Carlos Mesa

By:Zach Frederick Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:Heads of State Carlos-Mesa

Carlos Mesa, president of Bolivia from 2003-2005, is a tall, quiet man who is well informed and thoughtful about his passions. Prior to holding political office he was a historian and TV journalist. As with any leadership role, during his term Mesa struggled with the growing demands for government economic intervention from the poor indigenous population, and the tricky politics surrounding Bolivia's natural gas reserves.

At the Biennial roundtables, he commented on current Bolivian President Evo Morales’s new challenges in the country. Mesa urged President Morales that during the change process to continue to respect the rule of law, implementing change without doing it in an authoritarian manner. He also commented on the changes and divisions occurring right now in South America because of the various economic models in use throughout the region. " We must demonstrate the potential of a new and more efficient state bank, as a bridge between commercial banking and microfinance institutions extend the benefits of credit to even the poorest people.” - Carlos Mesa

In other discussions, Mesa discussed his concerns for the future of democracy in Latin America. He said there are indicators of a major crisis in the works and that it is evidenced in the resignation of several presidents before the end of their terms due to the weakness of labor, and poverty as major factors. He noted, “There is a crisis of the party and representation system that is giving birth to other systems such as the ones developing in Venezuela or Bolivia. Democracy in the streets and informal pressure groups represent new actors that undermine the existing institutional structure.” He sees the weakness of labor organizations (like the COB or the CGT) as another critical factor that threatens democracy in Latin countries and explains that wide-spread poverty can degrade the democratic process. “A lack of credibility, organized crime, and political volatility are not caused [exclusively] by poverty, but poverty does exacerbate them," stated Mesa.

I had the distinct honor of meeting the Bolivian leader to learn more about his country.

Q: Based on your experience as a historian and ex-leader of a former Spanish colony, why do you feel that the former English colonies (U.S., Australia, Canada, etc.) tend to have a greater rate of sustained economic success and stability, than those colonies of the Spanish, Portuguese, or French?

A: It is a response to be measured at the time in history. Today, the Anglo-Saxon countries are more successful than ours, but if you measure the long term history, in the past the Latin countries were the largest world powers (Rome or Spain, for example). The Latin American countries were the first after the United States to gain their independence in a block with Republican and modern ideas. We must work to build more solid institutions, create less politicization, and embrace openness to new ideas.

Q: You have said Bolivia is undergoing dramatic change at the moment. Many Bolivians are looking to the government to level the playing field economically. By and large, history has proven that governments cannot do this with long term results. Is it possible to solve Bolivia's extreme poverty with more market-driven solutions which are supported with strong law and order?

A: Bolivia lives an experience of profound transformations, but it is not facing the radical fight against poverty and inequality in an efficient and serious manner. Bolivia should make more efforts in social investment by incorporating with the global economy without ideological prejudices.

He expands on his thoughts in the "Social Agenda for Democracy in Latin America" where he says, “We must recover the role of development banks, which is part of the revival of the state in the economy. It is an issue beyond microcredit. Development banking was an important moment in Latin American economic history, and today it must be rescued on the condition that the errors of the past that led to bankruptcy and political patronage must be corrected. We must demonstrate the potential of a new and more efficient state bank, as a bridge between commercial banking and microfinance institutions extend the benefits of credit to even the poorest people.” In fact in Bolivia, microcredit now represents almost 30% of total credit in the financial system, which probably does not occur in large economies like Brazil, Argentina, or Mexico. “Efficiency has made microfinance competitive,” Mesa says.

When asked about the political challenges in integrating the very large indigenous population, especially in relation to successfully lifting them from relative poverty, Mesa said, “You have to differentiate the actions of the government with the indigenous populations. More importantly, you must give them equal opportunities. There may need to be more emphasis on education, health and full integration into society that materially benefits their communities.”

In the Agenda, Mesa uses examples of intercultural and bilingual education within indigenous populations and asserts that a key aspect of education is its, “choice of language of instruction as a basic definer of the educational system,” which has to be incorporated with the processes of socialization and the development and preservation of each population and its culture. “In addition,” he says, “we need to have a multi-level approach to education, health, and nutrition in the pre- and primary school levels, and a multi-level approach to the issue of school violence. To confront the main problems in education—particularly, the education of the poor—will take more than focusing on new technologies. We must define what we mean by educator and student and the process of learning.”

Just for fun, I asked Mesa about soccer because I knew he liked the sport and was happy with Uruguay’s performance in the World Cup. I asked, “Does this pride in Uruguay or Chile's performance imply there is a burgeoning pan-South American patriotism? How could such patriotism specifically help South America solve some of its many challenges?” He said, “Soccer is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest prides of South America, but the idea of regional pride should be based on integration, defeating poverty and quality education, innovation, technology and cultural contributions to the rest of the world.”

Despite economic and political differences, it is clear that Mesa hopes that the countries of the Western Hemisphere can have a more solid working relationship and that Bolivia will conquer some of its outstanding issues.