Rafael García Mora, Bolivia F y A Dir: “It was unconceivable that a country was excluding two thirds of its population"

Fe y Alegría, with 450 education centres, works to improve the students´ conditions in a country where 13,9% of the population does not survive the age of 40. Rafael García Mora, a biologist from Cataluña, with a PHD in the UK, has become Bolivian after living almost thirty years in Bolivia. He talks to us about Evo Morales and other important issues for the country´s development.

Q. How did you start your work in Bolivia?

A. I began working as a peasant in a rural mission near Barcelona, where I met people from Bolivia. They invited me to a Guarani community in order to experiment on crops where there had been no former farming. We set up a first station and then another one in the Altiplano and a third one in the Cochabamba valley for fruit crops. It was very interesting and I realized that I could be more useful there teaching at the university, so I decided to stay in Bolivia where I have lived for the last 27 years.

Q. Can you describe Fe y Alegría Bolivia?

A. Fe y Alegría is very big, with 450 education centres and 130.000 students. We are in charge of a high percentage of Bolivian students, this is a great responsibility but also a great opportunity. When I first arrived in Fe y Alegría, the work was different, but it was a very important time for Bolivia and to work in education is an opportunity to prepare a generation for the oncoming social and cultural change.. .

Q. How did you see the election of Evo Morales and how does it affect education?

A. When I arrived in Bolivia I saw a great racial and cultural separation in a country where the majority of the population, 62%, belonged to one of the 72 different ethnical groups of the country. Maybe the percentage is now higher, since in those days to be a native was something negative. For us it is unconceivable that a country excludes two thirds of the population. They had difficulties in finding a job, in access to university, in the army ranks, in a bank where they said that to have a native at the door frightened people away. Many natives decided to change their names in order to have access to services.
When I went to the civil registry, they made me fill out a form with the colour of my hair, my eyes and my skin. It was a colonial society, the Spaniards created this when they created slaves for the mines. In other places, slaves were brought from Africa, but in this case, the Afro race adapted very badly to the altitude so the Spaniards sought the cheapest and easiest solution to slave the local population.

They established a tax system that was paid with people: every year, each community had to give a percentage of young people in working age to work in the mine. It was a five year contract. Half of them died because of the very hard conditions and those who survived had suffered such health deterioration that they had no strength to return to the community and ended up dying in the surrounding areas of the Potosí mine. They transformed human beings into tools; this was the beginning of the marginalization process, denying the human being of its dignity which has occurred in Bolivia for many years. It had to end sometime and it seems logical that it would come from a member of that group, like Evo Morales. His ancestors were "aimaras".

Q. Has slavery really been abolished in Bolivia?

A. There are still slave communities, big landowners who have natives in their lands working for practically nothing: the right to plant on a small piece of land for their food or they are given once a year some kilograms of sugar... This was one of the main conflicts that the government of Evo Morales had to face. It is very complicated to free slaves since very often people, who have lived as slaves for generations, don´t know how to live in freedom... Some were freed and went back to their owner.
Those of us who have worked to achieve that the native population be recognized as first class citizens saw the arrival of Evo as the time of change. The support and the hope were clear.

The first thing the government has done is to dignify the native population, accepting their clothing, dancing, their culture, letting them participate in the parades and making compulsory the use of their language in their regions... These measures have helped. In addition, a literacy campaign was carried out, maybe the biggest one in Bolivia. The results are questionable, since we have to see what literacy means, maybe for some it only means to be able to draw their signature... But even this helps to dignify the person.

It has opened their minds to the possibility of studying. We had a radio based education programme and we have had a great demand for this.

The government set up a post literacy programme, similar to ours but with personal attendance.
In the education area, a bonus has been established. A problem we had in Bolivia was school abandon for several reasons: school distance, poverty, teacher absence which meant they walked long distances to find nobody had shown up. ..Now they have established the "Juancito Pinto" bonus (a hero in the war against Chile), of around 200 Bolivian pesos, which is given to all those children who have attended school for the whole year. At the end he receives a bonus equivalent for example to the money needed to buy a bicycle. So many of them now say "I have to go to school so that I can have a bicycle". School abandon has lowered greatly.

During this time school infrastructure has been built: almost 5.000 new public schools, teacher salaries have been raised and in spite of teacher opposition, a compulsory ability exam has been established in order to assume the management of a school. Before this measure, some directors had not studied anything for years, they had no level to be headmasters but were working us such.

Q. Can you tell us about the health situation, which is always related to education, in Bolivia?

A. With the help of well prepared Cuban doctors, medical staff reached all corners of the country. These doctors are used to working with scarce means, with medical plants and they even practice simple operations with almost kitchen apparel. People were very happy. They have practiced eye operations, the so called Miracle Operation that carried out 450.000 cataract operations during these years.
The Spanish government has donated ambulances for each municipality and many medical centres for primary assistance have been created.

Another bonus has been created, the so called Juana Azurduy de Padilla, a heroine of the war against the Spaniards, in order to end the very grave problem in Bolivia of the infant maternity mortality. The sanitary conditions were not adequate, mothers did not go to the doctor, had no medical controls, not even when giving birth, so many mothers, 25 out of every thousand, died at child birth of hemorrhages, infections... and also 5% of the children did not reach their first year of life.

An education measure was created to help with this: a bonus so that the mother, every time she goes to the doctor receives a subsidy. She has to go at least twice before childbirth and four times before the child is two years old. It is equivalent to the price of a big powder milk can: around 50 Bolivian pesos. This is a way to inject circular money since they will not keep it in the bank but will spend it on food or clothing. This has increased the economic level of the country. People spend more, buy more...

Q. How can this economic growth be seen?

A- The GDP is growing over 4% annually, even with the crisis. Exports have improved, not only of gas but of manufactured goods. Bolivia is a good producer of clothing, shoes and fine wood furniture.
The Finance Minister is quite good, he is among the four best of the past and he is a native. He has succeeded not only in tripling the value of exports, producing a positive payment balance but has increased the reserves of the National Bank of Bolivia way over what we have had in the past. They had always been under 2,000 million dollars and now we have 8700 million dollars.

Q. What is the current situation of the conflict that existed with Spanish companies at the time of Evo´s arrival?

A. There is a scandal regarding the nationalization of hydrocarbons. The leftist groups criticized that it was not a real nationalization, but a better business deal for both sides. A single contract was signed by means of which the oil companies that were keeping 80% of the revenues by selling natural gas at 1 dollar, were allowed to increase the gas price from 1 to 5 dollars through negotiations with the Presidents of Argentina and Brazil.

The agreement is that companies retain 40% of revenues while the State takes 60%, but companies are actually generating larger profits due to the increase in prices. The pending issue is the so called reinvestment clause: all oil and gas wells are committed to invest in looking for new ones, once depleted. Previous governments that based their strategy in attracting foreign investment, freed contracts with companies such as Repsol of their reinvestment commitments. This is highly dangerous because reserves are coming to an end.

Q. What challenges do you face as the new F y A Director?

A. We have to improve our internal communication system. This is very difficult when there are many schools you cannot reach walking. We need an urgent information technology update to be able to reach people.

It is important to reach permanent agreements with State institutions to see how we can cooperate on education strategies. We also have to work on decentralization, especially in the projects of the city of La Paz, because the law has considerably increased the budget of the municipalities and departments.