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Kearns: Beyond sound bites: The next U.S. president and indigenous America

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Indigenous America is in the process of coming together, with leaders meeting and working on various projects. If the next president of the United States is sympathetic to this process, he or she will have to go beyond sound bite posturing regarding foreign policy and take a close look at the records of all Latin American leaders. The next president will need to mend relations with other countries, sure, but relations with our southern neighbors must be repaired through direct communication.

This means talking to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro of Cuba.

It does not mean endorsing all of their actions or casually calling them for a visit; it just means taking a sane approach to dealing with a quickly developing trade bloc that has the potential to take business away from the United States, and to learning from countries making strides in restoring justice for indigenous people, namely Venezuela and Bolivia.

In the last four years, trade networks in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, Uruguay, Ecuador and Paraguay have been developed and enhanced. Even relations between many of these countries and more conservative regimes in Colombia, Guatemala and Peru have strengthened. They have not agreed to all the conditions for the broadening of Mercosur, the Southern Market, but most of them are discussing it. They have had public conflicts, like the one between Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and President Chavez; there have been differences of opinion, as between Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Bolivian President Evo Morales. But in the main they have not suspended their diplomatic efforts. In fact, in the case of the Colombian and Bolivian leaders, Presidents Uribe and Morales met earlier in the summer and were seen smiling and kidding around with each other on the dais. Consider that scene for a moment, between the Latin American leader on one side who is arguably President George Bush's best friend in the region and on the other side a very popular leader who is a former coca grower and a very close friend to both Chavez and Castro; and somehow Uribe and Morales can have civil relations and still disagree with many of each others policies.

It's called diplomacy, and it's not a black or white proposition. There are important nuances and shades of gray. U.S. presidents have been able to negotiate with opposing leaders; President Ronald Reagan held back-channel negotiations with his Soviet counterparts, for instance, without ever supporting communism.

We have seen the disastrous results of the Bush administration's ''yer fer me or aginst me'' attitude. It's going to take some time to repair the damage. It is possible to communicate with people and regimes with whom we don't agree and not lose any moral ground. Our southern neighbors are certainly approaching diplomacy with that perspective.

While there are many leaders in the region who have had trouble with the pugnacious Chavez or have not embraced Castro - although many of these administrations are at least communicating with the Cuban government - most are not ending their relations with Venezuela. President Tabare Vazquez of Uruguay, for example, has not agreed to certain Chavez-backed policies for Mercosur. That has not stopped the two leaders from meeting in early August to discuss other options.

Among the many issues being discussed in official quarters of Latin American leaders throughout the continent are the plights of indigenous citizens. Chavez has publicly spoken on these themes with Morales and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, among others. He has set an enviable record for his cohorts throughout the hemisphere when it comes to fairness to indigenous peoples.

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The Venezuelan government recently handed more than 11 housing and land titles to an indigenous community. By itself, this does not appear to be of much consequence; however, during the entire Chavez era the government has returned 2,223,000 acres of land to indigenous people in Venezuela. For the first time in Venezuelan history there is the Organic Law of the Indigenous Peoples, which was written into the country's constitution and seeks to rescue ''...the dignity and rights of the original peoples.''

Chavez's team also put together the National Registrar of Indigenous Communal Councils, through which the government intends to assist the country's 2,205 indigenous communities by a variety of means but including the delivery of funds for development and other projects.

Chavez's pro-indigenous policies is the reason Native peoples throughout Latin America see him as a friend. Many are also positively inclined towards Chavez due to his close relationship to the man seen as the President of Indigenous America, Evo Morales. And how will the next U.S. president deal with this radical Aymaran leader? If he or she cannot deal with Chavez or Castro, does that mean that the chief executive will shun the one man in this hemisphere who has brought more indigenous people into the halls of leadership than any other official in post-invasion history?

That would be a great shame. Morales and his allies are trying to write a constitution that will guarantee property, cultural and political rights to some of the poorest people in the world; and in Bolivia that means mostly Aymarans, Quechuans and so many other indigenous and mestizo peoples throughout the country. Bolivia's Constituent Assembly is still struggling with all kinds of pressures, internal and external, but they have frightened the elites and their supporters and they have made some progress.

American Indians in the United States are looking to President Morales as well; they perceive him as a great inspiration and an ally. Morales has returned the compliment as well. On more than a few occasions in the last year, President Morales and Native leaders from the United States and Canada have met and discussed how they can help each other.

For Native peoples in the United States, the issue of foreign policy toward Latin America is becoming a significant election issue. Here's hoping that the next president can see beyond the bluster and appreciate an authentic quest for justice.

Rick Kearns is a freelance writer, poet and teacher of Boricua heritage who focuses on indigenous issues in Latin America.