Bolivian Ambassador to U.S. Breaks with Tradition

Ever since the left-leaning activist Evo Morales swept to power in Bolivia, he has tried to shake things up in the Andean country. He named a former maid as Justice Minister and sent a singer to become Bolivia's ambassador to France. The man he sent to Washington is Gustavo Guzman, a journalist with no diplomacy background.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The new president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, the indigenous leader and coca farmer, has been promising to show a new side of his Latin American country, and here's what he's been doing. He picked a former maid to be the head of the Justice Department. He named an artist and singer to be his ambassador to France. And here in Washington, a former journalist is now settling in as Bolivia's ambassador.

NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen caught up with him on his first week in office.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Gustavo Guzman doesn't look like a typical Washington diplomat. He said he was fine wearing a suit to present his credentials to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last Friday, though he clearly prefers his comfortable sweater and corduroys. He's also planning to keep his hair long, which he says is his John Lennon look.

Ambassador GUSTAVO GUZMAN (Bolivian Ambassador to the United States): I love the music of John Lennon.

KELEMEN: Guzman says he's brushing up on his English by listening to NPR. This is his first time in the United States, and he was surprised as anyone when he got the call from President Evo Morales asking him to serve as Bolivia's ambassador to Washington.

Amb. GUZMAN: (Through translator) I said, companero Presidente, please, how do you expect me to be able to take on that role? I don't think I'm prepared for this. I'm a journalist. And he said, do you think I was prepared for the presidency? That's when I decided I couldn't say no, so I embarked on this adventure.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Guzman says he interviewed Evo Morales a few times for his reports about the social changes in Bolivia and that's how he got to know the new president. Guzman seems to enjoy the fact that Morales is now breaking traditions - bringing in people with various backgrounds to top government posts.

Amb. GUZMAN: (Through translator) My job, like yours, has been to tell stories. I think in this case in particular, my abilities will permit me to tell a distinct story about my country in the U.S. - a story full of new realities, full of new protagonists. Never before in the history of my country have the indigenous populations and the poor been able to participate so clearly in the government.

KELEMEN: But he may face a tough audience in Washington. Bolivia's previous government worked hard to meet the requirements for a new U.S. aide program called the Millennium Challenge Account. With President Morales now seeking more control over the country's natural gas sector and making changes to the country's drug eradication programs, Amb. Guzman has big challenges ahead to explain the new policies to the Washington establishment.

Some of his embassy staffers are trying to keep up with the changes as well. Guzman also comes at a time when the U.S. has, to say the least, frosty relations with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, an ally of Bolivia's new government.

Amb. GUZMAN: (Through translator) In Bolivia we are convinced that we can elect our friends. We are friends with Chavez as much as we are friends with others. It is wrong to put us in that triangle with Venezuela and Cuba. We Bolivians are more than that.

KELEMEN: As he tries to put a new face on Bolivia, Ambassador Guzman has a busy schedule ahead. This week he'll be taking Bolivia's vice president around town to talk about fair trade that would benefit Bolivia's poor.

Later in the month, he'll head up to New York where Bolivia's president will be speaking at the United Nations and meeting with indigenous groups.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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