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Bolivia's Evo Morales Wins Hearts and Minds in US

While Iranian President Ahmedinejad stole the headlines during the United Nations meeting last week in New York, Bolivia's President Evo Morales - a humble coca farmer, former llama herder and union organizer - stole the hearts of the American people. At public events and media appearances, Bolivia's first-ever indigenous president reached out to the American people to dialogue directly on issues of democracy, environmental sustainability, and social and economic justice.

Morales appeared at a public event packed with representatives of New York's Latino, labor, and other communities, speaking for 90 minutes - without notes - about how he came to power, and about his government's efforts to de-colonize the nation, the poorest in South America. At first, he said, community organizations did not want to enter the cesspool of politics. But they realized that if they wanted the government to act in the interest of the poor Indigenous majority, they were going to have to make alliances with other social movements, win political representation democratically, and then transform the government.

Now having been elected to office, they have a clear mandate based on the urgent needs of the majority: to organize a Constitutional Assembly to rewrite the Constitution (controversial with the traditional elites, but well on its way), engage in a comprehensive program of land reform and decriminalize the production of coca for domestic use (in progress), and reclaim control over the oil and gas industries (mission accomplished.)

While other heads of state were meeting with bankers and billionaires, Morales asked his staff to set up a meeting with U.S. grassroots leaders so he could learn about our struggles and how we could work together. The meeting included high-ranking labor leaders, immigrant organizers, Indigenous leaders, peace activists and environmentalists. "I've lived in New York during a lot of UN meetings, and I've never seen a president reach out to the labor community like Evo did today," remarked Ed Ott, Executive Director of the New York City Central Labor Council.

The President listened patiently while U.S. organizers talked about efforts to stop the war in Iraq, injustices in the prison system, organizing efforts of low-wage immigrant workers, struggles for Indigenous rights and the difficulties of getting the Bush administration to seriously address the crisis of climate change. "For a farmer to become President, that is a dream come true!" commented Niel Ritchie, president of the League of Rural Voters. "Listening to President Morales, it's so easy to see how our current trade model has wreaked havoc on farmers in the U.S. as well as in Bolivia."

His most widespread outreach, however, was on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who also seemed captivated by this Indigenous farmer-turned-president. Speaking through an interpreter, Morales told millions of Americans how his government's policies have brought hundreds of millions of dollars for the nation's poor - that would have gone to foreign corporate coffers - through the nationalization of oil and gas. Revenues from hydrocarbons, mostly natural gas, have increased from $440 million in 2004 to over $1.5 billion in 2006 - a significant amount in Bolivia's economy, as it is an increase from 5 percent of GDP to over 13 percent of GDP. This year revenues will likely top $2 billion, he said. With a twinkle in his eye as he made a measured critique of the Bush administration's policies, he said that in this new century, armies should save lives through humanitarian aid, not take lives.

Throughout Morales' media appearances (including a lengthy segment on Democracy Now!), official speeches at the United Nations, and public meetings, he focused on three main points. The most salient was on the urgency of the need for comprehensive solutions to climate change while simultaneously improving the lives of the poor. "We have to be honest about the causes of this global warming. Overconsumption in the developed countries. Overpollution in the developed countries." At the same time, he argued that the poor still need more access to energy: "Just like we fought to make water a human right, we need an international campaign to make access to energy a human right."

These sentiments resonated with Brent Blackwelder, President of Friends of the Earth US, who participated in the meeting with Morales. "We need to find solutions that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the countries of the global north, while fighting for clean energy and poverty reduction in the global south." Van Jones, Founder of Green for All agreed. "We're fighting for social justice and climate solutions within the U.S., and we can join forces with and learn from our allies, like President Morales, with the same vision globally."

Morales also emphasized the importance of the struggle for the right to life, which in Bolivia refers to the fight against corporate globalization and for access to water, food, education, and health care. Specifically, before Morales was elected, Bolivia suffered tremendously under two decades of programs of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, including the privatizations of water services and the hydrocarbon industry. Bolivia has now had much of its debt cancelled and is no longer bound by an IMF agreement, thanks to the anti-debt movement and a lot of help from Venezuela.

Although Bolivia is rich in natural resources, the Indigenous majority has rarely benefited from their exploitation, and the country remains vastly unequal and majority poor. The Bolivian government's efforts to ensure a more fair distribution of the natural resource wealth has resulted in their being sued by foreign multinational corporations for "future expected profits" from their investments.

Under international trade and investment agreements, these cases are adjudicated - not in Bolivian national courts, as would be the case for national companies - but through the World Bank's International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, ICSID. (This is similar to the "rights" given to foreign investors to sue sovereign governments in bilateral and regional trade agreements, called "Chapter 11" investor-to-state provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement.) ICSID does not have the transparency, checks and balances, or openness of a real judicial system, yet its findings are binding.

This past May, the Bolivian government announced it would withdraw from ICSID. Although most Americans are unaware of ICSID, it is regularly used by U.S. and European corporations to counter efforts by developing countries to re-nationalize natural resources and the provision of public services like water, according to a major report by the Institute for Policy Studies and Food and Water Watch. During his talks, Morales called on the international community to support their efforts for "an ongoing global campaign against this type of investor rule."

The third point highlighted by Morales relates to bilateral relations with the United States. The U.S. government, through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) currently operates an Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in Bolivia. (OTI offices are usually designed to help enable Washington-favored regime change; the only other one in Latin America is in Venezuela.) The Bolivian government has accused the United States of using USAID money to build opposition to the new government and its political party, the MAS, something the U.S. had done in the past. According to the Associated Press, "A declassified 2002 cable from the U.S. Embassy in La Paz described a USAID-sponsored 'political party reform project' to 'help build moderate, pro-democracy political parties that can serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS or its successors.'"

But Evo's main argument was regarding the former president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, commonly known as Goni. During the "gas wars" of 2003, troops fired on protesters, killing 67 and wounding over 300 people. Days later, Goni abdicated the presidency and flew to Washington, DC, where he now resides. The Bolivian Supreme Court is seeking extradition of Goni, and two of his former ministers, not for revenge, according to Evo, but "so that they can be held accountable for their crimes by standing trial in Bolivia."

While it seems unlikely that the United States would consent to the extradition, considering their lack of cooperation with the Venezuelan government's request for the extradition of terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, the recent agreement of the Chilean government to extradite former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori to face trial in Peru does set a precedent that will be hard for the United States to ignore. The Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns has worked to educate the public about this issue, and the Center for Constitutional Rights just announced a new major lawsuit against Goni and former Minister of Defense Jose Carlos Sánchez Berzaín for compensatory and punitive damages under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) on behalf of families of the victims.

After decades of politicians who robbed the country's coffers and left the people in poverty and despair, Bolivia now has a leader who is known to be honest, sincere and trustworthy. Bolivia also has a leader who inspires hope in the Indigenous population. This hope is now embodied, worldwide, in the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a brand-new declaration approved in the United Nations this September, after a 25-year struggle. At the grassroots meeting with Morales, Tonya Gonella Frichner, President and Founder of the American Indian Law Alliance, highlighted Bolivia's helpful role in the passage of the declaration, and both she and Morales agreed that "the next step is ensuring that the declaration is implemented."

Morales, anxious to apply Indigenous wisdom to solve the global climate crisis, is calling for the United Nations to convene a world indigenous forum to "foster a new approach to economic relations based on an appreciation of natural resources and not their exploitation."

The world has much to learn from the sustainable lifestyles of Indigenous people and from the grassroots movement that has come to power in Bolivia. At a time when our planet is crying out for leadership with vision and integrity, Evo Morales and the Bolivian example should give hope to us all.

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