Bolivia: A Profound Breakdown of Communication with Latin America

    Upwards of Thirty Dead in Bolivia
    The Unforgivable has Again Happened, The Taking of Innocent Life
    Was the Expulsion of the U.S. Ambassador Inevitable?
    The import of UNASUR’s Strong but Dignified Role

With UNASUR having just met in Santiago, Chile to discuss the escalating crisis in Bolivia, the stage is set for a huge surge of autonomy for Latin America, owing to a series of newly auto-generated, self-managed and extensive regional initiatives. In an extraordinary shift from a decades-long hegemonic status-quo during which Washington exercised de facto hemispheric supremacy, the U.S. role has dramatically diminished, at times becoming almost irrelevant. In fact, even though U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Thomas Shannon, is a relatively enlightened figure who at times has stressed a rational dialogue between Venezuela, Bolivia, and Washington, U.S. attention toward the region, when at all focused, has been willful, narrow-minded, and self-absorbed.

Once installed in office, the Bush administration found itself distracted from Latin American issues by the Iraq war, giving the region the required space to develop its own consensus on regional developments, regardless of Washington’s ululations. This has heightened the ability of hemispheric leaders to halt or reverse some of the most imprudent U.S. policies that had gained ascendancy starting in the Clinton administration, and which then blossomed under Bush. Nevertheless, despite all signs to the contrary, the Bush administration continues to act as if its fiat still is supreme in Latin America, when, in fact, it has rapidly shrunk. An example of this is the revival of the Fourth Fleet as a Washington policy riposte, and with it the pretense of gunboat diplomacy on the ready, after a half-a-century of the fleet being dismasted, and the use of the “terrorism” factor to reassert an authority that is no longer exercisable.

Washington cannot continue to conduct itself as if it had a backyard in which Latin America could be firmly found. The U.S. has been absent from the region for far too long to attempt to roll back the tide of anti-private capital, anti-U.S. sentiment that has swept over much of the region. In its stead, the region yearns for a “third way” and for change. In fact, during this period of unilateral neglect, due to Iraq, the hemispheres started going its own way, coming up with new formulas in its quest to diversify relationships, pluralize its world trade contracts and engage in constructive relations across the board, including forming ties to what Washington, at the time, sees as “rogue” nations. During this period of transition, more left-leaning presidents were being elected president than ever before in the Americas’ history, a raft of regional organizations (which did not include the U.S. as a member) were formed, the region suddenly saw a remarkable rise in its importance on the world stage as its metal and agricultural commodities increased in relevancy and value during the current fuel and food crisis, and new links emerged between Latin America and India, China, Russia, and the EU.

The Breakdown of Bilateral Relations
The latest U.S. flare-up with Bolivia most likely could have been avoided by a non-pro forma U.S. statement categorically declaring that this country would neither recognize nor have any form of relationship with the Santa Cruz-led breakaway departments in the Europerized, somewhat white and wealthy eastern sector of the country, just as Brazil and the other Latin American nations saw fit to do. Instead, for a number of months U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg assumed the role of quarterback at meetings with the opposition, discussing strategies with his team. He did this even though the opposition figures had clearly called for extra-constitutional actions against democratically-elected Evo Morales, even his ouster, and in spite of the fact that his widespread support was affirmed in July’s recall elections. (For more information, see COHA Research Associates Chris Sweeney and Jessica Bryant’s article, Bolivia in Crisis).

Washington claims that Goldberg’s meetings with the opposition were protocolic and conducted during routine visits to the secessionist regions. It also insisted that he categorically denies La Paz’s accusations of his signaling support behind the opposition, let alone any involvement in secret plots against the central government. Yet, complicating matters in the Andean country is the fact that any number of U.S. ambassadors throughout Latin America –particularly dating back to the inauguration of the present U.S. administration– have a lengthy record of intervention in the domestic affairs of the countries to which they have been accredited. It is no secret that the State Department has had a long history of inappropriate and often covert intervention in Latin American internal affairs, often making use of a Reagan-era institutional facility known as the National Endowment for Democracy. Goldberg’s predecessors, Manuel Rocha and David Greenlee, persistently inserted themselves into Bolivian domestic issues. This scenario often involved U.S. ambassadors on station elsewhere in the region, where they openly threatening the end of remittances, trade benefits, or U.S. development assistance to a given country, if a leftist regime was elected to office –El Salvador and Nicaragua would be some examples of these. They also have pressured conservative political parties in such countries as Bolivia, El Salvador and Nicaragua to unite behind one candidate in order not to split the vote, allowing the otherwise weaker leftist candidate to ship into office.

Ultimately, a historical memory was invoked of humiliation, plunder and such transgressions as the Chaco war and a spate of U.S.-backed military Juntas under which the largely aboriginal majority of Bolivians have suffered as a result of self-serving past U.S. policies. Such acts of arrogance and intolerance that Washington recurrently has visited upon the region, served to incite the unbridled passions of a man with the Brobdingnagian temper of Hugo Chávez and even the more self-disciplined Evo Morales.

Washington Diplomacy or Lack of it
In Washington’s eye, there always has been a distinction to be made between Evo Morales and his Venezuelan counterpart. While they are very different in temperament and style, the two share some major similarities, one of them being a sense of loyalty and solidarity with one another. What has made them into slippery fish for the Bush administration to handle is that no matter how garish may be their personal stylistic flaws, neither Chávez or Morales can in any manner be condemned for any democratic lapses, lack of human rights observance, nor mistreatment nor abuse of their citizens. You may consider them confrontational non-conformists, or condemn them for their non-adherence to traditional codes of diplomatic behavior, but you cannot cite them for being antipathetic in their behavior towards their own people. Surely there was enough here of democratic substance with which the U.S. could do business.

It is clear that the U.S. remains largely oblivious to the multifaceted developments that are taking place in an increasingly self-confident Latin America. Washington would do well to introduce a sense of perspective on Iraq and terrorism, and turn its attention once again to its vital national interests in this hemisphere. These issues go far beyond drugs, terrorism and security concerns. If the U.S. is to play a constructive role there, it must architect a new relationship with the region that can be deemed credible and taken to heart. Its investment must be more than just a Parthian shot aimed at a token act of respect for their sovereignty and must display an earnest concern for the area’s well-being.

UNASUR’s Debuting Role
If such a re-positioning does not happen soon, it may well be too late for Washington to develop cooperative and mutually beneficial policies. Latin American-led trade agreements such as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) could appear more sensitive and better adapted to regional well-being than any U.S.-crafted free trade agreement with nations that are too weak, like Costa Rica and Panama, to defend their authentic self-interests against subsidized U.S. farm products. Also, the fledgling Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) joins the Organization of American States as a multilateral, democratic body capable of facilitating regional integration and conflict resolution. The difference is, of course, that the former does not include the U.S. as a member. It is this stunning difference that ultimately could lead to the supplanting of the OAS by UNASUR a development that would be sure to lead to the return of Cuba to a major regional body. At its September 15 emergency meeting on the Bolivia crisis in Santiago demonstrates, the leaders of this multilateral organization are capable of engaging in constructive and balanced dialogue that is certain to profoundly affect the separatists. Refusing to fall prey to the mudslinging in which U.S. diplomacy frequently engages, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa dismissed probing by the press into the possibility of covert U.S. intervention in Bolivia, a charge that Correa himself was not making in other contexts, and he reiterated the support of member states to the restoration of order and preservation of unity in Bolivia.

Washington and the Bolivian Blow Up
The near breakdown of relations between Washington and La Paz in the midst of the Bolivia crisis, perfectly exemplifies the disastrous consequences of the inherent intolerance and disrespect that the U.S. has long exhibited towards the region. Despite La Paz and Washington’s ideological differences, Assistant Secretary Shannon, while being a very significant improvement over his two most recent predecessors, Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, might have used this opportunity to more clearly indicate a U.S. commitment to the spirit as well as the letter of democratically-elected governance in the region, and that any form of separatism would be condemn. More vigorous support of Morales and the central government in the face of the reckless and greedy same plan of the pro-autonomy leaders in Bolivia might have provided a compelling reason for the secessionists to preserve order and avoid the violence which, tragically, has already claimed upwards of thirty lives.

6 thoughts on “Bolivia: A Profound Breakdown of Communication with Latin America

  • September 16, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    Dear COHA:

    I am appalled at your “analysis”: “Bolivia: a profound breakdown….” authored by Mr. Larry Birns and Ms. R. Rivero. In particular I would like to offer some comments on three of the paragraphs included in the “analysis”. Allow me to start by reminding you of the position maintained by one of your heroes, Hugo Chavez, in connection with the regional political situation. Only a few hours ago, in Santiago de Chile, Hugo Chavez reiterated that he would intervene in Bolivia militarily if President Morales was ousted: “Chavez reafirmó sus intenciones de apoyar militarmente a Bolivia si los opositores al gobierno de Morales persisten en su supuesta idea de derrocarlo”. News Agency EFE, September 16, 2008.

    The same report added: The Chilean Minister of Foreign Relations, Alejandro Foley, said that Hugo Chavez made all efforts to sabotage the meeting, asking for condemnation of the U.S. and talking about intervening militarily in Bolivia. Foley said that some people could really go to extremes to capture attention.

    The first of your statements that I would like to comment follows:

    “Neither Chavez or Morales can in any manner be condemned for any democratic lapses, lack of human rights observance, nor mistreatment nor abuse of their citizens. You may consider them confrontational non-conformists, or condemn them for their non-adherence to traditional codes of diplomatic behavior, but you cannot cite them for being antipathetic in their behavior towards their own people. Surely there was enough here of democratic substance with which the U.S. could do business”….

    This statement shows a very sad ignorance of what Hugo Chavez is doing and has done in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez can certainly be condemned and, in fact, is being condemned in international organizations such as the OAS Committee on Human Rights for numerous violations of human rights in Venezuela. The violations of the constitution by Hugo Chavez are almost daily occurrences. He is an authoritarian, non-democratic president. How can you say, “He cannot be condemned for democratic lapses?”. Such an assertion can only come from someone that has sacrificed his/her objectivity to passionate ideology or to material gain. I think you are not getting paid for this. The other alternative is that your strategic hatred of the U.S. government (for reasons that are no concern of mine) has thrown you into the arms of a detestable and ignorant populist tyrant such as Chavez (The enemy of my enemy is my friend). The essential problem with Hugo Chavez is not, as you suggest, that he is a lout (which he is) or that he thinks nothing of insulting opponents in the most vulgar manner (which he does). His basic problem is that he is an undemocratic, populist, highly corrupt political leader who has managed to pilfer some $600 billion in ten years, while Venezuelans have similar poverty levels today to those he found ten years ago, the highest crime rate in the hemisphere (almost 60 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants) and its highest inflation rate (will close a over 35% this year), among many other tragic failures of his regime. How can you, therefore, say that he “cannot be cited for being antipathetic in their behavior towards his own people”? I have dozens of photographs of abandoned Venezuelan children sleeping in the streets (I am sending you only two but I can show many more). Chavez has created a society full of class and racial hate and has based his “social” programs in handouts that do not solve the structural problems of Venezuelan poverty, ill health and ignorance. He is turning them into beggars, dependent on the government Chavez) prodigality. This is cruel and humiliating.

    I could say much more and could also talk about the sick relationship between Morales (the client) and Chavez (the patron) but will not do so for the sake of being brief. As for UNASUR, well, I think this action of support for Morales, althoug seemingly by the book, constitutes an intervention on Bolivian affairs. Now, Morales feels supported by the Club of presidents to repress the opposition. He has already put the Pando Mayor in prison, without the deaths being investigated.

    Te second paragraph I wan to comment is:

    II. “Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) could appear more sensitive and better adapted to regional well-being than any U.S.-crafted free trade agreement with nations that are too weak, like Costa Rica and Panama, to defend their authentic self-interests against subsidized U.S. farm products”.

    ALBA is one of the strategies of domination Hugo Chavez is using in Latin America to buy political loyalties. So far, it has had very modest success. Only Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and now Honduras (highly protested by Hondurans) have joined. Chavez has pretended that ALBA becomes a NATO-type of organization, a military alliance against the U.S. but Correa, one of his boys, and other presidents have refused to agree to that. Only President Ortega, of Nicaragua, has agreed. I will not discuss the merits (or, lack of) of the FTA’s crafted by the U.S. but I just want to say, most emphatically, that ALBA is no true trade agreement but a political construct that is going nowhere and very weak in economic complementarity between the members.

    The third paragraph I wanted to comment on is the following:

    III. “Reckless and greedy same plan of the pro-autonomy leaders in Bolivia might have provided a compelling reason for the secessionists to preserve order and avoid the violence which, tragically, has already claimed upwards of thirty lives”.

    In your “analysis” you make no attempt at looking into the causes of the Bolivian political crisis. You have already decided that the situation is due to the “reckless and greedy” attitude of the “secessionists”. Using a racist tone you call the Bolivian opposition “europerized”, glossing over the fact that the Bolivian opposition is made up of peoples from all skin color, economic status and cultural backgrounds. You have made no attempt at looking at the roots of the problem. Of course, the peoples from the lowlands have always felt distrust of the people form the highlands. This also happens in Venezuela (costeños versus andinos), in Colombia and in Ecuador. In Bolivia this has been increased by the pretensions of Morales to rule with his groups, excluding other groups, even Indian groups, not necessarily the “Europeans”. Morales has tried to impose a constitution that does not reflect a social, much less a political consensus. Morale is trying to utilize the rich resources of the Bolivian lowlands for the benefit of a part of the nation, ‘his’ part. The autonomic, not secessionist, movement is full of hard working Bolivians but for you they are just greedy. I have seen Morales receiving checks of Venezuelan money and distributing them among his followers. He has said: “When they tell me something I am doing is illegal I call my lawyers to make it legal”, reacting to the criticism against his receiving Venezuelan money without this money being processed through the proper institutions. This is what Chavez and Morales, your heroes, do.

    I am frankly disgusted by your work. You have abandoned all pretenses of being honest and objective. Your credibility as a Council on Hemispheric Affairs is highly compromised. Your differences with the U.S. government, I repeat, should not force you into the camp of corrupt, populist, undemocratic, even immoral Latin American political leaders (I can document the validity of every one of these adjectives).

    Best regards,

    Gustavo Coronel

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  • September 16, 2008 at 4:23 pm

    Gustavo’s comments re Chavez are closer to the present reality than are those expressed in the editorial. Under a banner of populism, Chavez has implemented policies that further the interest of the moneyed classes in Venezuela, if not at the expense of, then in ignorance of the lower class. He is a “hero” to but a narrow segment of Venezuela and the Ameicas.

    Landolfo D’Aquino MD ThD

  • September 17, 2008 at 7:22 am

    Gustavo, old chum. You are so wrong it hurts. I haven’t the energy to take you to task on each item, so lets just concentrate on some of the whopping mistakes you make:

    Venezuela and Democracy: VEN has one of the most devolved and effective democratic structures of Governance in the whole of Latin America. Yes, the government has had to use executive powers in limited cases, but democracy remains robust – there are no union leaders, journalists or opposition agitators being thrown in jail. The press is completely free, and unfettered, and also almost entirely in the hands of opposition supporters. Despite this, and with international and detailed examination, Chavez has been returned to power repeatedly in election after election. This argument does not hold up.

    VEN and violence: Yes, it’s bloody awful, and the government need to do a great deal more, but it is NOTHING compared to neighbouring Colombia, and much of Venezuela is safer than many Latin states (eg El Salvador) that have been in the thrall of the US for decades. Look at Mexico!

    VEN and Poverty: Utter nonsense. In the last ten years poverty has been reduced by around 30% – far more than in any other Latin country. Literacy, healthcare and education have improved beyond measure against what happened before. Inequality is in retreat. The facts are there, so stop reading Miami newspapers and open your eyes. You do your arguments no good at all with this sort of misinformation.

    Race and divisions within Bolivian society: You just HAVE to be joking.

    Your own objectivity is clearly compromised. If you are based in LatAm I can well sympathise that you simply haven’t been exposed to much truth, the press are even more compromised than in the US and EU. But if you need a compass in these events, get a history book. Relax and read some Edoardo Galeano, and you will see why UNASUR are uniting behind Morales. These nations see Bolivia facing the events that presaged decades of dictatorship (you know, the unelected, disappearing thousands of people, shooting newspaper editors kind). If the countries of LatAm stand by to watch Bolivia break apart, the blood will be on their hands.

  • September 17, 2008 at 8:27 am

    Reaction to “Bolivia a Profound Breakdown of Communication with Latin America”

    The tone of righteous indignation of this analysis “Bolivia a Profound Breakdown of Communication with Latin America” truly captures what many specialists on Latin America who support the expansion of democracy feel today. In ways, our era is reminiscent to the period when the French invaded Mexico and the United Sates was so busy with its own internal conflicts (Civil War among others) that it was unable to exert much influence in the rise of Maximiliano as Emperor of Mexico. Or, it reminds us of the period during World War II, the involvement of the United States in a war in two fronts created a space of freedom from intervention which countries like Argentina used to develop an economy that “almost” led this country to join the “First World.”

    What really appalls me is how the exertion of freedom and democracy in Latin America are distorted by these legends that are products of United States intelligence through the State Department and are consumed without critical thinking by the media and some apologists of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.

    There are no human rights violation in Venezuela that are comparable to what has happened in the United States with the treatment of undocumented immigrants during ICE raids, the way the historical lynching of African Americans is now led through the more subtle but still deadly application of the death penalty (Chavez did not even imprison the traitors who overthrew him in 2002). There is no rise in inequality in Venezuela that compares to the appalling rise of inequality in the United States, which has risen to the levels of 1928! The reality of a wealthy nation with 47.5 million uninsured and a voter participation rate that is lower than most developed countries cannot be compared with a nation like Venezuela with a dynamic and at times reckless press (compared to the tamed U.S. press) and a much higher rate of electoral participation than the U.S.

    How can these distortions of Venezuela’s economic development continue, when not even the opposition of the Bolivarian revolution support these distortions? President Chavez is feisty but has always used humor and not frigates or torture against its opponents. Below are the real economic facts about Venezuela:

    In the five years since the government of President Hugo Chavez Frias got control over the country’s national oil industry, real (inflation-adjusted) GDP has grown by
    more than 87 percent, with only a small part of this growth being in oil. The
    poverty rate has been cut in half, and unemployment by more than half. The
    economy has created jobs at a rate nearly three times that of the United States
    during its most recent economic expansion. Health care for the poor has been
    vastly expanded, with the number of primary care physicians in the public sector
    increasing from 1,628 in 1998 to 19,571 (by early 2007). About 40 percent of the
    population has gotten access to subsidized food. Access to education, especially
    higher education, has also been greatly expanded for poor families. Real (inflation
    adjusted) social spending per person has increased by more than 300 percent (Mark Weisbrot, “Creation of Myths About Contemporary Venezuela” Center for Economic Policy Research, March 2008). That is why Chavez has been re-elected.

    Latin America has changed and we must get used to it, gunboat diplomacy will not work and it will just serve to place our nation’s national security even more at risk than what President Bush has accomplished with his nightmarish policies.
    Let’s respect the right of Latin American leaders to disagree . . . if we really believe in democracy.

    Victor M. Rodriguez

  • December 15, 2008 at 6:58 am

    Thanks to article writers and commentators,
    Something is happening in Latin America which is a new development or so it may seem. A force which was largely unseen before is rising. It pushes old established interests away and threatens to overtake thesse interests elsewhere. These old established interests, EI, of course try to counter-act the new eventually threatening developement. Huge amounts of covert money is put into manipulating media. One do not see them but they are there as an unseen force. In fact we do not know what we believe in because impartial fact checking is not the order of the day. But objectivity is the face we are shown and who can say that they do not like to believe the news they are getting especially in their own language in a syntax which is even homely to them. Still if we ask oursevles which questions are never asked in the news or in the debate it is always those questions which our the opponents to our EI ask.
    Now looking on South America it seems that new EI is forming and the old EI is trying to oppose.
    They new are the old EI of the future.

    Ben Hanson


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