The election of Bolivia’s new president is a powerful symbol of the growing resistance throughout Latin America to U.S.-led economic programs. The White House should take seriously the message the Bolivian people have sent.

President Evo Morales doesn’t exactly fit the mold of what most Americans expect in a political leader.

Morales is a former coca farmer and the country’s first indigenous president. He does not own a tie. After his landslide victory in last month’s elections, he visited other world leaders sporting a fuzzy sweater and making fiery statements against President Bush.

Morales’ win marks a historic turning point for Bolivia, where more than 60% of Bolivians are indigenous. Not coincidentally, more than two-thirds of the population lives in poverty and nearly half in extreme poverty–meaning they subsist on less than $1 per day, according to the World Bank.

Although the country’s indigenous and poor are the overwhelming majority, they traditionally have been excluded from political and economic power. As president, Morales has vowed to change all that.

The most contentious issue in Washington is Morales’ vocal opposition to U.S. coca crop-eradication programs. Coca cultivation plays a crucial role among indigenous peoples, since it is a traditional medicinal plant. It is often the only means of subsistence.

But Washington wants to impose economic policies of unregulated free trade and private foreign investment that have caused more harm than good to Bolivia’s economy, Morales successfully argued.

His view resonates not only with Bolivians but also with people throughout Latin America. Populist-rooted governments now rule Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela.

A progressive party candidate just won the Chilean presidency, and others are serious presidential contenders in Mexico and Peru. This means that populists govern more than half of the continent’s people, as well as South America’s three largest economies.

The Bush administration should be paying close attention to this changing political landscape. It is a clear sign of widespread discontent with current conditions, for which U.S. foreign policy–and the free-market agenda–is seen as the main culprit.

But instead of revisiting the wisdom of some their policies in the face of widespread unpopularity, Bush administration officials continue pushing for the same economic programs that have failed in the past.

These harmful policies have restricted social spending and increased the role of private industry, which has resulted in stagnating economies and widening inequalities between rich and poor.

Although Bolivia has the region’s second-largest natural gas reserves after Venezuela, the citizenry has not enjoyed significant benefits, even in a period of skyrocketing fuel prices. At the same time, international energy companies are bringing in record profits, a trend that is likely to continue given increasing global energy demand.

Like most Latin Americans, Bolivians are demanding that corporations pay a fair share for the natural and labor resources of their country.

The appeal of leaders like Morales in Bolivia, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil is not just what they say but where they’re from. They come from the ranks of the working or peasant classes and thus are trusted to respond to the needs of everyday people.

A U.S. foreign policy that embodies the fundamental values of democracy and freedom should nurture attempts by democratically elected leaders to address endemic poverty and inequality.

Resisting those legitimate efforts would only further damage Washington’s reputation in Latin America.

Nadia Martinez directs the Americas program of Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. The writer wrote this for Progressive Media Project, which is based in Madison.

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