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Indigenous and Latin American leaders optimistic about Obama

Latin American reaction to the presidential election victory of Barack Obama has been overwhelmingly positive. Indigenous leaders as well as presidents of countries with activist native communities sent notes of congratulations to the president elect; they have also expressed optimism for improved relations between Latin America and the U.S.

For Bolivian President Evo Morales, whose historic victory as an indigenous man winning the presidency in a country with a long and violently racist past, the Obama victory was a “historic triumph.”

“… on behalf of the national government, congratulations,” President Morales said at a press conference Nov. 5. “He [Obama] is a man who comes from one of the sectors most discriminated against, from people who were enslaved; it is historic certainly.

“I am sure he will continue to make history,” Morales continued. “I am also sure that the relations between the Bolivian and U.S. governments will improve.”

The Aymaran leader repeated his assertion that “… who could have been better, … a person who represents the most marginalized people, the African Americans.” President Morales went on to encourage the president-elect to lift the blockade against Cuba (as would the presidents of Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela) and to retire U.S. troops from “… some countries.”

Columbian indigenous leaders that have been dealing with army troops from their own country recently have also expressed their hope for a better relationship between the U.S. and all native peoples. Representatives of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN) sent an open letter to Obama where they congratulated him and urged him to change U.S. policy towards their nation.

“First, please accept our sincerest congratulations” the Nov. 10 letter states. “We congratulate you for having won because of the noblest aspirations of your people. We believe your election expresses the deep desire for change felt by the majority of the American people: change in the economy and society, change in international relations, and from there, we hope, a change in the relation between the United States of America and the indigenous peoples of the world.”

In their missive the ACIN writers thank Obama for his public acknowledgement of the killing of Columbian union leaders and his opposition to the U.S.-Columbia Free Trade Agreement. They also asserted that this treaty works against native peoples.

“In the past six years we have lost 1,200 people to assassinations by armed groups, both legal and illegal: right-wing paramilitaries, guerrillas, police, and members of the Armed Forces,” the letter reads. “These murders have created insecurity, and this insecurity has been used to strip us of our rights with what we call the ‘Laws of Disposession,’ legislation and other institutional norms that legalize the loss of our lands, our fundamental freedoms and our rights. These ‘Laws of Disposession’ dispose of Colombia’s mines, hydrocarbons, water resources, intellectual property and national parks – all of these are brought under the ultimate rule of the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. The FTA will mean that if Colombia tries to change the laws to allow its people to share in its resources, or take any independent action, then we will be obliged to compensate investors. We will have to submit our laws to international arbitration outside our own legal jurisdiction.”

Another vocal opponent of U.S. policy in general, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela who also has indigenous heritage, expressed hope that the situation between his nation and the U.S. could improve under an Obama administration.

“This is an historic election of a person of African descent to become head of the most powerful nation in the world,” President Chavez said at a Nov. 5 gathering. “… this is the signal that the epochal change that began in South America could be knocking on the doors of the United States.”

“The government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela ratifies its will and determination to build, from the base of an absolute respect for sovereignty, a constructive bilateral agenda for the well being of the Venezuelan and U.S. peoples,” he added.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil also noted the historic importance of the Obama election and expressed his wish for improved relations between the U.S. and all of Latin America as well as Africa.

“Whoever doubted that a black man could be elected president of the United States now knows that it can happen and – this shows how a society can emerge in a democratic regime. It is an extraordinary accomplishment,” President Lula continued. “I applaud the great political skill that Barack Obama has demonstrated.”

The Brazilian president congratulated Obama but noted that winning an election and governing are two different things.

“There is a great difference between winning the election and governing a country like the United States,” he asserted. “I am waiting to see what is going to happen when he takes office.”

Leaders from Ecuador, a nation with a very large indigenous population, also expressed cautious optimism about the Prsesident-elect.

“We consider this an opportunity to come closer and to find many more points in common between the two countries, to advance towards a positive relationship,” said Foreign Relations Minister Maria Isabel Salvador.

Minister Salvador also opined that Obama’s victory brought “winds of hope” to the region.

Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet was even more upbeat in her assessment of the Obama victory.

“With this triumph, we have seen a moment in history,” she said. “Because today, when the world faces serious challenges in areas so important to people’s lives, like the energy crisis, the economic crisis and the food crisis, it is obvious the entire international community needs new solutions.”

“I know that the principals that he cares about are social justice and equality of opportunities. … surely the same principles that inspire us in Chile,” President Bachelet said in her early morning Nov. 5 press event. She finished the conference saying that she knows the two countries will continue to work together and that she hopes they can take advantage of new opportunities including, but not limited to, economic issues.