Since his landslide election win in December, Bolivian President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, has turned South America's poorest nation into a hemispheric player. His recent nationalization of Bolivia's oil and natural-gas reserves has made him, along with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a leader of a leftist surge in Latin American politics. It has also put Morales at odds with the U.S., which he is scheduled to visit in June. Morales, 46, talked with TIME's Tim Padgett and Jean Friedman-Rudovsky last week at the presidential palace in the Bolivian capital of La Paz.
TIME You're a democratically elected President, yet U.S. President George W. Bush remarked this week that he fears "an erosion of democracy" in Bolivia.
MORALES The nationalization was simply my government obeying a demand made by the Bolivian people in the election. That's democracy, a communal democracy with consensus. I think Mr. Bush wants us to be a colonized democracy: dependent, submissive and subordinate to foreign interests.
TIME Why do you and so many other Bolivians believe that nationalization was necessary?
MORALES Bolivia is a majority indigenous nation, but that majority has always been excluded. So we needed to end that internal colonialism and return the land and its natural resources to those who have lived on it for so many hundreds of years, instead of putting our economy in the hands of the World Bank, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and transnational corporations. We, of course, want [private] investment partners, and we want them to profit, but we should be the absolute owners of the land and resources.
TIME But would that nationalization plan be possible without the investment aid you expect to receive from President Chávez?
MORALES We have partnerships with U.S., European and Mexican companies as well as with Venezuela. The difference between Venezuela and other countries is that Venezuela supports us unconditionally, while countries like the U.S. always impose so many conditions in exchange for aid or credit.
TIME Do you see the success or failure of Bolivia's energy nationalization as a key test for the new Latin left?
MORALES Globalization and the neoliberal economic model have already been rejected in Latin America; it simply hasn't been a solution for our people. At the same time, Latin countries like Venezuela and Argentina are anti-imperialist and antiglobalization, and yet their economies are growing again. Globalization creates economic policies where the transnationals lord over us, and the result is misery and unemployment. I think the success of Bolivia's nationalization will be evident soon--and then the whole world will want to nationalize its energy resources.
TIME You and President Chávez have been accused of divisive meddling in the politics of other Latin nations, such as the June 4 presidential election in Peru, in which you have been supportive of leftist candidate Ollanta Humala.
MORALES I don't believe we're meddling in anyone else's internal politics. Historically, foreign powers have always been the ones to keep Latin nations divided. We're working instead for the economic and social integration of Latin America.
TIME Is that really a viable dream?