Evo Morales knows about "change you can believe in." He also knows what happens when a powerful elite is forced to make changes it doesn't want.
Morales is the first indigenous president of Bolivia, the poorest country in South America. He was inaugurated in January 2006. Against tremendous internal opposition, he nationalized Bolivia's natural gas fields, transforming the country's economic stability and, interestingly, enriching the very elite that originally criticized the move.
Yet last September, the backlash came to a peak. In an interview in New York this week, Morales told me: "The opposition, the right-wing parties ... decided to do a violent coup. ... They couldn't do it."
In response, presidents from South American nations met in Chile for an emergency summit, led by the two women presidents, Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina. The group issued a statement condemning the violence and supporting Morales.
Morales continued in our interview: "The reason why I'm here in the U.S.: I want to express my respect to the international community, because everybody condemned the coup against democracy to the rule of law -- everybody but the U.S., but the ambassador of the U.S. It's incredible."
After the attempted coup, Morales ejected U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, declaring, "He is conspiring against democracy and seeking the division of Bolivia." Morales went on: "He used to call me the Andean bin Laden. And the coca growers, he used to call them Taliban. ... Permanently, from the State Department of the U.S., I have been accused of being a drug trafficker and a terrorist. And even now that I'm president, that continues on the part of the embassy. I know it does not come from the American people."
Morales has now given the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration three months to leave the country, and announced at the United Nations Monday that the DEA will not be allowed back. Morales was a "cocalero," a coca grower. Coca is central to Bolivian indigenous culture and the local economy. As Roger Burbach, director of the Center for the Study of the Americas, writes, "Morales advocated 'Coca Yes, Cocaine No,' and called for an end to violent U.S.-sponsored coca eradication raids, and for the right of Bolivian peasants to grow coca for domestic consumption, medicinal uses and even for export as an herb in tea and other products."
Morales aims to preserve the Bolivian heritage of coca growing, while eliminating the scourge of drug trafficking. He says the U.S. uses the war on drugs as a cover to destabilize his country: "If they really fought against drug trafficking, it would be very different."
He said the South American leaders are finally organizing among themselves: "We are actually setting up a national intelligence in collaboration with our neighbors Argentina, Chile, Brazil. And that way, the fight against drug trafficking is going to be more effective, but it's going to be something that has a political element in it. If we don't permit the DEA to come back, that doesn't mean we'll break relationships with the U.S."
The resurgent democracies in Latin America are hoping for better relations with a Barack Obama administration. On the election of the first African-American U.S. president, the first indigenous president of Bolivia told me, "Maybe we can complement each other to look for equality among people, people who are here on Mother Earth."
After we spoke, Morales headed off to Washington, D.C., to visit the Lincoln Memorial and to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "I want to honor my brothers, the movement, the Afro-American movement. I have the obligation to honor the people who preceded us, the ones who fought for the respect of human rights and rights in general."
Thousands are gathering outside Fort Benning, Ga., this weekend for the annual mass protest and civil disobedience against the U.S. School of the Americas (now called WHINSEC), a military training facility that is alleged to have trained hundreds of Latin American soldiers who have gone home to commit human rights violations. The wounds of U.S. intervention in Latin America are still raw. President-elect Obama has an opportunity to reach out and grab the extended olive branch being offered by President Morales.