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In the wake of 'Black October'

Bolivia, South America's most heavily indigenous country, remains tense months after a national protest wave led by Indians brought down the government in "Black October" or "the Gas War." At issue was President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada's approval of a plan to build a pipeline linking Bolivia's natural gas fields to a terminal on the Chilean coast for export to California. The security forces responded to peasant road blocks with violence, leaving at least 80 dead - and international fears of a coup d'etat - before Sanchez de Lozada fled to Miami Oct. 17. His vice president Carlos Mesa assumed power and pledged to hold a popular referendum on the pipeline project. Sanchez de Lozada, still in Miami, now faces charges in Bolivia of murder and human rights violations.

The most obvious issue is the plan for the pipeline to meet the sea in Chile - on a strip on coast taken in an 1883 war, leaving Bolivia landlocked. An alternative Peruvian route was rejected by the consortium - led by Sempra Energy of California and including Shell Oil. But movement leaders also emphasize that the gas is to be refined in California under the plan - relegating impoverished Bolivia to the role of supplying raw material. Also at issue is the general privatization of hydrocarbon resources.

The two leaders of the movement which brought down Sanchez de Lozada - and may paralyze the country again if the pipeline proceeds - are Evo Morales and Felipe Quispe, or "El Mallku," Aymara for condor. Both are Aymara, and both are federal deputies. Both called demagogues by Bolivia's right, they are often portrayed as rivals, although they cooperated in the movement against the pipeline.

Morales' party, the Movement to Socialism (MAS), has its base among the coca growers of Chapare, the tropical lowlands of Cochabamba department, where the U.S.-backed eradication campaign is focused. He openly identifies as a coca grower, and is Bolivia's top advocate of expanding the legal market for the leaf. He challenged Sanchez de Lozada in the 2002 presidential race, and is a likely bet for Bolivia's next president.

Quispe, of the Pachacuti Indigenous Movement (MIP), has his base of support in the Aymara heartland of the altiplano. Formerly the leader of an indigenous armed group, the Tupac Katari Guerilla Army, he spent much of the 1990s in prison before he emerged as leader of both the resurgent Aymara movement and Bolivia's largest campesino union.

Indian Country Today spoke with Morales and Quispe in La Paz. Both spoke about the future for the movement, and the need to re-establish public control over Bolivia's hydrocarbon resources - thought to be the greatest on the South American continent after Venezuela.

Weinberg: Would you be opposed to exportation of the gas to the U.S. if pipeline doesn't pass through Chile?

Morales: At this moment the central issue is not whether we export via Chile or Peru. The central theme is ownership of the hydrocarbons. Unfortunately, the government has put the wealth of the hydrocarbons and the state companies on auction. Once we recover ownership of the hydrocarbons, and overturn the current national laws, we can have the possibility to industrialize and sell the gas to the United States or anywhere else. As for Chile, we are two neighbors and we cannot continue as enemies, we have to seek friendship and a resolution of the historical problems between us.

Weinberg: There are rumors that you recently had contact with U.S. embassy to discuss the issue of coca eradication.

Morales: We would like to talk. We have never been able to have contact. We are open to dialogue. But to speak of "zero coca" is to speak of zero Quechuas, Aymaras and Guaranis. This would be an apocalypse. The struggle against narco-trafficking is vicious circle. It has become an instrument for the illicit enrichment of the authorities. I am challenging the embassy and the government of Bush to make a real pact for the struggle against narco-trafficking.

Weinberg: Do indigenous cultures play a central role in your vision of Bolivian socialism?

Morales: They already live in socialism. In the community where I was born, there is no private property - it is collective, it is communal. This is how the indigenous communities have always lived. Now there is a confrontation of a cultural character. The indigenous cultures defend life itself, and occidental culture defends death. We need to change this occidental death culture, so that everybody can have life.

Weinberg: Do you have a message for readers in the United States?

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Morales: I have no relationship with the government of the U.S., but I do have one with the people of the U.S. - with the people who struggle against globalization and marched against the war in Iraq. That spirit of solidarity and equality and justice must keep going forward, so that, as they say in the forums and protests, another world is possible.

Weinberg: Would you be opposed to exportation of the gas to the U.S. if the pipeline doesn't pass through Chile?

Quispe: This is a trick question, I believe. We have been very clear that we must nationalize the gas, because it is now in the hands of the transnationals. And then we must industrialize, so that it won't leave either from Chile or Peru as unprocessed gas. This is what my brothers gave their lives for, this is why we have been spilling our blood. That is why we had to overthrow Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.

Weinberg: Then you oppose the export of natural gas under any circumstances?

Quispe: Crude natural gas, that has not been processed - it cannot be done. It would be to give away prime material so that the U.S. and other countries would benefit, and with that very money they will kill us, as they are killing in Iraq, and as they are threatening Colombia and Venezuela - and perhaps they will threaten us eventually.

Weinberg: If the gas is processed here in Bolivia, are there possibilities for export to the U.S.?

Quispe: When it is processed here, we can sell it to any country - not exclusively to an imperialist country which is monstrously cruel and extremely reactionary, that kills entire peoples, that has a genocidal plan for the indigenous peoples that do not conform to the North American ideology.

Weinberg: Do you oppose privatization of the hydrocarbon resources?

Quispe: We cannot alienate the products of our Pachamama. The gas comes out of the womb of our Mother Earth. We cannot make a gift of the energy resources that we have here in this country. We are going to demand that the government hold its referendum, and we are going to demand that the referendum reaches the last hut of the Indian living in the worst misery.

Weinberg: What is your vision for Bolivia's future?

Quispe: While we are dominated by the rule of the descendants of the colonialists, we will fail economically, as we are doing now. This capitalist, imperialist model should be changed for another model - a model which is communitarian, based on the ayllu [traditional communal land holding]. Do you know about the ayllu system? I know you are afraid are socialism, afraid of communism. But we have a different way of organizing ourselves economically, where there is no capital, where there is still the direct interchange of product for product, and we have lived like this for many generations in Tawantinsuyu [the Inca empire], in our Kollasuyu [the Aymara realm].

Weinberg: Do you have anything to say to readers in the United States, especially to American Indian readers?

Quispe: It doesn't seem that this is going to reach the indigenous, this interview is going to go straight to the Pentagon! [Laughs]