Global Americans and the Canadian Council for the Americas present “Two gringos with questions,” an interview series featuring political and cultural leaders from across the Americas. In the sixteenth episode, Chris and Ken talk to former Bolivian president and current presidential candidate, Carlos Mesa.
Carlos Diego Mesa Gisbert is a former Bolivian President and one of nine presidential candidates in the upcoming 2019 election. Mesa is running for Bolivia’s presidency under the Alianza Comunidad Ciudadana party. He is running against incumbent President Evo Morales, who is seeking his fourth consecutive term. Morales’ bid for the presidency is controversial. The country’s Supreme Electoral Court, run by Morales supporters, overruled term limits outlined in Bolivia’s 2009 Constitution. In 2016, Morales tried to overturn these limits in a referendum that was widely rejected by the country’s population.
As of April 2019, Mesa and Morales are neck and neck in polls. Two polls reviewed by infobae, show that Morales would win the first round by about 33 to 34 percent of the vote, and place Mesa in second place with about 21 to 25 of the vote. However, if the election heads to a second round, Mesa could win with 46 percent of the vote. Besides these estimates, surveys also found that a majority of the country, 40 percent, were still undecided; and about 52 percent of Bolivians had the perception that Morales would win the election.
Mesa was Bolivia’s president from October 17, 2003 until his resignation on June 6, 2005. He assumed the presidency after his running mate and former president, Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, resigned following national protests that left more than 60 people dead over the country’s natural resources. Protests continued across the country throughout Mesa’s presidency, and in 2005—according to his own account—after realizing his inability to resolve the countries discord without resorting to violence, he resigned. In an interview on June 10, 2019, Mesa saw his resignation as an “act of valor,” saying he stepped down due to ethical conflicts within government and his decision to not want to “[go] against the life of [his] compatriots.”
Prior to his role as President, he was Vice President to Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada from August 2002 to October 2003. As Vice President, Mesa was also head of the Bolivian Congress. Mesa was director of Cinemateca Boliviana in 1976 and since 1979 has been a press, radio and television journalist. He has served as deputy director of the newspaper Ultima Hora and director of three TV channels: America TV, Telesistema Boliviano and ATB. He is president of Fundación Comunidad, which works to strengthen democratic institutions and human rights. He is the author of sixteen books on topics from Bolivian history to Latin American cinema. He studied literature at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and the Universidad Mayor de San Andrês de La Paz.
English Transcript below:
Chris Sabatini: Mr. President, I’m going to start with a very direct question. This has been a very controversial election cycle due to the way in which sitting President Evo Morales began his electoral campaign. Do you believe presidential candidates and voters should participate in these elections, given the campaign’s controversial origin?
Carlos Mesa: This is a good question. And I’ll answer that in two parts. The first is yes, President Morales is effectively an illegal candidate because he lost the referendum he himself called, which asked Bolivians if they wanted to allow for indefinite re-election. Bolivians voted no. Despite this, violating the constitution, he registered himself as a candidate. My second point, and we can use Venezuela as an example, is that voter abstention only guarantees the prolongation of a government and eventually creates the path for that same government to turn from authoritarianism into a dictatorship, as we see in Venezuela. Therefore, we are going to participate in these elections and are going to ask voters to head to the ballots. The only way we are going to defeat President Morales is by doing so democratically. It is not feasible or rational to assume that the international community will come help us, it hasn’t done so, misinterpreting the legal arguments Morales’ presented to the international community to support his re-election. Consequently, we can only defeat Morales by participating in elections. To abstain would gift him a new presidential term and another two-thirds control of Congress.
Ken Frankel: Mr. President, on the same subject, [OAS] Secretary General Luis Almagro made many pronouncements on the controversy behind Morales’ electoral bid, would you like to address these comments and the legal implications of this issue?
CM: Yes, of course. Mr. Almagro has clearly contradicted himself. In a tweet written a year and a half ago, he wrote that President Morales needed to respect the people’s will. Almagro added that he did not believe President Morales had any of his rights violated as a result of term limits imposed by law. But not too long ago, while visiting La Paz by invitation of President Morales, Almagro made an incredible declaration. He said that to impede Morales’ candidacy would be an act of discrimination, radically contradicting what he had previously said. As in any other civilized democracy, if a referendum—a manifestation of popular sovereignty—decided to reject re-election, then there is no other mechanism that can allow for an alternative interpretation of the popular vote, in this case to allow re-election. Mr. Almagro contradicted himself. And as I see it, his decision to support Morales’ campaign follows a political motive: to secure Bolivia’s support in his own re-election bid for Secretary General. Whatever the reason, this change is morally unacceptable, especially when trying to justify his new position offering weak arguments.
KF: And why do you think he made these declarations? One would find them a little inconsistent given his posture on Venezuela and Nicaragua for example.
CM: Not just a little, it’s very inconsistent. They mark a radical contradiction between his clear defense of democracy and his opposition to dictatorship. Why does he do this? There is only one practical reason for why he would make this contradiction: he is seeking re-election as Secretary General of the OAS and needs Morales’ vote. Almagro must have thought that the backlash he would receive from the international community would be minor, but when he realized the effect it generated—and that Bolivian opposition raised its voice with strong and solid arguments against him—he tried to take a step back; but he is finding it hard to gain the trust of Latin Americans back, given his inconsistent remarks apparently driven by a wish to be re-elected at the OAS.
CS: Another question, and staying on the topic of the election, there are people that say that if Morales doesn’t legitimately win the election, he will try to steal the election using his power over the ballots, the electoral commission, the media. Do you believe it’s possible to have a clean and fair election in Bolivia today?
CM: It’s not possible because President Morales controls all state powers: the judicial, legislative, executive and—most important—the electoral commission. The president has placed militants from his political party in positions of power, including the Supreme Electoral Tribunal—controlling the most important instrument to guarantee the legitimacy of elections. He also controls state media and has converted them into propaganda machines and finances his campaign using Bolivian [state] resources, including government planes, helicopters and cars. This is all to say, he has a complete advantage in the process. In the end, what does this mean? That there are only two ways, three really, that can help the opposition ensure fair elections. The first is to control the vote. Our political parties will deploy organized delegates that will safeguard each one of the 30,000 polling sites to make sure the voting process is free of any irregularities. These observers will send alerts via smartphones, and take photo proof to compare and contrast results in case any oddity or manipulation is reported. The second is allowing international observation missions, like the European Union’s electoral observation mission, to monitor the election. Although the OAS has had credible electoral missions, it has lost its credibility given the comments made by the Secretary General. The third would be the mobilization of voters, with each citizen deciding to go to the polls to demand effective oversight and management of the exercise of the electoral process.
CS: You have been one of the most outspoken critics of Morales’ presidency. Bolivia has avoided Venezuela and Nicaragua’s disaster created by Morales’ ideological allies, Chávez, Maduro, the Ortegas. Could you reflect on Morales’ mandate until now? Why has it been more or less stable and successful?
CM: I’d say there are two main considerations to judge President Morales’s government. The positive is that he is the first indigenous president in the country’s history. Another positive is that Morales has helped promote the fight against inequality and discrimination and promoted social mobility, through measures and bonuses that have reduced poverty in Bolivia. His historic project however, is completely exhausted and debased. What’s President Morales’ problem? President Morales is steps away from crossing the line from authoritarian to a dictator. He hasn’t done it yet, but if he were to be re-elected illegally or through the manipulation of the electoral process, he would enter a similar political scenario as Nicolás Maduro. Another key aspect has to do with Morales’ supposed good management of the economy. The economic stability experienced in the country is in large part due to favorable international conditions and his pragmatic economic approach, but those conditions are starting to waver. But what is the most critical point? What is Morales today? Morales is an authoritarian president that wants power for power. He has a completely corrupt, politicized and inept judicial system that has serious problems tackling drug-trafficking, his police force is linked to organized crime, the country suffers from high levels of corruption and he holds a blatant control of the four powers of the state. These are politically and democratically unacceptable elements. As is the case in all authoritarian governments, the original historic project will end up degraded and ruined, simply by a desire to remain in power indefinitely.
KF: Mr. President, a follow up to Chris’ question. Bolivia’s economy has done pretty well for itself compared to that of its neighbors. What is your response to people who say “well the economy is doing well, why would I want to change leadership?”
CM: I would respond with an argument applicable to the United States, France, Sweden, or Spain. Being a nation that votes democratically for its presidents, why should Bolivia tolerate elements that would not be accepted in the United States? In the U.S., would citizens accept a dictator or concede to President Donald Trump’s wishes of remaining in power four times over after his first two terms, because the economy was doing well? No. Americans would tell Trump or the French would tell Macron that there are rules that need to be followed under a democracy, independent of how well the economy is doing. First, the argument in favor of democracy is a valid one for both developing and developed countries. Second, the economic reality of Bolivia today is not as good as it seems or as it was in 2015. Today we have a very high public deficit, we have a growing debt rate—still not that risky—a fall in international reserves in Bolivia’s Central Bank, and excessive spending—particularly in government contracts for large public work projects. The president eliminated the system of competitive public procurement in favor of a system where—along with other irregularities and excess spending—have put the country in a tough spot. This system is not sustainable. And now, we have moved from economic abundance to the deceleration of our economy. This isn’t a dramatic economic crisis, but it has to change.
CS: You were a key figure in Bolivia’s fight to gain access to the Pacific Ocean with Chile. Morales used these negotiations as a focal point in his campaign. In your opinion, how will this issue end and what is its political weight during the election?
CM: First I have to say I worked alongside the government on the Bolivian maritime dispute because it was a national issue. This being one of Bolivia’s most important foreign affairs issues, I tried to prove that this dispute was of national interest and went beyond politics and the ideological differences I have with President Morales. As you know, we lost the case in the International Court of Justice. While I disagree, this is no longer subject to debate, we must respect the Court’s decision. This shows that Bolivia has to reformulate its relations with Chile, without renouncing our claim toward sovereign access to the ocean. We must rethink our bilateral relationship with Chile in a number of topics, whether it be in regards to our commerce, the proper functioning of ports—where Bolivia has a fundamental role in the import and export of goods—and the integration of Chile, Peru and Bolivia that should be addressed in a dynamic way without renouncing our legitimate claim.
KF: Mr. President, on the topic of trade, does Bolivia have any interest in joining a trade bloc, like the Pacific Alliance?
CM: Yes, that’s a very important question. I am not of the belief that one’s international relations should be linked to one’s political ideology. That was fine during the Cold War, but it no longer works today. I believe that the most important aspect should be how beneficial these trade relations will be for our country and for our partner countries as well. This implies complete open doors. We shouldn’t close the doors to Russia or China, to China less than anyone, and [we should] normalize relations with the U.S. in a logic of mutual respect. You asked about the Pacific Alliance. I am a firm believer in processes of integration, I believe we should create a South American system of integration. In terms of the Pacific Alliance, Bolivia is historically and by its own geographical orientation, a country that belongs to the Pacific basin, thus our sovereign claim to the sea. Consequently, if this historical project is beneficial for the whole region, I don’t see any reason to close the doors, of course we would first need to determine the elements and measure the benefit of our country’s participation. But there is no ideological reason that should block our path toward integration.
CS: What is your platform? You mentioned your concerns on the institutionalization and the impartiality of Bolivian institutions. How would you go about tackling these issues once you’re president?
CM: Our platform regarding democracy has many concrete points. First, we have to construct a 21st century democracy based in republicanism and a real and tangible separation of power. The executive branch cannot be the ruler of the legislative and judicial branches and the elections. Second, we need to recover the institutionalization of Bolivian society and of its democratic institutions. In this regard, we need to take a radical step: change the heads of the judiciary. This needs to be an immediate change summoned by a nationwide referendum to question the current, unacceptable corrupt system in the judicial branch. This doesn’t mean eliminating the direct voting process contemplated in the constitution, but is a re-examination of the system as a consequence of the higher number of null and void votes compared to votes actually cast. What we have now is a politicized, corrupt and inept justice system, to fix this, we must take a giant qualitative leap to institutionalize our democratically independent institutions and processes. We also need a major overhaul and to install a merit-based system to select the heads of the country’s most important institutions, in customs, tax collection and the Bolivian Highway Administration—the institution that spends the most in public funds and is thus the most susceptible to corruption. Fourth, there needs to be a total reconstruction of the country’s police force which has been completely infiltrated by drug trafficking as proven by the terrible and shameful complaints about Bolivia’s [police force] in recent weeks. Public officials must occupy their posts based on merit and not assigned automatically by party affiliation. From the point of view of democratic reconstruction, these are a few of the fundamental challenges needed to transform the country, starting obviously with showing respect for basic constitutional norms and due process in elections and the number of times one can be elected president.
KF: Part of Morales’ power, or a central topic has been his indigenism—having been the first indigenous president to publicly defend their rights. Do you believe indigenous rights are an important topic during this election?
CM: It’s an important topic given the fact that Bolivia turned a page in its history with Evo Morales. Morales wasn’t the first president that raised issues of integration and equal recognition of the indigenous peoples, that occurred during the revolution of 1952 and the democratic process of 1982. But it is evident that President Evo Morales is the first indigenous president recognized as such and accepted as such by society. There is no denying this was an important and positive leap for the country. Obviously, we need to continue this quest to end discrimination, respect others and recognize indigenous participation at the center of political activity. The fact that we have an indigenous president shows that there are no limitations for indigenous people or those of any other race and/or ethnicity to become president; this is no longer a topic of discussion because it’s a victory we already achieved. What we need to deepen, however, is this sense of respect for historical indigenous achievements. Although we live in a society that is about 40 percent indigenous and with an important participation of indigenous communities in urban life, their traditions are being lost as the country continues to urbanize. Seventy percent of Bolivians live in urban settings and 30 percent live in rural areas. There are many indigenous people that dress western but maintain their indigenous identity by speaking their own language and practicing their own traditions, all within the context of the 21st century. We should not lose our country’s indigenous roots and culture, and I believe this is something we can handle as long as there is respect and we continue to strengthen and promote these traditions.
KF: Do you believe this [indigenous community] will be an important support base for Morales? Is it still strong as before? After the [aforementioned] achievements, do you think they’ll demand even more? A deeper institutionalization? How do you view this issue today?
CM: The president has a solid base, composed mostly of indigenous communities in the country’s rural indigenous areas. That won’t change. In terms of voters, the majority of the electorate live in cities—70 percent of voters live in cities and 30 percent in rural areas. There is a minority group of indigenous voters living in cities that are staunch Morales supporters, but overall urban indigenous peoples are spread out more diversely [politically]. But there is a significant number of indigenous peoples who support our candidacy in rural areas, support in urban areas is a bit more complicated, particularly in Bolivia’s “Zonas Altas.” However, I consider that the debate over indigenous voters should be viewed from a different lens. In this moment one might ask, why President Morales backed the majority of the Quechua and Aymara indigenous communities in Bolivia’s Zonas Altas and has failed to respond to the demands of the other 30 indigenous nations recognized by the Constitution? All of them located in the Amazonian plains, in the Pando, Beni, Tarija, and Chaco departments. Why has he allowed protected areas—indigenous territories and national parks—to be cut through by highways and has allowed oil and mining projects to operate in these lands, going against his own ideology of harmony between man and earth? For these reasons there is a very small minority within the indigenous community that believes Morales has not met the promises he made to them.
CS: I’m going to ask something a little bit complicated. You were president before Morales, and a lot of people, Morales included, have tried to categorize their time in power as a time of change, a different era in Bolivian history. Do you fear that the country’s opposition is too fragmented and that your candidacy might be seen as a return to the past instead of embodying a new era?
CM: I don’t believe the fragmentation of the opposition is relevant because of the number of candidates. Today (June 3rd), one of the lesser-known candidates, an ex-president, dropped out of the race because he realized that in this election, there are really only two candidates: me and President Morales. This is going to continue. Moving on to the next question, I am someone that absolutely believes we have to look to our future, but we would be foolish to ignore the historic achievements that we have reached since 2016, ones I’ve recognized. I should remind you that when I was president, I called for a key referendum that became the starting point for what is now known today as the nationalization of hydrocarbons. In the referendum I asked the country if they wanted to change the excessively loose hydrocarbon law; if they wanted to establish an ownership of hydrocarbons; if they wanted to bring back the state oil company; and if they found fair my proposal to charge a tax of at least 50 percent, which would boost Bolivia’s economy, rather than the measly 27 or 28 percent we were getting at that time. This was the beginning of transforming Bolivia’s revenue streams.
KF: Mr. President, there are many candidates during this election, and I don’t imagine a winner will be declared in the first round. What steps will you take to win?
CM: In Bolivia, like you just said, we have a two-round election system. There are two ways of winning in the first round: first, if the candidate receives 50 plus one percent of the vote—and in this case obviously the candidate would automatically win. Second, if the candidate obtains more than 40 percent of the votes and has a 10 percent advantage on the runner-up, the candidate also wins the presidency automatically. Under the current political scenario, it would be very hard to suggest or imply any one of the candidates, myself included, would win with more than 50 plus one percent of the vote, although we will try. However, if this is the case, it’s hard to believe the difference between candidates, Evo Morales and Carlos Mesa, would surpass three or four points. A second round is almost certain, and in this context all pollsters say I would defeat President Morales. We are working on promoting our campaign and through our “Ya es demasiado” (“It’s already too much”) slogan. We are tired of the corruption, injustice, insecurity, economic slowdown, and above everything else, the authoritarian government that has controlled Bolivia for 14 years. We have to remember that President Morales is currently in his third term, which is already unconstitutional. I won’t go into details, but under the Constitution, a president can only be re-elected twice consecutively. Morales is currently in his third term, previously violating the Constitution and now intending to violate it for a second time.
KF: There’s a lot of talk today about the entrance of foreign governments in Latin America like China, or India, but mostly China. Do you have any thoughts about the ramifications of China’s new role in Latin America, especially in the economic sphere? In Latin America, but mainly in Bolivia?
CM: We must look at this issue objectively, to understand what is occurring today. It would be contradictory to say that I am worried about what is happening with China—China is the second most powerful country in the world economically and will soon be number one. It makes sense that China would want to expand its influence and generate investments throughout the world like the U.S. did in its time, and continues to do. We must normalize our relations with the United States. It’s been 10, almost 11 years, without diplomatic representation with neither U.S. ambassadors in La Paz nor Bolivian ambassadors in Washington; correcting that implies a broad, non-ideological approach on the subject. China has become one of Bolivia’s largest creditors—currently Bolivia has doubled its external debt and a large, very important part of that debt is owed to China. My worry is that our external debt is not diversified enough. I have nothing against Chinese loans, as long as interest rates and the terms aren’t burdensome for Bolivia. But I do think that excess concentration on a single creditor is not good news. So, China should maintain its presence in Bolivia as long as Bolivia remains interested and there are mutual benefits. Second, avoid a hyper-concentration on Chinese credits, and lastly, reimagine China’s image in the eye of Bolivians. China’s image in Bolivia is a very delicate subject and hasn’t been all that positive. This needs to change. China needs to maintain a positive image in Bolivia to maintain a constructive relationship with our people.
KF: Thank you
CM: Thank you President Mesa, good luck with the campaign.
Both: Thank you, good bye