Bolivians turned out to the polls in record numbers in mid-December to elect Evo Morales, their country’s first indigenous president. With this victory, another Latin American country has joined the ranks of the region’s nations with elected leaders who are challenging the status quo.

Morales, a coca farmer-turned-politician, won Bolivia’s much anticipated presidential election by an extraordinary margin–over 50 percent. That’s an unprecedented result in a country where no president has ever won a full majority. Bolivia’s fourth president in three years, Morales now faces the daunting challenge of governing a troubled and bitter nation, where expectations are high and short-term change is difficult to achieve.

Nonetheless, Morales’ win marks a historic turning point in Bolivia, whose indigenous and poor population has been traditionally excluded from political and economic circles, even though they are the overwhelming majority. More than 60 percent of the 8 million Bolivians self-identify as belonging to one of 42 ethnic groups. Over two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, and nearly half in abject poverty, meaning they subsist on less than $1 per day.

Morales, a native peasant whose first language is Aymara, not the country’s official Spanish, is seen by this destitute citizenry as their only hope for a better life. He gained notoriety as the leader of the coca farmers’ union. (Coca leaves are both the raw material of cocaine and entwined in long-standing Bolivian cultural traditions.) He’s a fervent defender of indigenous rights, a vocal opponent of U.S. coca crop eradication programs, and a harsh critic of Washington-imposed economic policies of unfettered free trade and private foreign investment.

Morales’ more socially minded views are not rare or unique. Indeed, they resonate not only with Bolivians but also with people throughout Latin America, where populist-rooted governments now rule Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Venezuela. Measured in population, that’s three-quarters of South America, including the continent’s three largest economies.

Analysts and even politicians throughout the region recognize that these changes are expressions of large-scale discontent with the failed economic policies of the past decades. Washington’s cookie-cutter approach of directing economic programs that limit social spending and increase the role of private industry has resulted in stagnating economies and widening inequalities between rich and poor throughout Latin America.

Even with South America’s second-largest gas reserves, after Venezuela, and the increasing global demand for energy, Bolivians have yet to feel the benefits while multinational oil and gas companies continue to post record profits. This dichotomy hasn’t gone unnoticed, and has boosted the popularity and appeal of figures like Morales in Bolivia, Chavez in Venezuela, and Lula in Brazil. They are leaders who come from the ranks of the populace, rather than the traditional ruling elites, and are promising to change the way their governments do business.

As the political landscape changes in Latin America, the White House would be better off embracing these new leaders, instead of isolating them.

A U.S. foreign policy that embodies the fundamental values of democracy and freedom should nurture efforts by democratically elected leaders to address endemic problems of poverty and insecurity in their countries. Economically successful neighbors make reliable trading partners, and politically stable governments make good global allies. America’s interests are best served if both of those are the norm instead of the exception.

Nadia Martinez directs the Americas program of Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.

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