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Bolivia: Conflict and Compromise in La Paz

Bolivia: Conflict and Compromise in La Paz, as Morales Visits Washington

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, is visiting Washington for the first time ever this week, on a two-day visit during which he is scheduled to make his first speech at the Organization of American States (OAS). President Morales furthermore plans to meet with members of Congress and President-elect Obama’s transition team. Last night, the Bolivian President addressed an overflowing audience at American University in the nation’s capital. Speaking earlier yesterday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Morales expressed hope and optimism “that [Bolivia-US] diplomatic, trade and investment relations are going to improve.”1 More specifically, Morales aims to take steps toward ensuring the restoration of Bolivia’s recently imperiled trade preferences with the US, while also seeking, in the words of one analyst, to establish “…recognition of Bolivia’s right to determine its own policies on drugs, agrarian reform and gas nationalization, and mutual respect between the two nations.”2 Intriguingly, this same observer is not alone in expecting Morales to present his contacts in Washington with evidence of US meddling in Bolivia’s internal political affairs, and hence provide further justification for his recent decisions to summarily expel from the country the US Ambassador, and close the USAID and DEA offices there.

An Unwelcomed Irony
Some in La Paz would consider it ironic that the Morales administration now is simultaneously experiencing both momentous highs and lows, the former coming from its domestic policies, the latter as a result of international diplomacy. These vicissitudes are all the more remarkable as they occur in the context of dire global financial turmoil, which has begun to significantly affect the real economies of any number of Latin American countries. More specifically, it is remarkable that, as one of the hemisphere’s most impoverished and politically volatile countries, Bolivia is able to collectively breathe a sigh of relief as the nation rightly marvels at the October 21 approval by the Bolivian Congress of Morales’ proposed January 2009 constitutional referendum which was aimed at ‘refounding’ the Andean nation.

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Meanwhile, Bolivia’s traditionally “cordial and cooperative”3 bilateral relationship with the US has, according to Bolivia’s minister of the presidency, Juan Ramón Quintana, for the time being “come to an end.”4 The latter’s dismissive re-appraisal was delivered in response to President Bush’s September 25 announcement of the imminent discontinuation of US trade preferences for Bolivia, a move which analysts predict has the potential to put tens of thousands of Bolivians out of work.5

Washington has stated that the trade preferences granted Bolivia under the US-designed Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) are to be suspended, based on the premise that Bolivia has failed to comply with US counternarcotic demands for cooperation. Unsurprisingly, Morales responded to this development by turning to Hugo Chavez; the Bolivian president is reported to now have reached an agreement worth $30 million6 with his Venezuelan counterpart, to “commercialize [Bolivian] textile sectors no longer benefited by tax preferences in the US.” 7 Prior to this latest acrimonious round in US-Bolivia bilateral ties, and only a day after Washington decertified Bolivia in mid-September for its alleged “demonstrable failure” in its level of cooperation in the US drug war, Russia and Bolivia were reported to have agreed to the terms of their own bilateral counternarcotics arrangement, with Moscow supplying the Andean nation with training, funding and helicopters.8 Most recently, Russia has repeated its desire to work more closely with Bolivia on anti-drug matters, while Spain and Portugal have expressed similar sentiments.9 Bolivia furthermore has revealed plans to begin exporting textiles to Brazil, with Washington publicizing the fact that, in a move to somewhat soften the fallout of Bush’s recent ATPDEA-related blow, $8 million in US loans will be made available to adversely impacted Bolivian exporters.10

Nonetheless, in light of accusations by Bolivian officials—now corroborated by compelling evidence11—charging recently-expelled US Ambassador Philip Goldberg and the USAID contingent with having pursued a campaign of attempted co-option and destabilization with the goal of undercutting Morales, the Bush administration can now be accused of sedulously attempting to look for rifts with the South American country in order to alienate as well as pressure the democratically elected and widely popular Bolivian president. Among other substantiating claims, critics point to repeated issues of nondisclosure concerning USAID programs, the discovery by investigative reporters of skewed US funding in Bolivia for Morales’ real and potential political opponents, as well as Ambassador Goldberg’s curiously-timed meetings with opposition leaders, which, even if one generously assumes was done with the aim of aiding rather than undermining Bolivia’s stability, proved to be rather stunningly counterproductive.

A Welcomed, If Somewhat Unexpected, Domestic Political Agreement
A two-thirds majority in the Bolivian Congress recently approved not only Morales’ plan for a January 25, 2009 constitutional referendum, but also a separate vote on land reform to take place the same day, along with early congressional and presidential elections, scheduled to be held on December 6 of the same year. Considering that analysts up to now have expressed alarmed concerns that Bolivia risked a civil conflagration or even a coup, mainly over the issue of autonomy on the part of the Media Luna states, it is no small surprise that the country has, at least at this point, rounded a dangerous political corner, with the opposition indicating that it is willing on at least some occasions to act as the “loyal” opposition. So intense has been the country’s essentially east versus west, indigenous versus European-descended regional standoff, that President Morales’ October 23 visit to the autonomist epicenter of Santa Cruz, for an international meeting of indigenous and peasant organizations, “[w]eeks ago…would have been unthinkable.”12

Indeed, the political situation in Bolivia has shown signs that it can change not only for the worse relatively quickly, but also for the better. Party leaders of the primary opposition bloc Podemos, as well as the smaller opposition party Unidad Nacional, have expressed their support for the gestating constitutional project; consequently, the Media Luna autonomist prefectures “are facing their worst crisis in years.”13 There is little doubt among domestic and international observers that, come next January, a majority of Bolivians will vote in favor of the new constitution. Most commentators further note that only an unanticipated economic or political disaster will keep Morales from achieving a certain victory in December’s elections.

How did this happen?
In accounting for this distinct shift in Bolivia’s political climate, one should acknowledge the pivotal role played by Morales’ gain of a 67 percent share of the vote recorded in the August 10 referendum. Also to be remembered is the shocking and widely denounced September 11 massacre of 18 of Morales’ supporters in the autonomy-seeking department of Pando.14 Further contributing to Bolivia’s relative stabilization are the subsequent diplomatic intervention of all of Bolivia’s neighboring presidents in order to grant solidarity with La Paz at an emergency summit meeting of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR)15; the mediation of constitutional negotiations by representatives of the Organization of American States (OAS), the EU, UNASUR, the Catholic Church, and the UN; as well as the Bolivian military’s willingness to arrest Pando’s prefect, Leopoldo Fernandez, for his alleged involvement in the aforementioned multiple murders. Regarding this last point, it is of considerable significance for the Andean nation’s stability to note that in all likelihood, “this [mobilization and arrest] exemplifies that the Bolivian armed forces will follow presidential orders, regardless of what they are, [and that] Morales certainly has the loyalty of the military’s high leadership.” 16 Finally, however, it must be mentioned that the sea of Morales supporters—some of whom are said to have been miners toting sticks of dynamite—who surrounded the premise in which the decisive Congressional negotiations concerning the constitutional referendum were taking place, may have played a part in producing a finale that some say was not entirely voluntary.

Yet perhaps the most important factor in clearing the way for a vote on the constitution, and the relative diffusion of Bolivia’s most extreme domestic political hostilities, still has been the capacity for negotiation and compromise revealed by Morales as well as his adversaries. According to numerous commentators, the most significant concession made on the government side allows Morales to run in next December’s presidential election (which he is likely to win), but not again when that term ends in 2014. It also is essential, however, to realize that next January’s land reform vote—which is to decide whether land holdings in the country are to be capped at the 5,000 or 10,000 acre figure—will enact a law that is not retroactive. This too, most certainly was a major concession (Bolivia’s 1952 agrarian reforms, which also limited land holdings, were never applied in the country’s eastern regions of Beni, Pando and Santa Cruz), but was necessary in order to plot a peaceful way forward. One additional feature is that landowners, in order to keep their holdings, must now prove that their property is being put to sound economic and social use, and not lying fallow. It is expected that if the lower land possession limit is indeed adopted, there consequently could be “major ructions in the opposition-supporting east.”17

All told, about a quarter of the new constitution’s 411 articles underwent at least some minor revision, with demands from the autonomy-minded Media Luna prefectures located in the east accommodated to a degree, as were Morales’ insistence on state control over natural resources and not moving certain government functions to the semi-capital city of Sucre.18

On November 6, however, the Morales administration was notified by the national electoral court (CNE) that Bolivian law requires a suspension of the referendum on the new constitution until martial law in Pando, in effect since September 12, has been lifted.19 The political opposition alliance Podemos then threatened to withhold its support for important legislation while the department remains under a state of siege, to which the Morales government responded with the firm position that martial law in Pando will remain in place until December 9 in order “to ensure peace and stability in the region.”20 Then, on November 11, negotiations in the Bolivian Congress again stalled upon the army’s arrest of three rightist activists in Pando. In addition, the Morales administration refused to countenance opposition demands for the transfer or release of Pando’s ex-prefect, Leopoldo Fernandez, who remains in government custody on charges of genocide.

Meanwhile, the CNE declared November 23 to be the cutoff date for martial law to be lifted in Pando if the constitutional referendum is to proceed as planned.21 Again displaying a willingness to cooperate, along with perhaps deft political calculation, President Morales reignited infighting among opposition moderates and hardliners when he announced that martial law in Pando now will be lifted in accordance with the CNE’s November 23 deadline, thereby removing a gripe upon which the opposition had temporarily coalesced.

Vindictive US Actions
Washington unconvincingly and disingenuously attempts to assure concerned observers that there is not an ideological litmus test which helps to determine the level of cooperation and assistance that La Paz will be afforded. While some may take issue with the assertion that “[t]he Bush administration has always opposed Mr. Morales, an Aymara Indian, former coca grower and left-wing politician,”22 it should be seen as unequivocal that US Ambassador to La Paz Philip Goldberg,23 USAID and the US in general often have been less than helpful when it has come to contributing to Bolivia’s stability, especially during critical periods of Morales’ rule.

Cutting Bolivia’s ATPDEA trade preferences at this moment—when the country just managed to pull itself back from the precipice of ‘civil war’ and with the global economy in the midst of a historic crisis—is counterproductive, if not reprehensible. First and foremost, this move supposedly is contingent on the US’s myopic, supply-side oriented War on Drugs, which has been and continues to prove an unrelieved failure according to some of the most insightful observers and analysts. Second, it belies arrogance on the part of the US, if not underscoring a double standard that has all but dismembered US-Latin American policy. The US claim that ATPDEA benefits are being suspended due to Bolivia’s recent lack of “cooperation”24 on the drug front has far more to do with exercising misguided US retributive justice than with respecting Bolivia’s sovereignty. Lately, La Paz refused to allow a US anti-drug plane to fly over the country, earning Washington’s further ire.25 Interestingly, this entire episode transpired before Bolivia evicted the DEA from the country on November 1.

In addition, it can be argued that Washington displays a lack of sensitivity in formulating its priorities, as Bolivia’s stability, sovereignty and national development evidently are deemed to be tertiary to the US’s self-perceived prerogatives. Accordingly, former hardline US State Department official Roger Noriega did not make a constructive contribution when he earlier stated that, although Washington has an interest in seeing stability in Bolivia and South America, the United States’ “overriding concern” with the Andean nation is counternarcotic in nature.26

The charge of US double standards is substantiated by the simple reality that the Morales government has, in fact, displayed a “surprising anti-drug success.”27 The Bolivian government likewise has just revealed statistics establishing its “demonstrable” accomplishment over the past year in eradicating the US prescribed quota of more than 12,300 hectares of coca.28 Perhaps most tellingly, the acreage under cultivation in Bolivia during 2007 increased by only a modest 5 percent, whereas Colombia—Washington’s most honored partner in South America—posted an alarming increase of 26 percent over the same period,29 with the conservative (and currently scandal-mired) Uribe administration receiving recertification.

Manifestly then, unquestioned cooperation with the US does not necessarily yield positive results in counternarcotics endeavors. Yet, the Bush administration all too often has been far more concerned with curbing left-leaning ideology and pursuing its own narrow and ideological agenda in South America than with finding mutually agreeable solutions; an accusation which applies and reverberates far beyond Bolivia’s borders. This diminishes US credibility, especially in regards to its anti-drug efforts and the integrity of its vaunted war against terrorism.

Closing Observations
The global financial crisis now is beginning to impact Bolivia’s economy, most noticeably in the mining sector. The government declared a state of emergency in the industry at the end of October, due to a precipitous fall in the price of zinc, the country’s most profitable metal export. This, along with a general drop in the price of silver, tin, and lead, halted 80 percent of Potosi’s extractive operations, slicing the region’s 25,000-person mining workforce in half, and shrinking the paychecks of those still working from an average of $20 to about $7 per day. While the government has announced $5 million in zinc subsidies in an effort to keep its mines from closing, many affected Bolivians are planting potatoes as their ancestors did in order to feed themselves, and the Morales administration hopes that the estimated 80,000 total members of the country’s most politically active mining cooperatives will not become restive and rebellious.30

Not unlike any US president, Bolivia’s first indigenous executive must balance the expectations and demands of his constituents with addressing the concerns of his internal adversaries—concurrently while navigating the often turbulent waters of global markets, geopolitics and international diplomacy. While Morales should be faulted for too often resorting to pyro-technical but all-too-obvious “anti-yankee” rhetoric in pursuit of his often merited political goals, the Bush administration has had the time and, more importantly, the preponderant power to take some form of meaningful remedial action, but nonetheless has failed to make itself into a credible partner for engaging Morales in a constructive manner.

On November 10, the Bolivian government at last formally requested the extradition of former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and his then-ministers Carlos Sanchez Berzain and Jorge Berindoague—all of whom currently reside in the US—back to Bolivia to stand before a judge in a “Trial of Responsibility,” addressing the bloody suppression by security forces in 2003 of widespread protests in that country (see COHA’s September 3, 2008 article, “A Case for Extradition…”). The outgoing Bush administration already has shown its unwillingness to honor Bolivia’s appeals on this matter, so there is no reason to expect positive action from the US before the end of Bush’s term. Bolivia’s extradition request thus presents President-elect Obama and Eric Holder, his newly nominated attorney general, with an early test; his administration’s handling of the issue will in no small measure demonstrate whether or not the nature and tone of US-Latin American relations during the next four years indeed will be characterized by “change.”

1 EFE News Service, “Morales visits U.S. hoping for better relations with Obama,” http://www.tmcnet.com/usubmit/-morales-visits-us-hoping-better-relations-with-obama-/2008/11/18/3797690.htm, November 18, 2008.
2 Roger Burbach, “The United States: Orchestrating a Civic Coup in Bolivia, Global Alternatives, http://globalalternatives.org/node/95, November 17, 2008.
3 US Department of State, “Background Note: Bolivia,” available at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35751.htm, accessed October 30, 2008.
4 Joshua Partlow, “US Trade Move Shakes Bolivia,” The Washington Post, October 19, 2008.
5 Most reports state that 20,000 jobs might be lost, but the Christian Science Monitor reports that the number could be as high as 50,000, http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/1028/p07s03-woam.html.
6 LatinNews, “Alternatives to Atpdea sought in Bolivia,” November 4, 2008.
7 La Prensa, “Bolivia, Venezuela to Ink New Deal,” unknown author, http://www.plenglish.com/article.asp?ID=%7BD52EBCF3-0D86-4716-809B-B6DBAD6A1D4A%7D)&language=EN, October 28, 2008.
8 Alex Sanchez, “Bolivia’s Military: It’s Difficult Life, but Certainly There Is No Sign of a Pending Military Coup,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, November 5, 2008.
9 LatinNews, “Bolivia kicks out DEA,” Latin American Regional Report: Andean Group, November 2008.
10 ———— “Alternatives to Atpdea sought in Bolivia.” November 4, 2008.
11 Mark Weisbrot, “Bolivia’s Democratic and Economic Changes,” (introductory remarks, at about the seven minute mark, regarding USAID’s nondisclosure and skewed funding favoring Bolivia’s eastern departments), CEPR event, http://www.cepr.net/index.php/event:-bolivia-s-democratic-and-economic-changes/, October 10, 2008.
Jeremy Bigwood, “New Discoveries Reveal US Intervention in Bolivia,” Upside Down World, http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1522/31/, October 14, 2008.
Federico Fuentes, “Bolivia: US intervention exposed,” Green Left Weekly, http://www.greenleft.org.au/2008/773/39852, October 31, 2008.
Roger Burbach, “The United States: Orchestrating a Civic Coup in Bolivia, Global Alternatives, http://globalalternatives.org/node/95, November 17, 2008.
12 LatinNews, “Bolivia’s Morales visits Santa Cruz,” October 24, 2008.
13 Ibid.
14 ———– “CNE warns Morales in Bolivia,” November 7, 2008.
15 Jim Schultz, “Morales and Opposition Agree to a January 25 Vote on New Constitution,” The Democracy Center, http://www.democracyctr.org/blog/2008/10/morales-and-opposition-agree-to-january.html, October 21, 2008.
Frederico Fuentes, “Bolivia: right-wing push to stop change defeated,” Bolivia Rising, http://boliviarising.blogspot.com/2008/10/bolivia-right-wing-push-to-stop-change.html, posted October 27, 2008.
16 Sanchez, “Bolivia’s Military: It’s Difficult Life, but Certainly There Is No Sign of a Pending Military Coup.”
17 LatinNews, “Bolivia’s congress agrees to call referendum,” October 21, 2008.
18 ———– “Bolivia approves vote on constitution,” October 22, 2008.
19 ———– “CNE warns Morales in Bolivia,” November 7, 2008.
20 ———– “Bolivia’s Morales adamant on Pando,” November 10, 2008.
21 ———– “Another congressional bump in Bolivia,” November 12, 2008.
22 Belfast Telegraph, “US Govt. suspends trade deal with Bolivia,” http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/breaking-news/world/south-america/us-govt-suspends-trade-deal-with-bolivia-14015053.html, October 24, 2008.
23 Jessica Bryant and Larry Birns, “U.S. reaps what it sows in Bolivia,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20080922/news_mz1e22birns.html, September 22, 2008.
24 Nestor Ikeda, “U.S.-Bolivian trade pact ends over drug war…,” Associated Press, http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/world/6075219.html, October 23, 2008.
25 CNN, “Bolivia doesn’t need U.S. anti-drug aid, leader says,” http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/americas/10/04/bolivia.us.drugs.ap/, October 4, 2008.
26 Eric Green, “Regional Specialists Offer Views On Causes for Unrest in Bolivia,” News Blaze, http://newsblaze.com/story/20080923163615tsop.nb/topstory.html, September 23, 2008.
27 Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, “Bolivia’s Surprising Anti-Drug Success,” TIME, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1829782,00.html, August 5, 2008.
28 LatinNews, “Bolivia kicks out DEA,” November 3, 2008.
29 Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, “Bolivia’s Surprising Anti-Drug Success,” TIME, August 5, 2008.
30 Dan Keane, “Bolivian mines halt as metal prices plummet,” Associated Press, http://www.lcsun-news.com/ci_10850880, October 29, 2008.


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