Bolivian President Evo Morales Tells Obama ‘Stop Deporting Immigrants’

Evo Morales - Photo: Sebastian Baryli/flickr

Evo Morales speaking in Austria. (Photo: Sebastian Baryli/flickr)

NEW YORK – As heads of state gathered here to attend the United Nations General Assembly, Bolivian President Evo Morales ended a speech at Hunter College on Monday by calling on President Barack Obama to stop “expelling” Latin American immigrants who are trying to eke out a living.

“Here there’s a lot of talk about policies that aim to expel immigrants,” he said. “There are deep asymmetries between countries, between continents, so of course our brothers in Latin America come here to improve their economic situation. But our brothers who come to the U.S., to Europe, to survive, to reach a better station in life, they are thrown out. What kind of policy is that?”

Morales’ message: “I call on President Obama to halt these policies that aim to deport the Latin American people here, because we all have the same rights.”

President Morales was at Hunter to promote his biography, recently translated into English. But he closed his speech with a few select words for the American president. “I was convinced a black man and an indigenous man were going to work like a pair of oxen for the whole world,” said the indigenous Morales. “It doesn’t make sense that one discriminated party would discriminate against another.”

Morales’ biographer, Martin Sivak, spoke warmly of the Bolivian President, with whom he traveled for two years to write, Evo Morales: The Extraordinary Rise of the First Indigenous President of Bolivia.

Evo Morales was born to a poor indigenous family in the high plains of Bolivia, and grew up to be a union organizer who represented coca farmers. His rise to power was characterized by fierce opposition, including detention and torture in Bolivia, and more recently, ridicule abroad, where he has been called a puppet of Hugo Chavez. His policies have sought to nationalize natural resources and basic services, and The New York Times described his diplomatic relationship with Washington as “tense.” In an 2009 article, the NYT said it “might be the worst in the hemisphere, except for the one with Cuba.”

His biographer described Morales’ political career and recounted episodes which reveal the sense of humor of the man he chronicled.  “I heard him say to a waitress, ‘I would even drink poison from your hands,’ after she asked him if he liked coffee or juice. I listened to him lecture on the difference between llamas and people.”

At first, Sivak, a young man from Argentina, was exhausted by trying to keep up with the Bolivian president’s rigorous schedule. “Morales predicted I wouldn’t be able to handle the pace of his life as president but that I should give it a try,” Sivak said:

“After the first week I had altitude sickness and I was hooked up to an oxygen machine in a pharmacy in La Paz. The schedule, which started at 5 o’clock in the morning and ended at 12 o’clock at night, had included 22 airplanes and helicopters and more than 40 events in places that do not appear on school maps. President Morales enjoyed asking the pilots to do pirouettes because he knows how scared I am of small planes.”

In a more serious tone, Sivak said Morales’ landslide victory (64% of the vote) in the last presidential election “deserved a more complex read” than the one it earned from critics of the Bolivian regime, who said it stemmed simply from Morales’ support base in the indigenous community, which makes up more than 60 percent of the population.

Sivak said, “I was deeply moved with what I saw in these years […] The decline of power of the old elites that ruled the country for so many years and the resurgence of the poor majorities.” He urged people in the U.S. to view Morales as a leader in his own right–more than just an extension of Chavez who has “emotional ties” to the indigenous community.

AboutAnnie Correal
Annie Correal is a reporter based in New York, where she has covered crime, immigration and breaking news for The New York Times and El Diario, and contributed radio pieces to WNYC, NPR and This American Life. She is working on a new, Spanish language storytelling podcast, Radio Ambulante ( scheduled to launch in 2012. Annie was born in Bogota and raised between California and Colombia.