Bolivia’s New Political Space: An Interview With Ambassador Pablo Solón

On March 7, NACLA Research Associate Jason Tockman interviewed Pablo Solón, Bolivia's ambassador to the United Nations. Solón brought his unique combination of both grass-roots economic-justice activism and his more recent official background under the Evo Morales administration to the interview. With this broad experience he takes on myriad topics, stressing that Latin America is finally moving away from the claws of the Monroe Doctrine, and beginning to define its own future, despite what happened in Honduras. This has had a direct impact on Bolivia as it continues to move forward with its own particular challenges.

Jason Tockman

Pablo Solón is Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations. He has served as President Evo Morales’s top ambassador on trade and economic integration matters, the secretary pro tempore of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and the Andean spokesperson for the “cooperation pillar” in negotiations between the Andean Community and the European Union. Before taking governmental posts, Solón worked as an activist with indigenous movements, labor unions, student associations, and human rights and cultural organizations in Bolivia. Having been a leading voice and organizer against free trade policies under neoliberal presidents, Solón became a key architect of Bolivia’s trade and integration policies under Morales, which enabled him to translate into policy many of the ideas that had been articulated and refined in the crucible of struggle. From 1997 to 2005, he was the executive director of the Solón Foundation, created for the preservation of the work and thoughts of his father, Walter Solón Romero, a renowned Bolivian muralist. He was interviewed in Vancouver, British Columbia, on March 7, by NACLA research associate Jason Tockman.

Can you describe what happened at the summit that took place February 21–23 in Cancún, Mexico, with the creation of a new Community of Latin American and Caribbean States?

In Cancún, all of the Latin American nations agreed to build a new organization that would begin a process of integration of Latin America and the Caribbean, without the United States and Canada. This is really a very important achievement because it means that Latin America is no longer the backyard of the United States. You must remember the Monroe Doctrine, which said, “What is good for America is good for Latin America.” So, now we are seeing a change in Latin America, saying “What is good for Latin America is what we Latin Americans think is good.” That is the big message, and the big accomplishment. Now we must see it as a process. It’s not something that’s going to be accomplished in one year. No, it’s going to be a process. It will take time, and there will be a lot of contradictions. It’s not going to be easy. But the first step has been taken.

How do you see this Community existing alongside the other regional bodies, like the Organization of American States (OAS), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA)?

For the OAS, it’s a really great challenge. In the future, this integration of Latin America and the Caribbean will be in place in reality; then, the power of the OAS and the United States in the region will decrease. In the case of UNASUR, it is the other way around. For example, in UNASUR, we already have a treaty that establishes UNASUR, and one of our main goals as UNASUR is to build this process of integration. When we agreed to create the UNASUR, we always said that this was a step in order to accomplish the big process of integration. So, there is no contradiction. There is only a process of how you begin to build it. When it comes to ALBA, it is a process of political alliance. The countries are there not because of geographical circumstances, but because they are anti-neoliberal. That is the main reason. ALBA works inside the OAS. ALBA works inside the UNASUR, with the countries that are part of South America. ALBA will work inside this new broader alliance. What’s good about this broader alliance is that all members of ALBA are part of it.

What has been the vision of the ALBA?

ALBA has changed in the process; that is my personal point of view. At the beginning, it was something against the process of the Free Trade Area of the Americas [FTAA]. At the beginning, it was a way to respond to what the FTAA was. Then the FTAA really died in Mar del Plata, but ALBA continued to exist and grow, because Evo Morales came into the government, and then we have the cases of Ecuador, Nicaragua, Dominica, and so on. Now you have an ALBA point of reference for several issues, not only regional issues that have to do with cooperation or trade, but also global concerns like climate change. So ALBA is an alliance. The name has changed, from “Alternative” to “Alliance.” They have the same initials, but now there has been a change. We realized that now we were developing something different.

What have been the major advances of the ALBA?

The major advance has been to unify, to articulate and to coordinate the policies of progressive, anti-neoliberal governments. Then you have cooperation, solidarity, and fair trade between states.

And how has it affected Bolivia?

In many ways, but the main way is political. To be part of a broader political alliance—in a world that is globalized and dominated by the United States, especially in our region—is to have space around you, political space. And then, of course, Venezuela has participated very strongly when it comes to cooperation and trade in the cases of the importation of diesel or the export of textiles. [Bolivia’s] trade preferences with the United States were lost, and if we hadn’t had another market to sell those textiles, around 10,000 jobs would directly have been lost, and probably 20,000 to 25,000 jobs would have been indirectly lost. The possibility of maintaining that market, but redirecting it to Venezuela, and to grow in textile exports, has allowed us to not only keep those jobs, but to begin to create new jobs and new companies which have more participation by small producers. That is one of the main accomplishments.

Shifting to the crisis in Honduras with the overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya, what should the international community do about Honduras now, in terms of recognition of the new government?

The position of Bolivia is that we cannot recognize it, because to recognize it would mean that, in the end, we accept that a coup d’état is something that you can allow – if after that coup d’état the putschists call an election. That is not acceptable. Our position is that we do not recognize the government. They have violated the Democracy Charter of the OAS. That is the charter that the United States promoted, but now they do not want to respect it when it comes to Honduras.

What was the role of the United States in how events unfolded?

The United States has one of its main military bases in Honduras, so it is impossible to have a coup d’état in Honduras without the United States knowing in advance. Second, the United States did not act as it would have acted in other cases. They did not block the government of Micheletti. They were obliged to agree to expel Honduras from the OAS, but in reality, they worked to have a way out so that those who committed the violation were not sanctioned by the international community. And that is what we are seeing now. This sends a really bad message to the opposition to progressive governments in Latin America, because they can say: “Hey, we can do what we did in Honduras. We can lead a coup d’état, and we’ll be criticized; maybe we’ll be isolated in some way. But in the end, look what has happened: You can manage to move on.”

On the domestic front, now that the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) has secured a strong majority in the Legislative Assembly, what will be at the top of its political agenda?

We have a new Constitution, but in order to implement it, we need a lot of new laws—laws that have to do with judicial power, the environment, land, international relations, foreign investment. The second issue is that we need to industrialize the country, which imports most of what it consumes other than food. Third, we need to provide access to all public services to the whole population. It is not enough to say that access to water is a human right. You have to guarantee electricity; you have to guarantee telecommunications; you have to guarantee mobility—things that, now in Bolivia, are not yet solved.

You mentioned industrialization. What are the roles for both the private sector, including international capital and foreign governments, like that of Venezuela, in Bolivia’s industrialization strategies?

First of all, we encourage associations between states that have the purpose of solidarity, and in which that investment does not just exploit raw materials but transforms them and adds value inside the country. In some cases, we can do this in association with other states, but in other cases, we need foreign investment. The issue is the rules under which we are going to allow this foreign investment—how much they are going to leave for the country, how much they are going to have as profit, who is going to own it, the transfer of technology, the transformation of raw materials inside the country. Those are the key issues that Bolivia has synthesized into the words “When it comes to foreign investment, we don’t want bosses; we want partners.” If they can accept that rule, they are welcome. We will no longer accept the relations that we had before.

Lastly, can you describe what you see as the most important forms of popular participation that exist in Bolivia today?

The most important is the participation of social movements. If we weaken the organization of social movements, the process in Bolivia can go backward. The second mechanism is the referendum. This is the first government in the history of Bolivia that has had so many referendums. So, direct referendums are very important. Another is to now have people elect judges of the Supreme Court. And the proposal to have a worldwide referendum on climate change goes even beyond what we had hoped in terms of participation.


Jason Tockman is a NACLA Research Associate.

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