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"First Black, First Indian" comparison highlights complex relations between the U.S. and Bolivia
LA PAZ, Bolivia — The cover of the Bolivian magazine Poder y placer this month lays plain the comparison being made here between Barack Obama and Bolivian President Evo Morales. "First Black, First Indian" states the headline, above an article tracing the links between the two leaders.
While Obama is the first black U.S. president, Morales (who became president in 2006) is the first indigenous Bolivian to attain this country's highest office. There are other similarities: Obama will take over the office from an unpopular president, while Morales won election at a time of mistrust in the Bolivian political system.
But the differences between the two leaders are stark.
While Obama graduated from Harvard Law School, Morales never finished high school and, as a child, shepherded llama and sheep in the poor altiplano, the high plains of Bolivia. And while Obama treads lightly on matters of race, Morales prefers provocative rhetoric. Then there are Morales' allies. He has strong ties to Venezuela and Cuba, and often makes anti-U.S. comments.
In this country, which is the poorest of South America, people see Obama as someone who can change the United States' image in the world. But there's little sense that his election will improve the tense U.S.-Bolivia relationship.
In random interviews with residents in Calacoto, a residential suburb of La Paz where hundreds of poor merchants place their stands on sidewalks for year-end holiday sales, reaction to Obama's election was mixed.
But most expressed the feeling that any leader of the U.S. will act negatively toward Bolivia. And when it came to the question of possible similarities between Obama and Morales, residents responded with surprise.
“Similarities?” said Roger Aguila, who sells toys. “How can they have anything alike if Obama is rich and powerful and Evo is man of the people?”
In the arc of U.S-Bolivia relations, the worst moment came in September, when Morales expelled then-U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg, accusing him of supporting opposition groups. Morales proceeded to expel U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officers who had worked in Bolivia for more than two decades and to say that USAID programs aren't welcome in Bolivia.
In response, the U.S. ordered the expulsion of Bolivia's ambassador to the U.S. A few weeks later, the U.S. decided against a trade deal for Bolivia, a decision rooted in part on what the U.S. considers Morales' poor performance in the battle against drug trafficking.
Historian and writer Mariano Baptista Gumucio acknowledged that Obama “will have an enormous symbolical impact” around the world. But when it comes to the U.S.-Bolivia relationship, Obama's election won't bring much change, Gumucio said.
Liberal journalist Jaime Iturri, however, disagreed. "Obama...has already sent signals that he wishes to withdraw troops from Iraq," Iturri said.
"The government of Bolivia will run out of arguments to proceed with this strong anti-U.S. rhetoric," Iturri added. "And this is where relationships will improve."