Bolivian president on hunger strike

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Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: The President of Bolivia is raising some eyebrows. Evo Morales began a hunger strike yesterday. Hunger strikes are a common form of protest around the globe, but you rarely hear of a president staging one. Reporter Annie Murphy is in La Paz, Bolivia. Annie, why is President Morales on a hunger strike?

ANNIE MURPHY: Well, President Morales is on a hunger strike because he wants the country to pass a law that's calling new presidential elections. The country approved by a 64 percent of the majority vote, the general public, a new constitution. By law, they're obligated to call presidential elections. The Congress right now is blocking those elections, and he's on a hunger strike.

WERMAN: How long could the Bolivian Congress block this for?

MURPHY: They, you know, potentially could do it indefinitely. I don't think it will come to that, obviously. At the end of the day, they need to do something. And there is the alternative that the government could just close the Congress and rule by decree, which this government and the other governments have done in the past here. I think they're trying to avoid that, though, because that's obviously not the most democratic model.

WERMAN: And what do the Congress people in Bolivia have to say about Morales's hunger strike?

MURPHY: It depends on who you talk to. There are a lot of people in the Congress who support Morales. They're obviously with him on this hunger strike. The opposition, however, thinks it's absolutely ridiculous. They think it's a way of manipulating the Congress, because the president is not supposed to have any direct influence over the Congress ? and this has been kind of his outlet to show, you know, exactly how fed up he is.

WERMAN: I think if President Obama were to go on a hunger strike, it would be safe to assume that Americans would find it pretty shocking. Does he have public support for his hunger strike?

MURPHY: I think in general he does. I think it's really important to keep in mind that President Morales comes from this history of social movements and of protests. He was a Cocoa Union leader before he was president, so this is kind of how he made his mark here in Bolivia, leading protests including hunger strikes. People are used to it, and this is why, you know, they support him in the first place.

WERMAN: As you say, he's a former Cocolero Union leader. He's also a former cocoa farmer. And you know, leaf consumption ? cocoa leaf consumption for traditional purposes isn't illegal in Bolivia. They're used to ward off the effects of altitude sickness and hunger. I'm wondering if he's chewing any leaf through this hunger strike. Is he cheating at all?

MURPHY: Absolutely. He's absolutely chewing cocoa leaf. He has quite a few people striking with him. In the palace right now, he's in one of the main rooms with about 14 other social movement leaders. They're all chewing cocoa, and they've estimated about 1,000 people across the country who are already in a hunger strike to support him, and a lot of people are talking about how yeah, they're using cocoa leaf to ward off hunger and stay awake.

WERMAN: How long can he go without eating? If you don't eat for a long enough time, you will die.

MURPHY: This is true. I certainly don't expect it to come to that. He does seem very bent on making his point at this moment. I know that in the past, he's lasted for several weeks on hunger
strikes. So he certainly has it in him for a long time to resist eating and to show that he has, you know, that he's not in favor of this opposition.

WERMAN: So he's done this kind of thing before? He has staged hunger strikes?

MURPHY: Absolutely. When he was a union leader, when he led marches, when he led demonstrations -- many of them to decriminalize the cocoa leaf ? he has used the hunger strike in many other instances.

WERMAN: And he's working through the strike?

MURPHY: He actually has suspended his official duties. Right now, he's in the palace with the other social movement leaders and he's called off his official visits, and all of his regular day-to-day functions he's not doing right now.

WERMAN: Where does that leave the government?

MURPHY: The government? He has also instructed all of his ministers to continue working, all of the government offices. Some ministers offered to go into the hunger strike with him and he said that that was just not an acceptable thing to do. He wanted the country to continue working. He's trying to make a political point, but he doesn't want the country to go on hold while he's doing that.

WERMAN: All right. We'll leave it there. Reporter Annie Murphy in La Paz, Bolivia. Thanks very much for your time.

MURPHY: Thanks a lot, Marco.