as there is injustice and inequality, there will be conflicts,” he said. “But we have also reached agreements.”
Morales visited Fordham following his appearance before the United Nations General Assembly. The event was sponsored by the Office of the President, the United Nations, and Fordham’s Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs.
Morales was introduced by Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, who called his appearance in the United States a “bellwether for this renaissance of compassion.”
“May we all find common ground on which to build a promising future for our nations and for the world,” Father McShane said.