BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Evo Morales confronted the problem of racism in Latin America during a preinaugural trip to Argentina, the country where he worked as a young child selling homemade sweets on street corners to help support his migrant Indian family.
Returning to his southern neighbor as Bolivia’s president-elect, Morales called on left-leaning Ar-gentine ally Néstor Kirchner to open an era of warm relations, and joked openly about becoming Bolivia’s first Indian president when he’s inaugurated on Sunday.
“It seems as though some journalists in Europe and Asia want to see me in feathers and half-naked,” he said at a news conference Tuesday. “It’s not that way. We are human beings. We are happy that we are finally being recognized – thanks to the vote of the people, they will know what Bolivia is.”
Argentina is the most European of Latin American nations, its 36 million residents mostly descended from ship-borne immigrants from Italy and Spain a century ago. Many Argentines still look down on their darker-skinned neighbors from Bolivia and Paraguay, especially when they’ve migrated to take on some of Argentina’s worst, lowest-paying jobs.
Morales urged Argentines to accept the rich variety of South American peoples after reporters pressed him to talk about his own childhood in Jujuy, which borders Bolivia and is one of Argentina’s poorest provinces. “We seek to live in the unity of diversity because we Bolivians are diverse.
Some of us are black, others white, others brown. I have realized, for example, that President Kirchner and I have something in common: we both have a big nose,” he said, provoking much laughter.
“Who knows if we are brothers? You’d have to investigate where we came from.”
Like most Boli
vian migrants at the time, Morales, then 4 or 5, was part of a despised underclass. He got his first taste of school on the plantation where his father harvested sugar cane, but said he soon dropped out because as an Aymara Indian, he didn’t understand Spanish.
Now Morales has some real power over Argentina, since Bolivia may stop selling natural gas at a discount to its southern neighbor and instead leave prices to the free market.
Morales said the negotiations are likely to be complex and would have to wait until after he has settled into power.
Bolivia has exported more than 7 million cubic feet of gas daily since 2004 to energy-hungry Argentina, South America’s second-largest economy.
And while he would welcome increased exports, Morales said supplies for Bolivians should be increased first.
“There are programs and projects for Bolivia that we have to give a priority,” he said. “It’s just not possible that Bolivians are (sitting) on top of the gas and going without gas. This has to end.”
Morales – who joined with Kirchner last year in opposition to the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas, said he and Kirchner also discussed plans to tackle poverty, illiteracy and rampant corruption in Bolivia.
“We are planning on undertaking profound change in Bolivia, but we will do so democratically,” Morales said.
And Morales reiterated that he welcomes dialogue with the United States, though he referred to it as “the empire.”
“If the empire wants to support us, the support will be welcome,” he said. “With the United States, we want agreements, but not subordination.”
Morales also renewed his assurances that his government would protect property and the rights of businesses.
“Not only are we going to re-spect private property. We are going to protect private property. This is important both for public and private investment,” he said.
Still, Morales’ open admiration for Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Ve-nezuela’s Hugo Chávez have rattled some conservatives.
Chávez is expected to attend Sunday’s inauguration and Morales said Tuesday he had asked Castro to come when the two talked in Cuba recently.
“When I met him, I joked with Fidel: ‘If you don’t come to the inauguration, I’m not going to take the oath”’ of office, he said. AP