INTERVIEW: Roberto Calzadilla, Bolivian Ambassador to the UK
In the 16th century, half the silver produced in the New World came from Potosí in Bolivia, then one of the largest and wealthiest cities on Earth. Today, following years of dictatorships and aggressive foreign interventionist policies, Bolivia is one of the most poverty-stricken nations in South America in spite of its abundant natural resources. In this interview with Olivia Arigho Stiles, Ambassador Calzadilla discusses Bolivia’s commitment to the planet, its relations with the global north and why Bolivian cuisine will be the next culinary craze.
Yet with the advent of the country’s first indigenous leader, President Evo Morales and the grassroots party Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) in 2005, the country has enjoyed a period of sustained economic growth and social development. Aided by high commodity prices, Bolivia’s GDP under Morales has increased from $9 billion to $30 billion.
The Bolivian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Roberto Calzadilla is a vocal supporter of the Morales regime. Softly spoken and contemplative in demeanour, he was previously the Bolivian Ambassador to the Netherlands and has a background at the UN. I ask him about the recent US sanctions against Venezuela in light of Bolivia’s robust advocacy of pan-Latin American solidarity. Bolivia also famously shares a fractious relationship with the US, expelling the US ambassador in 2011. Tactfully he replies, ‘We don’t think that Venezuela could be a threat to the United States, and the declaration that Venezuela was a threat was an overstatement by the US. We resumed relations [with the US] at the last meeting of the Organisation of American States (OAS) in Panama, which was quite important in re-establishing a new phase in these very tense relations. Today with the re-establishment of Cuba-America relations, we think it’s a very big step forward’.
He is sanguine about the prospect of international cooperation between the US and Latin America. ‘We think the South and North America can be good partners in developing prosperity for the people but we have to overcome some tension of the past, some relations that were asymmetrical I would say. Today [Latin America] has a new confidence. But we have to overcome neo-colonialism and interventionism that has characterised relations between North and South.’
This reference to interventionism invokes the period prior to 2005 when Bolivia was subject to a range of US backed International Monetary Fund (IMF) ‘structural adjustment programmes’. In order to repay debts, Bolivia was forced to privatise to render its economy attractive to transnational corporations. The support for MAS arose out of popular mobilisation in the ‘Water Wars’ which flared up in 2000 in Cochabamba where the water industry had been taken over by the US corporation Bechtel with the collusion of the neoliberal government and the IMF.
“Today Bolivia has more sovereignty, more dignity, more prosperity”
Calzadilla credits Bolivia’s dramatic advances in poverty reduction to the policies followed by MAS. The party swept to power in 2005 on a socialistic programme affirming the dignity of the indigenous population and granting new powers of autonomy to localities. Extreme poverty has decreased from 36% to 18%, and Calzadilla expresses optimism that it can be lowered to 9% in five years. ‘Today Bolivia has more sovereignty, more dignity, more prosperity. This has shown that the policies undertaken by Morales were the right ones for Bolivian society. This is reflected in the result of the last elections [where] Bolivians voted more than 61% for Evo Morales. We have overreached the Millennium [Development] Goals. The middle class in Bolivia has increased; at least 2 million people have entered this new status. Bolivia was a country which had an income of $1000 per capita until 2005 and today we are about $3000 dollars per capita.’ Rebutting claims that the MAS has become increasingly conciliatory to big business, Calzadilla affirms that ‘any business you want to undertake in Bolivia is respected… but it doesn’t mean that we have a model where transnational corporations can do what they want. This is why I say its very pragmatic. Bolivia is part of the world and we have to see that we need also to have to have a development agenda.’
Bolivia has ample reason for confidence on this front. It has the planet’s largest reserves of lithium, a vital component in electric car batteries, placing it at the forefront of the world’s clean energy development. Calzadilla speaks enthusiastically about Bolivia’s lithium potential ― ‘This is certainly going to be a contribution to the world. In terms of clean energy, you can see that Bolivia is heavily investing in the development of these resources. In the past we had many resources that were explored and exported but were not [properly] industrialised. Today lithium is going to be a contribution of Bolivia for the car industry.’
As part of a broader programme of international trade, the Ambassador sees the UK-Bolivia commercial relationship as especially strong. ‘We have British Gas [being] very active in Bolivia. In the South we are one of the main exporters to Brazil and Argentina and this is certainly one good example of international cooperation with companies like British Gas. Today we see British Gas still operating in Bolivia, they are investing in Bolivia and the perspectives are very positive.’
“We have an historical respect for Mother Earth which comes with the nature of our Bolivian society”
However one of the barriers to the development of the lithium industry is Bolivia’s lack of sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean which is subject of a long-standing disagreement with Chile. Bolivia lost its coastline in the War of the Pacific (1879–1904) and has not had diplomatic relations with Chile since 1978. ‘We are also working to overcome past problems of the region. Bolivia at the moment doesn’t have sovereign access to the Pacific, but as you know, we have put forward a case to the International Court of Justice which is coming up in next May. The Pacific War had many unresolved problems that we are facing today. One of the main problems that Bolivia is facing is that [lack of sea access] could also increase the price of lithium, because we have to come through several countries.The new challenges of the Pacific means there are new markets for soya and minerals which before were North oriented. But there is a lot that is complementary between the economies of Bolivia and Chile.’
But a programme of continued fossil fuel extraction raises questions over the reconciliation of economic development in the natural resource-rich global south with preservation of the planet. On the world stage, Bolivia consistently espouses a fierce commitment to environmental protection and it passed a law in 2010 giving legal standing to natural systems. At the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Lima in December 2014, Morales argued that developed countries have a historical responsibility to take the lead in tackling climate change. So does Bolivia place sole responsibility for the climate crisis with developed nations? Calzadilla expands cautiously, ‘I think we have common responsibilities, but there are some historical responsibilities that the industrial nations have to take. We have common responsibilities but we have differentiated responsibilities. And certainly we have differentiated capabilities within technology, and resources for adaptation, mitigation and so on. It is a global challenge that we have to face in a partnership and this is what we hope Paris [COP21 conference] will achieve.’
”We have to remember that we don’t have three planets, we have just one”
He sees Bolivia’s commitment to ecological policy as a logical extension of the strong indigenous influence in Bolivian society. ‘We have an historical respect for Mother Earth which comes with the nature of our Bolivian society, which is very linked to this indigenous vision of respecting the earth and seeing that we are part of the earth. This has been put in our constitution. We have a law of Mother Earth and we have given rights to Mother Earth. We think that we have to remember that we don’t have three planets, we have just one, and we have to take care of our water, our air. We were very active in the UN in order to get the resolution on water as a human right.’
He is optimistic about the advance of an environmental agenda in Europe. ‘I think that Europe is showing a big commitment. Societies here are more conscious about the different effects of everything, the inter-relation of everything. Today I see more and more a commitment towards [environmentally] friendly sources of energy. There are political parties also here in the UK which are more committed to these areas, you see the case of Trident recently in discussion.’
Elsewhere on the international stage, a nexus of Bolivia’s relations hinges on coca, a key ingredient in cocaine. Coca has been consumed for centuries in the Andean regions and is an integral part of indigenous cultures; Morales himself was a cocalero (coca grower). Bolivia is currently estimated to be the world’s second largest coca leaf exporter and coca eradication has historically been used to justify US intervention in Bolivia. The Ambassador becomes slightly prickly when I broach this subject. ‘First of all, Bolivia has [reduced coca growing] from 60,000 hectares to 23,000 hectares. The trend today is that Bolivia, without the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration], is doing very well in controlling production of coca. Recently there has been a major study undertaken in patterns of traditional coca consumption. It requires about 15,000 hectares so there is a gap still, and still diversion to the illicit market. But in terms of what has been done in terms of controlling coca consumption, [Bolivia] has been amazing and has been recognised by the United Nations as such.’
Yet fundamental problems of definition persist. ‘Coca is still considered by the UN convention as a drug but it’s not a drug as such. In Bolivia it is chewed, it is drunk in tea. This is something we see as part of our biodiversity, part of our culture.’
“In the future I believe you will see Bolivian restaurants established in Europe”
Another lucrative though not illegal Bolivian commodity (mercifully for health conscious Westerners) is quinoa. The superfood has been consumed by indigenous communities for centuries, and has lately become very popular in the West leading to a spike in exports. Calzadilla is animated about the nutritious grain ― ‘we see it as a contribution to the world… this is a major response to global junk food ’ ― and its economic benefits for the poor indigenous communities who cultivate it. Indeed, given the surge in popularity of Peruvian restaurants across London, Calzadilla’s bouyant claim that ‘In the future I believe you will see Bolivian restaurants established in Europe’ is not outside the realms of possibility.
The defining sentiment conveyed through conversation with the Bolivian Ambassador is a sense of hope and optimism about Bolivia’s future. Although relatively maligned politically, Bolivia’s economic potential and political diversity mean it can only be a significant actor in the future global milieu. Its government’s nuanced commitment to ecological and human well-being is a prescient political project for the post-Millennium era. The view looks bright indeed from this ‘rooftop of the world’.
His Excellency Roberto Calzadilla is the Bolivian Ambassador to the United Kingdom. He was speaking to Olivia Arigho Stiles.
In this interview with Olivia Arigho Stiles, Ambassador Calzadilla discusses Bolivia’s commitment to the planet, its relations with the global north and why Bolivian cuisine will be the next culinary craze.