Briggs: Bolivia’s president for change


Bolivia’s President Evo Morales came to Washington, D.C. the week before Thanksgiving seeking a meeting of minds – using public forums and whatever media would take an interest – to reach the American people and President-Elect Obama.

The 48-year-old Aymara Indian leads the poorest country in South America. Yet he is heralded by indigenous peoples in the southern half of the hemisphere as the first wholly indigenous national leader of Bolivia.

For the indigenous majority of Bolivia, the election of this president was every bit as groundbreaking as Barack Obama’s election is for African Americans. This comparison was one that Morales reiterated at every opportunity during his recent visit.

But there the comparisons with the Harvard Law School-educated former senator from Illinois run thin. Americans of all races celebrated Obama’s election. But in Bolivia, a still segregated country where until recently indigenous people were not allowed to walk on certain sidewalks, the challenges facing its indigenous president are stark.

Still, Morales deserves the attention of North American Indian leaders because he often talks about values that indigenous peoples share. For one example, he routinely mentions Mother Earth by name as a consideration in world politics – everywhere from the United Nations General Assembly to the “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

Evo Morales deserves the attention of North American Indian leaders because he often talks about values that indigenous peoples share.

“It is my suggestion that in his new millennium it should be the millennium of life here, in Cuba, Venezuela, Africa,” Morales told the Daily Show in 2007. “We must come together to save humankind. At the U.N. I heard talk about global warming, climate change. Where does this come from? It comes from the Western culture of excessive luxury, of over consumption.”

Morales pointedly ended the interview, joking, “And don’t call me the axis of evil,” getting a laugh from Jon Stewart.

But this talk on the world stage is dangerous. Since the spring Morales’s leftist government has survived a violent coup attempt launched by forces who oppose his nationalizing of oil, gas and land resources. Many indigenous people were massacred, reported the “Real News Network,” an international online news outlet.

“You can see there was an attempted coup that didn’t succeed,” Morales told “Democracy Now.” “And I want to salute that, and that is the reason why I’m here in the U.S. I want to express my respect for the international community, because everybody condemned the coup against democracy. … everybody but the U.S., but the ambassador of the U.S.”

In July, Morales won a referendum election with 64 percent of the electorate, a far higher percentage of support than the sitting president of the United States has seen in recent years.

By September, Morales suspended U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency efforts to eradicate the coca farms. He called U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Phillip S. Goldberg a persona non grata, and a source of conspiracy and insults.

The first indigenous president of Bolivia and the first black president of America both come from humble beginnings.

Morales told Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, hosts of “Democracy Now,” when asked if the U.S. was involved with the coup attempt, that Goldberg had called Morales the “Andean Bin Laden” and the largely poor, indigenous coca farmers the “Taliban.” It is clear from news reports that volunteers and scholars traveling in Bolivia were asked by the U.S. Embassy to spy.

George W. Bush responded by excluding Bolivia from favorable tariffs on exports to the U.S. under Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, and expelling the Bolivian ambassador.

Still in mid-September, Bolivia’s capitol city was surging with tens of thousands of Morales’ supporters, the “Real News Network” reported. They gathered in celebration of a draft constitution which conveys full citizenship to members of more than 30 indigenous groups. The constitution will go to a democratic vote in January.

So in the waning hours of the G20 Conference Convened by President Bush, to which Morales was not invited, Morales made his first state visit to Washington. He met members of Congress. He addressed the Organization of American States and spoke at American University. He was received at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

In his speech at American University, which the “Real News Network” posted on its Web site, Morales stated that the draft constitution establishes the basis for a multicultural Bolivia, including “blacks, whites, mixed breeds, indigenous people.”

He talked about electricity, water and telecommunications as human rights, even when that meant nationalizing corporations, which have controlled some of these resources. “Communication is a human right,” he told “Democracy Now.” “You have to go into rural areas. It doesn’t matter if you lose money, because we have to give them telecommunications.”

By nationalizing oil and gas resources, bringing revenues from $300 million in 2004-2005 to more than $2 billion now, he said Bolivia has money to provide social programs in areas such as literacy for its 10 million citizens. He announced in Washington that on Dec. 25 Bolivia will be an illiteracy-free zone.

It is his record of change that Morales brought to the U.S., hoping that common ground could be found, if not with the current president then with the next. The first indigenous president of Bolivia and the first black president of America both come from humble beginnings, worked as community organizers and came to power in populous movements. They are both equally adept in communicating across international borders.

It will be Obama’s no-drama leadership style more than his charisma that may in time untangle the contentious relationship left by the current administration, and lead to the respectful nation-to-nation, agree-to-disagree relationship that Bolivia seeks with the United States.

Kara Briggs, Yakama and Snohomish, is a columnist for Indian Country Today. She is a journalist, and lives at the Tulalip reservation in Washington State.