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Welcome To Washington Mr. Bolivian President

For Immediate Release Thursday, December 6, 2001 01:27

Welcome Mr. Bolivian president

· President Quiroga arrived in Washington this week where he meets with President Bush, Congress, the OAS and World Bank, IMF and IDB representatives

· The OAS and DEA commend him on his staunch commitment to "zero coca" in Bolivia by 2002; Quiroga calls narco-trafficking "terrorism's twin brother"

· In Bolivia, Quiroga's popularity sags as local campesinos increasingly see him as acting in Washington's interests rather than those of his own people

· Following in the tradition of former President and ex-military dictator Hugo Banzer, Quiroga has not balked at using even higher levels of violence than his predecessor to suppress massive demonstrations by impoverished cocaleros and the indigenous population

· Although his anti-corruption and debt reduction efforts are commendable, Quiroga must not ignore the coca conflict that currently tears his nation apart

· Quiroga's visit focuses on the potential of Bolivia's newfound oil and natural gas wealth, while critics fear that the rewards of the petro-industry will never reach most Bolivians

Bolivia's recently inaugurated president, Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga Ramírez, arrived in Washington this week at the invitation of President Bush, with whom he meets today. He also has had audiences with members of Congress, the Organization of American States (OAS) and presidents of major financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). A major item on his agenda is Bolivia's potential wealth in natural gas. In a meeting at the OAS on Monday, Quiroga also ventured to denounce narcotics trafficking as "terrorism's twin brother," reaffirming his strong support of coca eradication campaigns. Quiroga's visit is meant to communicate to U.S. and international lending agency officials that he is actively dealing with some of his country's woes, and is deserving of continued funding even though many within and outside Bolivia question his priorities.

Vice President Quiroga assumed the presidency on August 7 after public outcry over then-President Hugo Banzer's disabilities resulting from his failing health eventually forced him to resign. As the Bolivian constitution forbids consecutive presidential terms, Quiroga has until the end of Banzer's original five-year term in August 2002 to deal with the daunting task of rebuilding a nation ravaged by poverty and political upheaval. Thus far he has begun efforts to expand markets for Bolivia's exports, fight against government corruption and decrease fiscal debt, but Quiroga has failed to placate the nation and effectively address by peaceful means the heated conflict surrounding coca eradication and the continuing poverty that destroys morale and cripples the nation's already damaged economy.

Quiroga: Another Latin American technocrat

Part of a growing tradition that includes newly instituted Honduran President Ricardo Maduro and Mexico's President Vicente Fox, Quiroga's background is in business and technology rather than populism or the military. The public views the 41-year-old Quiroga, who held a seven-year position in the U.S. with IBM, as bright but uninspiring. Even more ominous for his successful presidency is the growing feeling in the nation that he is at heart a non-feeling technocrat who has failed to connect with average Bolivians, who are now giving him low ratings in the polls.

Ostensibly, one of the more moderate members of Banzer's rightwing National Democratic Action Party (ADN), Quiroga's stated priorities are to revitalize Bolivia's floundering economy through trade liberalization as well as to attack endemic government graft that is a daily fact of life in La Paz. In addition, as one of the architects of 1997's five-year Plan Dignidad (Dignity Plan) to entirely eliminate coca farming, Quiroga has asserted a firm commitment to the U.S.-authored goal of "zero coca" by 2002. His intractability on this point in the face of recent mass demonstrations against such a policy suggests that he will not hesitate to continue to utilize armed might to disperse anti-eradication demonstrations. Such a tactic was not uncommon during Banzer's reign, highlighted by a crackdown toward the end of 2000 that left a dozen civilians dead. All told, over 50 Bolivian residents of the Chapare (Cochabamba department) have died in similar circumstances. Another major challenge on his agenda is Bolivia's astronomical foreign debt. Under the guidance of then-Vice President Quiroga last March, Bolivia followed Uganda as the second country to complete the prerequisite documentation to qualify for eligibility in the World Bank's widely publicized Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. This program offers relief for up to 58 percent of the nation's external debt. Further, Quiroga has vowed to address the poverty plaguing his nation, and, in August, the Bolivian Treasury agreed to allocate $50 million by December and $110 million annually for 15 years in a program to alleviate the country's vast economic inequities.

Banzer's legacy of terror

Although Quiroga and Banzer may practice similar politics, they come from markedly different backgrounds. Quiroga graduated from Texas A&M University, while his predecessor is an alumnus of the U.S. Army's controversial Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas). Several decades before his constitutional election to the presidency, General Banzer led a military coup and seized power from 1971 until 1978. During the banzerato, scores of dissidents were assassinated and he also harbored, and later employed escaped former Nazi Gestapo senior official Klaus Barbie-Altman, the "Butcher of Lyon," to oversee counterinsurgency operations against his enemies, in which hundreds of people were "disappeared."

If Banzer's chemotherapy treatments at Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center sufficiently restore his health, he may have to face accusations of human rights violations before some foreign court. Balthazar Garzón, the Spanish judge who indicted Augusto Pinochet on human rights charges, is overseeing legal action in one case against Banzer for similar violations during the banzerato. Meanwhile, news of Banzer's resignation on health grounds prompted President Bush to send him a letter of praise for his efforts to strengthen democracy in his country.

Banzer is certainly more moderate these days than he was during his period of military rule, but he certainly was no democrat nor did he transform himself into being Bolivia's savior. For example, during his time in office, Bolivia experienced a steady decline in its GDP growth from 5.5% in 1998 to zero this year as well as a tripling in unemployment. Further, in an era when presidents like Peru's Alejandro Toledo actively condemned the violations of their forerunners, Quiroga has shown nothing but respect for his predecessor and has expressed little regret over the fact that the memory of Banzer's inexcusable past abuses still haunt many Bolivians, while their new leader remains silent and apparently indifferent to their pains.

Zero tolerance

As Bolivia sunk further into debt and poverty, Banzer worked with Quiroga in pledging that his presidential term would see the eradication of coca in a manner that many analysts argue only exacerbated the country's inherent financial problems and capacity for moral rectitude. Plan Dignidad began in the Chapare region in response to the U.S. threat in 1997 to ban aid to the country if drug production was not dramatically cut. Since that time, Bolivia has eliminated 90% of its coca crop. U.S. assistance in the intervening years averaged about $115 million per year, although the Guardian estimates that the annual eradication efforts and farmers' losses approximated $600 million. Given these heavy economic and social costs, Quiroga has been called upon to reevaluate Plan Dignidad's unrealized pledge to provide new opportunities for coca farmers to cultivate legal crops through "alternative development." The low value of bananas, pineapples and other suggested "alternatives" already flooding the international market has prompted many farmers simply to once again plant high-yield and more economically viable coca crops.

Vocal cocaleros (coca farmers) protest that zealous purgings of plantings by Bolivian military units serving with the DEA often do not discriminate between coca and non-coca plantings, thus damaging many legal crops and thereby farmers' livelihood. Other reports recount how government eradication teams at times have turned violent, pillaging homes and even killing campesinos who defy them. Cocaleros further point out that since cocaine use in the U.S. and Europe has not declined since 1997, substitute sources like Colombia have simply filled the market gap left by Bolivia's production cuts. Nevertheless, regardless of these factors, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) awarded Quiroga during his Washington visit with a "ten" on his coca eradication campaign.

Cocaleros fight back

Many disillusioned cocaleros have joined campesino organizations staging ongoing protests, leading to clashes with security forces and scores of protestors being killed. May and September of this year saw cocaleros joining teachers and peasants in demonstrations that were transformed into major roadblocks around La Paz and other cities, causing, according to government sources, an estimated daily loss of $400,000 in tourism and other revenues. The Air Force had to fly over two million pounds of food into the besieged cities to feed the famished. The deaths of at least ten protestors at the hands of government forces during these manifestations substantiated growing fears that Quiroga's method of dealing with dissent may not differ significantly from that of ex-military dictator Banzer; in fact, may be harsher. Just a few weeks ago, a coalition of anti-government groups began planning another demonstration and roadblock. Plans for this latest mobilization may have been sparked by the early-November deaths of two cocaleros at the hands of some of the approximately 5,000 to 8,000 troops and police who currently occupy the Chapare, the hub of La Paz's coca eradication campaign and the site of six new militant encampments.

Mixed message on corruption

While an already volatile situation may gain momentum as it worsens, threatening to engulf Bolivia's already struggling economy, Quiroga is now turning his attention to anti-corruption efforts. As early as 1997, while still vice president, he responded to a Transparency International ranking of Bolivia as the world's second most corrupt nation of those evaluated by asking the group to visit and offer solutions. More recently, Quiroga solicited $200 million from the IDB and World Bank to fund an anti-corruption package that he presented to a receptive assembly of the country's political party leaders in early October.

Still, Quiroga has not reversed Banzer's decision of last March to bring Bolivia's now independent, UN and OAS-funded Financial Investigations Unit (UIF) under state control, where it could be more easily manipulated. This shift came just after the UIF began investigating $210,000 in controversial checks sent out by Bolivian officials to the currently imprisoned Villainous former head of Peru's intelligence service, Vladimiro Montesinos, the close confidant of the disgraced former president, Alberto Fujimori. Hypothetically, it could be argued that this move could provide more effective oversight for the money-laundering watchdog agency, but given the multitudes of issues currently vying for government attention and funding, and the poor record for probity of the typical Bolivian government agency, it is more than a little questionable whether this switch will necessarily end up serving the anti-corruption cause.

A dubious new hope

The Financial Times recently expressed Bolivia's hope that new oil and gas prospecting and production in the country, in the only industrial sectors in the country to show promise this year, could provide a much needed boost to the economy and serve as a replacement for revenue once derived from coca sales. However, as estimates suggest that the oil reserves in Venezuela alone could satisfy twice the existing demand for oil in the Southern Cone, these new energy resources in a satiated market, would have to be sold to the U.S. in order to avoid a massive drop in the per-barrel price of petroleum. Shipping such energy supplies to the United States is an expensive endeavor, but private interests anticipate that they could complete a proposed highly controversial $1 billion pipeline linking Bolivia to the Chilean coast and begin shipping within five years, even though capitalizing such a project has by no means been guaranteed. Regardless, the oil and gas industry is far from offering an immediate fix for Bolivia's limping economy. A more fundamental problem with a prospective new oil economy is that wealth gained from oil interests is unlikely to notably benefit the majority of those in need of immediate relief. Oil and gas production may increase Bolivia's GDP and help alleviate the debt burden, but the rewards are unlikely to be distributed in a particularly equitable fashion.

If Quiroga's recovery and revitalization program continues to progress as slowly and ineffectively as it has thus far, there is little chance that he will accomplish much in his truncated term. While he attempts to deal with corruption problems at home, his visit to Washington focuses on the nation's macroeconomic difficulties, which he has yet to noticeably address Bolivia's extreme economic inequality and lack of basic social services. These are in a far worse state than parallel predicaments in equally poor neighboring nations. In addition, a constructive solution to the coca conflict demands Quiroga's immediate and complete attention. It will not do for his administration to entirely dismiss the multiple problems afflicting the bottom rung of the nation that not only weaken the rest of the economy, but also undermine much needed social programs as well as faith in the government and its leaders.

Leah de Quattro, COHA Research Associate

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-partisan and tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the floor of the Senate as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers."

ENDS

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