A New Day in South America

How Bolivia's Evo Morales is South America's Future, and What America Should Do About It

In 2006, Bolivia elected Evo Morales its 80th President. Morales' victory, like Obama's, was historic: after four hundred years of colonial European rule, Morales was the first ever indigenous President. Immediately, the new president went about reversing some of the most pressing injustices in his country by extending government services and enfranchisement to remote native areas. His leadership on issues of natural resources has been hugely influential - though it, like most Latin American news, was barely reported by the American media. Morales' charisma and resonant populist message have revolutionary potential throughout the South American continent. The question is only whether he will be thwarted by foreign governments and corporations.

South America since the exit of the Spanish has largely fallen under the umbrella of American dominance. Especially during the Cold War, we propped up fascist regime after fascist regime to undermine the supposedly worse threat of communism. Augusto Pinochet in Chile tortured or killed tens of thousands. Videla in Argentina received our help as he fought the Dirty War, in which tens of thousands more were brutally murdered by Nazi techniques, often by escaped Nazis themselves in the government. In Bolivia too, Hugo Banzer attempted to ethnically cleanse the nation, driving the indigenous peoples off their native lands and slaughtering all who would not move. In country after country, we used the supposed "domino theory" of communist progress to explain away our support of murderers. Needless to say, Hugo Chavez's criticism of the United States is not without historical justification.

Beyond indirectly oppressing the people, though, we committed a more straightforward crime. We stole. We stole their gold, their tin, their tropical woods, their lithium, their oil. Using the puppet regimes, we bought up their economies until they became our pawns. Buying up their resources at reduced costs, we ensured that they would never be able to rely on those bounties of their nations to run a government and economy not reliant on American support.

But we were wrong. Wrong, primarily, because these countries continued to find minerals buried beneath their land or off their coasts. Brazil discovered huge oil fields, Venezuela discovered more, and Bolivia discovered that it has one third of the world's lithium. And this time, the leaders of these countries are not about to see their resources go straight into the hands of the Americans. Venezuela nationalized its oil, and other countries on the continent have been not-so-quietly expelling companies who exploited them through deals made with puppet dictators or through coercion.

I am not proud of this part of my nation's history. I view it as a moral outrage and a long list of crimes against humanity and common decency. Even still, America has a role to play. As South America finds its way into the global financial order, we must do what we can to help them and support legitimate governments.

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's virulently anti-US leader, will never be able to grant his country an international economic presence. This is precisely because of his anti-Americanism: the US economy is too strong, and its interests too powerful, to allow such an antagonistic country become an economic power. Evo Morales, Bolivia's president, has an approach that will work. Rather than blaming the US (rightfully or not), his approach is to use the wealth responsibly to raise his country out of poverty. Bolivia, South America's poorest country, has recently discovered the world's largest reserves of lithium, the element needed in the batteries which power hybrid cars. Morales is carefully using the revenues to raise up the poor rural populations. Although it has made him unpopular among the country's more wealthy, largely European population, he has rezoned land to the indigenes whose territory has been encroached upon for decades without compensation.

This approach to the United States, one of cautious tolerance and factual criticism rather than rabid loathing, is the best diplomatic attitude for all involved. While the crimes of the past remain fresh in many South Americans' minds, the best possible future is a symbiotic relation between the two regions. The United States can buy South American goods and commodities at fair prices and provides no-strings-attached, non-ideological, zero-interest loans for community development, infrastructure, and water supply. Rather than forcing countries into default and snatching the collateral -- the usual role of the World Bank -- we need to fairly and honestly help South America get to its feet. If we can do so, it is the surest economic (not to mention most moral) way of securing our supplies of the resources in the long term.

When I read that a foreign attempt on Morales' life had been thwarted, I realized that we will not necessarily take the best possible road. According to Al Jazeera, two Hungarian "mercenaries" and a Bolivian fired at police from an assault weapons cache before being killed by retaliatory police fire.

Many in the United States and elsewhere believe that the time of exploiting former colonies for their resources will last a few years longer. I disagree: around the world, developing countries are throwing off colonial overlords and nationalizing industries to return some of the profits to the citizens. Neo-Imperialism, the model of de facto economic control over former colonies, is fast dying out. Attempts to take out Morales, beyond demonstrating an international interest in destabilizing Bolivia, are symbolic of the age of puppet dictators and neo-Nazi regimes in South America. There are certainly corporations (especially GM and Chrysler, shaky automakers whose survival depends on manufacturing affordable hybrids with Bolivia's lithium) for which the continued export of Latin American goods is crucial. But it is not reasonable to assume that these Latin American countries will idly remain our economic pawns, especially under the leadership of populists like Morales. It is the immediate responsibility of the Obama administration to extend a hand of friendship to Bolivia and other developing South American countries. President Obama must use his break with the status quo to show Bolivians and others that the United States is eager to engage in fair, honest trade at prices beneficial to both parties.

Morales represents the new paradigm (see President Lula in Brazil) of Latin American leader, a charismatic up-by-his-bootstraps populist. Much as we may deny it, we are reliant on these countries for commodities which keep our economy afloat. This new template for the Latin American political leader will become more popular because, come election time, it is the best formula for reelection.

How America treats this attempt on the life of Morales will set an important precedent. If we can't control or make peace with this Morales, how can we do so with the next one? This issue is urgent and undiscussed. If we can't subdue them with dictators of neo-Economic Imperialism, we will have to befriend them or look elsewhere. "Elsewhere" happens to be the Middle East and the most war-torn parts of Africa, which won't exactly be a cakewalk either. We're more dependent than we want to know. So if Morales extends a hand, we should keep this in mind: it's his way, or the highway.