Bolivia: Interview with Luis Arce

Javier Larraín
It’s Wednesday morning and I get a phone message: “Comrade, today at 3:00 p.m. Luis will give you the interview.” She is a great friend and advisor to the candidate. I have been insisting for days on the key points of this dialogue. Since October, when freedom of expression has become a bad joke in Bolivia, standing in front of a newsstand to read the headlines discourages anyone. The discourse is unanimous and lacking in creativity: “narco-state,” “mass-spending,” “mega-fraud,” and a long and predictable etcetera.

The questionnaire was drawn up days ago and has hardly been modified. Personal doubts and uncertainties abound. I arrive punctually at the Campaign House of the Movement to Socialism-Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP), located in a central neighborhood of La Paz, and I notice the great number of comrades who give life to the place with meetings, discussions and all kinds of strategies for the return of the Process of Change to power.

Luis Arce enters through the main door, greets me and invites me to come immediately to his office on the second floor. He has not asked me to know the questions beforehand, which allows me to expand on the details of his election as a candidate, the current campaign, as well as the causes of the fall of November and even the departure from the country of the emblematic leaders of the so-called Democratic and Cultural Revolution. I then turn on the recorder, a small red light comes on and the interview begins. I must confess that there is no censorship.

In the ranks of progressives and the Bolivian left, until recently, there were all kinds of rumors about substantial differences between the currents within MAS-IPSP. Personally, what has it meant to assume the presidential candidacy? And, if you can explain, how did the process of unity with David Choquehuanca come about and how does the internal democracy of masismo operate?

Describing how the process of selection of the binomial took place explains what you mention. First, in view of the news that comrade Evo Morales could no longer lead the elections, the National Directorate of the Instrument called the departmental directorates to discuss possible candidates and to bring these proposals to a meeting in Buenos Aires, where the president of MAS, who is former president Evo, would be present. In this way, a discussion was opened in the departments with the social organizations and the Unity Pact – which includes the Bartolinas, the peasant’s federation, and the interculturals, among others.

Once these meetings were held, the candidates began to appear. I was in Mexico at the time, and I saw that among the names that the different sectors and departments were considering was mine, on a list of five.

Who were the remaining ones?

There were comrades Diego Pary, Andrónico Rodríguez, David Choquehuanca and comrade Adriana Salvatierra.

What did you think when you saw the list?

Being in Mexico I thought that this process could perhaps produce a possible internal fissure, although not division. That’s why I talked to several of them -I spoke to Pary and Choquehuanca-, to more or less test what they thought about the idea of arranging a meeting where we could be the eventual candidates and sign a document to guarantee the unity of the Instrument. I asked comrade Evo, who immediately grasped the initiative and called us to Buenos Aires (because I maintained that I could go to another country and they could leave Bolivia, to see us in a neutral country and discuss and sign a document of unity).

Was that meeting held and the document signed?

Of course it was.

What happened next?

As I was saying, comrade Evo took the initiative and called us to Buenos Aires, an appointment attended by those of us who could make it (I was in Mexico); Choquehuanca and Pary were there. Andronico could not go, because he had problems with justice at that time and was being accused of I don’t know what act of terrorism, and Adriana was no longer summoned, I understand that because her name was no longer sounding so loudly among the possible candidates.

What happened at the meeting in Buenos Aires?

We signed a document that is public and where we say: “Everything for unity”. We each commit ourselves to fulfill and support the process wherever we are, whatever the decision to be made at the meeting of the Enlarged National Party, also to be held in Buenos Aires.

Afterwards, there was a conclave in which the delegates of the nine departments were present in the Argentine capital, to finally choose the couple. There was a long discussion, but you know the result. And with this combination we returned to the country to begin the campaign.

Later there was a conclave in which they were delegates from the nine departments to the Argentine capital, to finally choose the couple. There was a long discussion, but you know the result. And with that combination we returned to the country, to begin the campaign.

It was clear that we were not prepared for such a coup; neither from the national government, nor from the social organizations.

From there, we have worked with social organizations, the Unity Pact, MAS-IPSP, the departmental organizations and the entire structure, beginning once again to consolidate and strengthen unity. There is no institution now, except the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (Cidob) – which left earlier – that is outside this process. This allows me to say that we enjoy a unitary internal consistency within the Instrument, under the candidacy of “Lucho-David”.

How do you reconcile in MAS-IPSP the “projects” or “horizons” of these internal currents, one openly more Indianist and the other more industrializing?

There is absolute compatibility between these apparent two projects, because in reality they are one. There is full reconciliation.

Industrialization and poverty reduction are battles that we must fight if the country is to move forward, and they are not at all at odds with the vindication of indigenist principles. What is more, many people who live in the cities and are even middle class have indigenous, Aymara and Quechua roots, and all of them need a job or study in the city, and they recognise the demands of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples. That is why I insist that there is absolute compatibility.

But we can’t deny that there are more orthodox currents – to call them what you will – that have accused MAS-IPSP of distorting the original political project and ending up in an extractivism without a north, that debate exists. Or does it seem to you a false debate?

It is a false debate, because there was no such extractivism. In the first stage we all agreed that we had to continue with the tasks of gas exploitation because, among other things, we had nationalized the hydrocarbon resources and that gas money would remain in Bolivia and would be redistributed and would serve to begin the Process of Change. We started from something, because otherwise, what were we going to live on?  We had to be realistic in that sense, and our industrialization was in line with the preservation of the environment and Mother Earth, everything about indigenous people was incorporated. Something that, by the way, means a longer and more expensive development, but framed in the logic of being sustainable and not disturbing Mother Earth. I repeat that I do not see any incompatibility between one project and another.

As the current Government Programme is drafted, it is clear that there is a connection between the two. Perhaps the confusion is due to those of us who are leading this process, since on the one hand there is my person, who is a professional, middle class – if you like – and with studies abroad – in passing – fused with that of a brother Vice President with indigenous roots. A symbiosis that for me symbolizes the unitary project that we present to the population.

From your sector you have not stopped denouncing that there was a coup d’état here and there is often talk of “the Áñez dictatorship” or the “de facto government”.

It is very complicated, because many people still think that there was fraud, even though there are others – and this group is growing – who have realised that there was a coup d’état.

But, apart from these arguments, which time will clarify, the most important thing is the conditions for campaigning. We have comrades who are being persecuted, imprisoned, processed, intimidated, threatened and even detained in the Mexican Embassy itself, as is the case with those who cannot leave because they lack the safe conduct that this government denies them, in violation of all international legal norms.

The adverse situation of a visibly biased Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which was even elected by this de facto government, must be added to the above. A TSE that threatens us with the disqualification of the binomial and the deputies and senators of the Instrument. In other words, we will be in a haze and uncertainty until 18 April, after which no further appeals will be accepted. But until that day any of us can be left out of the process, whether it be because there is an appeal or a complaint to disqualify us.

And as a corollary, there is no certainty. We have seen on television how Mrs. Áñez campaigns surrounded by police, while we do not enjoy that security, we cannot even access the media. I tell you that I have written some articles for El Deber and they were never published, and I do not think they were bad, because they have been published internationally.

It is easy to see how the television media attacks you. A few days ago I saw an interview where they didn’t let you speak and for almost an hour you had to deny slanders of “corruption,” “narco-state,” among others.

You are right, that is the press we have. That’s why it’s a complicated campaign and I think people are understanding it that way. It is not a normal campaign, adversity abounds, although we enjoy popular support and that encourages us to continue.

In all the surveys conducted so far this year you are leading the preferences, with figures that invariably range between 30% and 35%. Where do you get the remaining 16%? Which sectors do you have to add your campaign to? And what is the role of the urban population in the presidential elections (understanding that for several analysts this was the social base of support for the coup)?

I see several things there. First, we have a hard base that is being revitalized, I explain, in October part of our own people and the hard core did not vote for MAS-IPSP and today they are returning to trust us, so that base will be more solid and numerous.

Secondly, we evaluate that there is a middle class that was perhaps delighted by this discourse of “democracy” and other elements that have been given in those weeks, but that currently many of these people are disappointed to see what is happening in the country.

What specifically have they been disappointed with?

For example, with the political part, when they said “we don’t want nepotism” and it turned out that Mrs. Áñez’s whole family is working in the government. They said they didn’t want corruption and suddenly they are witnessing a corrupt government. They said we were “incapable” and they see that this government, in less than four months, has had two managers in the National Telecommunications Company (Entel), two managers in Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), two managers in Boliviana de Aviación (BOA), which shows its inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

So there is a disappointed sector, which along with its political disappointment is seeing an economic threat, which we warned about last October when we said that they were going to return to the neoliberal model, and they did! In fact, we are suffering from a deep economic crisis that is going to accelerate with this issue of the coronavirus.

It should be noted that the general economic crisis has been dragging on since October-November 2019, but that this de facto government has deepened it. Last year we grew about 2.5%, but where the economy fell was in the last quarter. Looking at the data, there is no denying it. That is why we can say that it is this government that, with its economic policy, is destroying the economy, creating a rejection by the population that will now think twice before supporting siren song candidates that in the end did not turn out to be what they said they were.

Thirdly and finally, the polls have shown that a large part of the voters are still undecided.

We should add those who are voting for the first time, because according to data from the TSE there are at least 135,000 new registrants on the electoral roll.

Now, in the case of those who are undecided, I think that all the political parties that are in the campaign still have a vein, but that at the same time we are the ones who enjoy the best program, as if to seduce them.

Along with this, there is an incorporation of young people who do not know us, who have not seen enough of us or have not understood what we have done, and we are going to direct a large part of the campaign to them and show them what has been done and what is intended to be done to obtain their vote. In the Program we offer quite a few things to young people, from housing to higher education at prestigious universities. All covered with the policy we intend to launch from the government.

In conclusion, there are veins that one can count on to be able to expand, for example, another is in the middle class, – as I said – very unhappy politically and economically.

Note that I had to cover some rallies and acts of vandalism by the opposition, such as the siege of the Ministry of Health, which they tried to set on fire with the officials inside. And I was struck by the fact that the leaders of these acts were young people of no more than 22 or 24 years of age. Why did a considerable part of the youth take the risk of overthrowing Evo Morales in the streets?

That’s a very good question for them. The truth is that in that period of the mobilization it was also proven that it was the university teachers themselves – from the public and private sectors – who, in many cases, promoted that their students join that movement, even offering grades. My own students have told me this.

But let’s agree that the youth organizations of MAS-IPSP were neither massive nor representative of the youth.

Well, they haven’t done a great job of scaling things up, even though I think there is a better job to be done now. Additionally, I would point out that during those days there were school children mobilized, induced, right? At that age, perhaps the criteria is not so well formed to take a mobilization of that nature very seriously; but they were there.

We ended up seeing how, due to the decisions of the police and the military, which were practically sold to foreign interests, a whole process went overboard.

The main thing is that something is changing in the youth and we have to do a work of awareness with them, to show them how we were, because there is a huge amount of young people who think that Bolivia has always been like these 14 years, and it is not like that, we were a very different country and we have changed it, that is why we will continue the process of transformation in view of 2025.

Strictly speaking, how do you see the issue of the coronavirus? Do you think it could affect the rescheduling of the 3-M election? How have you addressed the issue in MAS-IPSP?

We regret that the current government has not taken the appropriate measures to deal with the coronavirus, because the virus has already entered the country.

Do you think they reacted late?

Too late, the virus is already inside. They have had to take a series of measures in a forced and obligatory manner, even very exaggerated in some cases, and all to simply show that they are taking measures and in the process justify what you have just told me in the second part of your question, such as providing elements that will allow them to postpone the elections.

Do you think this is a possible scenario?

I think that the population is not in a position to put up with this supposedly transitory government any longer, the one that, for example, has been doing structural gas negotiations, signing deals with Brazil for six years, something that does not correspond to them. But also trying to issue one and a half billion dollars of debt.

If you return to the Palacio Quemado, what will you do with that?

We are going to ignore this type of debt and contracts that they are signing, because it is a de facto and transitory government that does not have the popular democratic support that should be translated into the ballot box.

I give you one more example of the excesses: Cuba. They have advanced in medical discoveries and are helping countries with the issue of the coronavirus, while here they have broken relations with the island. The people need diplomatic relations with Cuba to be resumed.

By the way, those are actions that exceed the power of any government that claims to be transitory.

That’s right. There are things that are affecting the health and economy of the population because of decisions by a de facto government, theoretically transitory. Therefore, we agree with the people who say that once there are elections and a new government is in place, it will take over everything that has to do with the problems afflicting the State.

The 3-M candidate will have to face an adverse national, regional and global economic context. How do you evaluate the crisis at the global level and the capacity of maneuvering that Bolivia may have to succeed?

I see two fundamental things here. The first has to do with the fact that we have a plan that we have proposed not only for the May elections, but it dates from October and is fully in force. The second relates to the experience of having done it, and successfully, and that the Bolivian people know that we have experience and that we have implemented our own outstanding model. On the other hand, the other proposals are an adventure for the people since they represent a return to the past. And, well, I think that we cannot at this time risk the life, health and economy of Bolivians.

What are the strongest and most outstanding points of your Government Program? What are the points of continuity and rupture (nuances) with respect to Evo Morales’ management?

We are a proposal that is going to deepen the industrialization of natural resources, that we bet on improving what we call: “the destruction of the economy”. This is because, in the last four months, the economy has been destroyed, therefore, although it was not foreseen in the October program, we must focus on rebuilding the economy. How will we do this? In the programme, there is the how.

We will also continue to fight poverty and redistribute income; that is part of the Programme.

Among your ranks there is uncertainty that “it’s one thing to win elections and another to take power”. What do you think about this – understanding that the enemy at the bottom is none other than the United States?

They have already said so explicitly, too. This Mrs Áñez declared: Let us not allow … the savages to return to power, I think that is everyone’s responsibility’. What does that “let’s not allow” mean? A fraud? Another coup?

In the same vein, a deputy from Unidad Democratica (UD) pointed out that if we won the elections, the people would see to it that we did not take power. Imagine that contradiction.

This shows that the so-called democrats had not been such, and that is part of the disappointment of many people who supported this dictatorship in the November coup d’état. It is clear to us that it will be one thing to win the elections and another to have democratic conduct on the part of this government and all those who said they were Democrats at the time, in other words, to transfer the national government to us.

Do you think they will respect the will of the people?

I hope so.

How do you see the regional chessboard and what place do you give to integration organizations such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – People’s Trade Treaty (ALBA-TCP), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) and the Union of South American Nations (Unasur)? Is the diplomacy of the peoples still in place and how?

Immediately by returning to the government we are going to re-establish our entire foreign policy. Don’t forget that the Vice President has been the Minister of Foreign Affairs and is the one who has formed and laid the cornerstone of all the country’s foreign policy. In other words, we’ll go back to what we were doing in that area.

In what phase of implementation (if any) was the Economic, Social, Community and Productive Model left?

The model is there and simply needs to be deepened. It will be maintained, we will continue to use it, because it represents a divorce from the neoliberal model. That’s why we’ll take it up again and continue to apply it, since it has been truncated these last four months.

If I had to make a brief assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the Process of Change, what would they be? The fact is that many people are noisy about the excessive confidence they had, for example, in people like Luis Almagro and institutions like the Organization of American States (OAS).

Our strength is the economic and social results, which are enviable and have been recognized by numerous international organizations.

Our weakness has been excessive confidence, and not only in organizations like the OAS, but also in the military and police leadership.

Regarding their actions, if elected president, will there be justice for the relatives of the victims of Sacaba, Senkata and other flagrant violations of human rights that have occurred since October?

Of course there will.

Roughly speaking, how do you evaluate the Áñez administration?

As a totally inefficient government, without ideas, and that the only thing it wanted was to distribute the state’s war booty for the benefit of their families. They repeat the history of Bolivia’s past.

Why did the Process of Change fall so precipitously? Why was there not a massive and popular defense? For the rest, do you think that the departure of the political leadership and key government leaders from the country was wise or did it leave the social movements orphaned and unable to respond?

It was clear that we were not prepared for such a coup; neither from the national government nor from the social organizations.

The divorce that existed between the bases and the leadership of the social organizations was evident, to the point that the leaderships were overtaken by the bases.

Do you think there was a greater reaction from the rank and file?

Than from the leadership? Yes, obviously. For me, that’s what happened and, unfortunately, that’s why there was no organized and planned resistance to defend the process.

But… do you think that the leaders’ departure was correct?

We were surprised by the way in which everything happened, very organized, digitized. Even the leaders of the social organizations that did not respond, were absent, hid, and others were persecuted or arrested. In short, we saw a mass that was headless, but that reacted and made resistance in its own way, with the consequences that we all know.

Personally, how did you experience those days?

They were the most terrible days we have ever experienced. I was no longer at home, but in a safe place, I was not yet going to the Embassy. But, to see this whole process of deterioration, the lack of resistance by social organizations, the active participation of the police encouraging the middle classes and having buildings to counteract the social organizations themselves, to see the military use all their instruments to consolidate the coup, was catastrophic, above all because we ended up seeing how, due to the decisions of the police and the military, which were practically sold to foreign interests, a whole process went down the drain.

To conclude, on the left we have a vast trajectory of analysis of victories and defeats of popular experiences. What is the historical learning that you extract from the fall of the Process of Change in Bolivia?

That we are not going to make the same mistakes.