Mr.Morales Goes to Washington

By Patrick Homan.

Evo Morales was greeted with a mix of cheers and protests when he made his first ever trip to Washington, D.C. on November 19 for a two day visit.

Morales, the left-wing and often controversial President of Bolivia, made his first stop at the Lincoln Memorial, where he placed a wreath at the foot of the monument and spoke briefly about the common struggle for social justice and dignity. After a full day of meetings with U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Morales gave a speech to a generally cheerful and overflowing crowd at American University.

In his hour and a half long address, during which he rarely came up for air, Morales described the long struggle he endured while growing up in Bolivia as part of the poverty ridden indigenous majority. He extrapolated on the obstacles of “hatred, disgust, and disdain” he believed he had to overcome to become Bolivia’s first ever fully indigenous head of state. Expressing a desire to defeat these feelings of inequality and discrimination, Morales ran on a platform of change during his campaign in 2005. He was quick to note the shared slogan and barrier breaking similarity between himself and U.S. President-elect Barack Obama.

Morales then highlighted a number of important social programs that he has instituted as part of his efforts to improve Bolivian society. One such program enacted in 2006, the Juancito Pinto bond, pays primary school students 200 Bolivianos (about $26) to attend classes. Morales attributed the success of the program, which has reached millions of school children, to the military’s help in disbursing the funds throughout the mountainous regions of Bolivia. Morales claimed that through the program, “Bolivia will be a country free of illiteracy by December of this year.”

Morales has been able to pay for social programs, like the Juancito Pinto and an increase of the minimum wage, in part through one of his more controversial decisions in office - the nationalization of Bolivia’s vast hydrocarbon reserves. Bolivia has one of the largest natural gas reserves in South America. According to Morales, the pre-nationalization profits of these reserves went mostly to foreign oil companies, instead of to the Bolivian people or the government. He then emphasized that the country has been in a large deficit for years because they have not been able to reap the benefits of the gas reserves.

Now, according to Morales, Bolivia is experiencing a surplus through his nationalization plan. The surplus is largely due to the fact that this year, Bolivian hydrocarbons will bring in about $2.5 billion instead of the $300 million per year it made before nationalization. There are undoubtedly other global factors that have also contributed to Bolivia’s increasing revenue, such as soaring global energy prices. It remains to be seen if Morales’s nationalization policies will support or hinder future long term investment in Bolivia’s energy sector.

Despite the increase in revenues, Morales described the decision to nationalize as something that has “cost us a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.” Controversy continues to follow Morales, in particular, because of his deteriorating relationship with the United States. He acknowledged that the relationship between the US and Bolivia during his presidency has been rocky due to his history as a supporter of the coca industry and his friendliness towards anti-American leaders such as Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, and more recently countries such as Iran and Russia. Even that fragile relationship recently took a turn for the worse in the aftermath of extreme political unrest in Bolivia in September and October of this year.

Following these events, Morales expelled both the US Ambassador and US Drug Enforcement Administration agents from Bolivia, accusing them of undermining his government and conducting illegal political activities. In late September, Morales launched a verbal assault against the US government at the United Nations General Assembly as well. In his speech on Tuesday, Morales explained his actions by saying how he was upset that the US and its Ambassador were the only ones in the world not to condemn the political unrest that threatened his government. Morales also expressed anger that the US was asking students and Peace Corps volunteers to spy in Bolivia. He summed up his thoughts on the United States with these words: “The US can’t humiliate a small country or threaten it.”

Despite the recent downward spiral of relations between the US and Bolivia, Morales expressed his “great desire” to reverse the feelings of distrust between the countries. At one point during his speech Morales even pleaded with the audience, saying, "You university professors and students: help us improve our relations." Morales said that he is “very eager” to work with the US on improving relations built around mutual respect.

As for working with president-elect Obama, Morales said that he was looking forward to working with Obama and hoped for a fresh start. “Bolivia needs the United States, and perhaps the time will come when the United States needs Bolivia.” However, Morales seemed to offer few specifics or significant gestures aimed at repairing the relationship.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding Morales and many of his policies, there seemed to be little animosity from the crowd during his speech on Tuesday night. In fact, the crowd at American University was full of Bolivian students and expatriates who waved flags and expressed pride in their country’s first indigenous leader. However, many also voiced concern about some of his policies, such as ruling by decree, and the numerous human rights violations that occurred during the recent political uprisings. He didn’t face such a welcoming crowd later in the week at a speech at the OAS when a large crowd, which included Bolivians, protested and jeered calling Morales a “communist dictator, drug trafficker, and puppet of Chávez.”

Morales’ first ever trip to Washington, though short and filled with some tense moments, may not be his last. As the United States and Bolivia try to mend their turbulent relationship, a new relationship may form between the first indigenous leader of Bolivia and the first African-American President of the United States. As Morales said during his trip, “The world is changing.”

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