Bolivian president looks to form bond with Obama

In the midst of rapidly crumbling relations between Bolivia and the United States, left-wing Bolivian President Evo Morales told an audience at American Tuesday night that he looks forward to forging ties with President-elect Barack Obama – in his first speech ever in the District.

GW’s Latin and hemispheric studies department co-sponsored the event, along with American, the Embassy of Bolivia and the Washington Office on Latin America.

“Bolivia needs the United States and maybe one day the United States will need Bolivia,” Morales said in Spanish with a translator. He added that students may be able to help with relationship-building.

In recent months, Morales has expelled the U.S. ambassador and Drug Enforcement Administration officials from Bolivia on charges of spying and other corrupt activities. In his speech, Morales defended these moves, calling the ambassador “suspicious.”

Morales became Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2005. He recently made international news with efforts to pass a reformed constitution in his country, which caused violent uprisings in several provinces.

To a packed auditorium of students, professors and foreign diplomats, Morales described the discrimination against indigenous peoples in Bolivia.

“The type of democracy of the majority and minority is something imported from the West,” Morales said, in defense of rights for Bolivia’s majority-indigenous population.

He smiled as he recounted the vehement calls by his political opponents for his expulsion from the country before his eventual rise to the top. Morales defended his often-controversial nationalization policies, contending they are vital to the Bolivian economy. Morales said his socialist party got to where it is today “thanks to the errors of the right and the errors of the United States Embassy.”

Elliott School of International Affairs professor Kevin Healy said the speech was organized on short notice and was slated to be held at GW, but was moved to American due to a space shortage. He said the event and Morales’ visit to D.C. was important for the Bolivian president, a harsh critic of American policy, to “better understand our political culture.”

He said Morales appeared to show more “depth” than what many would have expected from such a radical figure.

“He has a personal charm, a style that’s very engaging with the public,” Healy said.

Morales is visiting D.C. this week to meet with members of Congress on trade policies with Bolivia and attend the Organization of American States’ debate on indigenous rights.

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