- Interview by
- Denis Rogatyuk
Sunday’s election will see Bolivia’s president Evo Morales compete for a fourth consecutive term together with his vice president Álvaro García Linera. First taking power in 2006, after years of intense social struggles, their Movement for Socialism (MAS) has racked up notable achievements, from the renationalization of key natural resources to impressive poverty reduction rates and the region’s most consistently high levels of economic growth. Bolivia has also asserted itself as an important actor at the Latin American level, both championing environmental protection and opposing US interference in the region.
Led by the country’s first indigenous president, the “change process” has also promoted a wider opening up of Bolivian public life, no longer the exclusive preserve of figures from the whitest and wealthiest backgrounds. Since 2006 the “plurinational state” and its institutions have integrated figures from labor unions, social movements, and indigenous communities. In this same vein, young leaders from within MAS are playing increasingly important roles in government. Chief among these is Adriana Salvatierra, the youngest president of the Senate in the country’s history, having assumed that position at the age of twenty-nine in January 2019.
A leader within the Columna Sur militant youth movement, Adriana has become a leading voice in the fight for gender equality and the eradication of murderous violence against women (so-called femicides). She has also strongly promoted socialist planning as a model of economic growth, and ahead of Sunday’s presidential election she has fiercely criticized neoliberal challengers to Morales, such as the former president Carlos Mesa and the emerging right-wing candidate from Santa Cruz, Óscar Ortiz.
Denis Rogatyuk sat down with Adriana to discuss the socialist government’s record, her own role in the change process — including a spell as acting president — and the challenges that will follow Sunday’s election.
This election will see the highest participation of millennials in the modern era, yet this also means that there’s a new generation of voters, particularly those who were born after 2000, who have only really known Morales’s Bolivia and didn’t experience its neoliberal past. How can MAS convince these young people to vote for the government and not back opposition figures as an act of “rebellion”?
A large proportion of the population is young — indeed, 43 percent of the electorate is between eighteen and thirty-four years old. This means that many of them are new voters, casting their votes for only the first or second time. This evidently brings a great challenge in terms of setting an agenda that is able to extend across society the reach we have had under President Evo Morales’s administration. This particularly concerns millennials, who do not look to the same forms of social organizations or trade unions as people did before, do not have “debts to the past,” and do not have the same demands.
Indeed, the challenges we face today are different from the ones when President Evo Morales and our political project entered government in 2005. Back then, 60 percent of the Bolivian population was living in poverty and 38 percent in extreme poverty, living on less than one US dollar a day. We have managed to halve those figures. Since then the average poverty figure has fallen from 60 to 33 percent, extreme poverty has fallen from 38 to 15 percent, and GDP has multiplied by four, reaching 43 billion dollars this year.
At the same time, there has been a transition to an absolutely different economic model that emphasizes sovereignty, the strengthening of the industrialization of our productive apparatus, and also a strong redistribution of wealth. This is what we see as democracy. But we also have a huge challenge owing to the fact that, with the use of new technologies, mobility toward cities and the concentration of the population in urban areas are breaking the associative links within Bolivia’s communities.
Before, many families had to choose which son would go to school, and there were young people who walked three, four, or five hours to reach an educational establishment. Thirty-six percent of children suffered chronic malnutrition — a figure we have managed to reduce almost by half. These young people are also aware of the new Bolivia and know that the process of economic stability we have enjoyed has also given them opportunities to study.
Today we have thousands of high school graduates who are the first in their families to finish high school. There are thousands of young professionals who are the children of peasants — and they are the pride of their families because they are the first to have access to university education. And there are young people getting credit to open small businesses, who know that victory for Evo Morales is the guarantee of a secure economic future, of the extension of rights, of the democratization of wealth, and the fundamentals of a solid productive apparatus that guarantees decent employment conditions.
You recently led the “Hagamos un Pacto” march against femicides, calling for the eradication of violence against women. What do you think are the biggest differences in the way the Bolivian government tackles these issues compared to neoliberal governments in countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Chile?
We say that this problem doesn’t owe to physical violence as an isolated factor. Rather, it is also expressed in the fact that women cannot access deeds to land. When we began in government in 2005, 15 percent of agricultural titles were in the hands of women, whereas today this number has reached 46.5 percent. Violence also had another dimension in limiting women’s family participation, in neighborhood councils and, of course, in political participation and representation.
During the Constituent Assembly of 2006–7 there was talk of equality and the possibility that women could effectively be represented on equal terms. This meant recognizing that the construction of political power and economic production were, at that time, dominated by a masculine logic. Patriarchy as a system reproducing gender privileges constitutes a society where the exercise of violence is not only physical, but also economic, political, symbolic, and communicational. I think that understanding the exercise of violence in all its dimensions allows us to focus on an effective fight against it.
We have succeeded in becoming the country with the second-highest level of women’s representation in the legislature. Fifty-one percent of our parliamentarians are women, which is to say, peasant women, indigenous women, workers, neighborhood leaders, young people, and professionals, who together represent the social fabric. We are deeply proud of these structural transformations, but we also need to understand that these are rights for which we constantly have to keep fighting.
The rate of femicides and physical violence against women is a worrying problem. We have proposed a comprehensive law against violence against women, and also increased the investment in citizens’ security, drawing on a small budget taken from the hydrocarbon tax. This will be further increased to strengthen comprehensive legal assistance, to expand women’s refuges for the victims of violence, and to guarantee institutional mechanisms so that in such cases there is effective protection of the victims, including against repeat offenders.
Bolivia has become a motor of economic growth in South America and one of the region’s most politically stable countries. Beyond these achievements, how do you see Bolivia’s role developing on the international stage in the future, especially with regard to Latin American integration?
For six of our years in office, we have been the country that has grown the most in Latin America, including the last five years in a row. Despite the fall in the price of raw materials such as minerals and hydrocarbons (on which the economy has long depended), Bolivia has continued to grow. This mainly owes to Bolivia’s sovereign policy regarding the exploitation and industrialization of our natural resources, but it has also been driven by the strengthening of the internal market as the main engine of the dynamization of the economy. We are also at a stage of entering industrialization, and the substitution of imports with Bolivian-made goods, especially regarding products that relate to internal industrial processes.
We believe that this economic, social, community, and productive model has afforded the possibility of building a strong state presence in the economy, but also a democratization of wealth, which has helped to lift more than three million Bolivians out of poverty. We have finally come together in understanding that democracy doesn’t just mean coming out to vote every five years, but to have free health care, to have access to basic services, to have decent housing, to have quality education, and to have public planning policies that put human beings at the center of the economy.
These last couple of years have seen the rise of a number of prominent left-wing leaders across the world, most prominently in the United States, with women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Tulsi Gabbard, and many others across Latin America. Do you relate to these young progressive women?
Yes, especially Ocasio-Cortez. We have been attentive to her example and are also excited by other cases like hers, for instance, Camila Vallejo (from Chile), Gabriela Rivadeneira (from Ecuador), Manuela d’Ávila, who was candidate for vice president of Brazil, and other parliamentarians and officeholders in Argentina and Uruguay. They provide enormous hope, by demonstrating that the Left is continuing to contest state power fundamentally in order to guarantee better living conditions for citizens. When we talk about politics, we aren’t just talking about disputing and controlling power, but, more fundamentally, about contributing to human dignity.
The emergence of this new generation of young leaders is encouraging and demonstrates that left-wing projects in Latin America — fighting for sovereignty, for dignity, for the redistribution of wealth, and for a form of growth that puts the state at the heart of defining economic policies — are still on the advance today. With some recent electoral defeats in Latin America, some said that we faced the end of the progressive cycle. But what is instead happening is a political fight, at the regional level — the old world is dying, and the new one is not yet truly born. Hopefully, over the next decade these projects will be consolidated further.
On July 17, you made history when you became acting president because both President Morales and Vice President García Linera were out of the country. What did it feel like to become the country’s youngest-ever president — and do you see yourself trying to resume this role in a future presidential election?
I felt responsibility and, of course, some fear. I should insist, for me, this is not a matter of personal achievements — rather, it is important to recognize that the way I perform, as a young person, as a woman, as a militant, carries huge responsibility in terms of opening doors to new generations.
I’m not thinking about the presidency, not right now. The truth is that it is very difficult to imagine continuing and following the example of President Evo Morales — a man who is already in a meeting every day from 5 AM, ending at 12 AM, many times at 1 AM . . . and continues to work across different parts of the country. It is very difficult for anyone to keep up with this — it is a pretty heavy toll.
In Sunday’s general election, you will be the candidate for the Plurinational Congress for your native province of Santa Cruz. In recent years, it has become one of the most prominent hotbeds of right-wing opposition to Evo Morales’s government, and has a history of violent secessionist and ultra-right-wing groups. What do you think is the best strategy to neutralize right-wing, extremist, and neoliberal forces?
Obviously, the common spirit of Santa Cruz is sometimes conservative. Yet when you go to the provinces, to the humblest neighborhoods, when you find militants of LGBTI collectives, youth collectives, and feminist women’s collectives, you find that the seeds are being sown for a more inclusive society — a society different from the one we had thirteen years ago.
I believe that Santa Cruz, as well as Bolivia, is not the same in 2019 as it was in 2005. This is not only because of economic growth or because of job opportunities, but also because Evo Morales’s administration has guaranteed a secure future for the country and future growth for Santa Cruz with strategic projects such as the Viru Viru Airport, the construction of the Mutún steel plant, and Puerto Bus as a new route for exports.
Santa Cruz is, of course, central for us, and I believe that a different spirit is also germinating there. I see it in my classmates from different cultural backgrounds, among youth, women, peasants, the indigenous, and so on. And society is governed by logics that can, at some point, allow certain elements to be appreciated in different ways. I believe that we have left behind the confrontations of 2006 to 2008 when there was a polarization between the plurinational state and regional autonomy. The plurinational state has universalized the possibilities of inclusion and the exercise of rights also in Santa Cruz.
Evo Morales faces a myriad of challenges to his presidency — former right-wing president Carlos Mesa, the 21F movement, threats from the Trump administration, as well as the right-wing political forces in Brazil and Chile, not to mention the strain from governing the nation over the last thirteen years. What do you think is the one reason why you believe he is going to win?
Because Evo Morales is synonymous with a secure future. Thirteen years ago, when I was finishing high school, the (natural gas and oil firm) YPFB was not a state company, and so those studying processes related to this industry did not have a secure source of employment or confidence in their economic future. Thirteen years ago, for a woman to participate in politics was an uphill struggle — things were better than they had been before, but it was impossible to think that there would be a woman president of the Senate who turned thirty while in office. Now there are countless opportunities that have opened up for these new generations.
We will continue in this vein. We nationalized natural gas as an exercise in sovereignty, but we have also begun an era of industrialization in such fields as iron production, hydrocarbons, and lithium. We believe that this will open the door to continuing Bolivia’s economic growth, guarantee job opportunities for young people, and of course, ensure quality education.
Bolivia is no longer the same as it was when President Evo Morales first took office. The government will continue the transformation process so that extreme poverty is reduced to less than 5 percent, and we will guarantee basic services for all. I think that guaranteeing health, education, and housing as a right are the most important assurances we have for the new generations.