New York - (digitalwarriormedia) Bolivian President Evo Morales traveled to the U.S. this past week, visiting New York and Washington D.C. He addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Organization of American States as well as the academic communities at American, Columbia and Fordham Universities.
Morales’ official visit brought renewed international attention to Bolivia’s constitutional referendum, defense of the coca leaf, and U.S. intervention in Bolivia.
He arrived during a particularly low point in bi-lateral relations between the two countries. In September, historically tense diplomatic ties reached their breaking point.
On September 10 President Morales removed U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg, calling him a persona non grata. The Morales administration charged the U.S. Embassy with supporting violent uprisings in eastern Bolivia.
Quid quo pro...the U.S. quickly responded by expelling Bolivian Ambassador to the U.S., Gustav Guzman.
And in November, Morales announced that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was financing violent opposition groups and had three months to remove its personnel from Bolivian territory.
Speaking at the UN on Monday, Morales announced that the DEA will not be permitted to return to Bolivia while he is president.
Despite these recent incidents, during a UN press conference, Morales expressed hope for improved diplomatic and trade relations with the new administration of President-elect Barack Obama.
The symbolism of the first Afro-American U.S. president was not lost on Morales, who is himself the first indigenous president of Bolivia. He noted the historical significance that Obama’s victory represented for “our Afro-American brothers”.
He went to the Lincoln Memorial on Tuesday to lay a wreath and commemorate the place where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
When asked about this gesture, Morales said, “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.”
Making Bolivia's CaseConsistent with his previous trips to the United States, Morales used these various forums to highlight Bolivia's progress and denounce U.S. interference in Bolivian society.
He thanked the international community for supporting his government during the political unrest that occured in Bolivia in September and October. And he also noted that the U.S. has yet to condemn the civil coup.
During his first speech before the OAS, Morales blasted the U.S. counter-narcotics annual certification process, saying that it “has to end”. He criticized the unilateral control of the U.S. to sanction certain countries for their drug fighting efforts and said it was used for political blackmail.
In September the Bush administration de-certified Bolivia, saying the government failed to make adequate progress in eradicating coca. The following month, President Bush suspended $150 million in trade benefits for Bolivia under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) which jeopardizes more than 20,000 Bolivian jobs.
During his speech before the Permanent Council of the OAS, Morales stressed that Bolivia was fighting drug trafficking domestically and through regional cooperation. The nation reached its domestic goals for surplus coca eradication in 2008.
"We are trying to make our contribution to fighting drug trafficking through international organizations,'' said Morales. He called on the international community to create an international organism aimed at controlling drug trafficking.
But while in the U.S., Morales also defended coca, saying that the leaf in its natural state is not harmful and full of nutritional value. He condemned drug trafficking as a scourge on humanity.
In recent weeks, Bolivia has turned to Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile for multi-lateral cooperation in fighting drug smuggling. Bolivia is also looking towards the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to direct a new regional counter-narcotics unit.
While speaking to academic communities, he described his ascent from a peasant farmer to the president Bolivia, weaving into the narrative a tale of the U.S. Embassy’s historical influence in Bolivia’s national affairs. Morales spoke of being called a narco-trafficker by the U.S. government and how U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha threatened to cut off U.S. aid to Bolivia if Morales was elected in 2002, during his first bid for the presidency.
Addressing a full auditorium at Columbia University, Morales held up a copy of the new constitution. Morales stressed how the new charter recognizes political rights, civil, labor and cultural rights, including gender equality. He also noted how the new Bolivian constitution renounces war and will not allow any foreign military bases in the country. The coca leaf is protected within the framework of the new constitution and it is recognized for its importance to indigenous culture.
One objective of Morales’ first visit to Washington was to obtain meetings with members of President-elect Obama’s transition team, undoubtedly in part to address the loss of trade preferences. This did not occur, although Morales had meetings with four U.S. legislators from both the Democratic and Republican parties, including Richard Lugar, a senior ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In a statement from his office, Representative Lugar - a Republican from Indiana - expressed the hope to "develop a rapport grounded on respect and transparency," and re-establish ambassadorships in both nations. He acknowledged speaking with Morales about the importance of the ATPDEA trade preferences and indicated his support for lifting the suspension.
Congress voted to renew Bolivia's trade status under the ATPDEA. However the final decision rested with the White House, which called for a revocation of Bolivia's benefits.
Relations between Bolivia and the Bush administration have deteriorated rapidly over the last few months. And right now U.S-Bolivian diplomatic relations remained strained. However, with the recent election of Barack Obama, it appears that new possibilities for improved diplomatic ties are just on the horizon.
Sources: Democracy Now, Reuters, AP
Pictures: Digital Warrior Media, ABI