Last Tuesday, as reported by the Associated Press, Bolivian President Evo Morales distributed a press release declaring that U.S. authorities were actively working to assassinate him. As of Tuesday, the Bolivian embassy in Washington was reporting that Morales had cancelled his planned trip to the Inter-American Development Bank’s annual conference in Washington next week, where he was scheduled to address the gathering and possibly meet with President Bush. Were the two events connected? Neither the embassy nor the State Department are “speculating,” but one thing is for certain: though barely six months old, Morales’ presidential term has brought unprecedented tension to relations between Bolivia and the United States. Defusing this tension is proving difficult for the U.S. president, who undoubtedly finds the Bolivian leader’s commitment to socialism to be personally repugnant. Nevertheless, one can only wonder why the Bush administration is incapable of applying the same innovative thinking it has fitfully utilized with regards to the Middle East, Iran, North Korea, Vietnam, and Libya, to the situation in Bolivia. The Bush administration would be wise not to pursue what seems like an inevitable path for its launching of hostile and predictably punitive steps against Bolivia, which could ultimately lead to a CIA role in that country. This would be done in order to neutralize President Morales, a strategy that would also logically have to be taken against South America’s premier populist voice – that of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
It is no secret that the Bush administration’s feuding with Caracas – and now La Paz – already has done grave and mounting damage to Washington’s hemispheric image, as well as Bush’s personal standing. The only hope for preventing the relationship between Bolivia and the United States from further deteriorating (as it has with Venezuela) is for both leaders to engage in one-on-one dialogue. This, sadly, seems highly unlikely at this time, because of President Bush’s penchant for inviting to the White House only Latin American leaders whose vision closely mirrors his own. These kindred spirits have included Mexican President Vicente Fox, former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos and now his successor, Michelle Bachelet, outgoing Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, and, of course, Colombia’s hard-line leader Álvaro Uribe.
Bush and Morales clearly possess contrasting visions of whether market access or socialist development is the proper engine for hemispheric growth. Crossing the ideological divide and taking the early steps towards normalization of cordial relations is a process that must involve personal discourse. Admittedly, such a rapprochement is unlikely at the present time, although if ideological differences were reconciled successfully, this could slowly usher in a more positive era for U.S.-Latin American ties.
An Underestimated Alliance
The importance of such a potential modus vivendi between the United States and Bolivia should not be underestimated. The Bolivian president is emerging as a rising star of the hemisphere’s influential leftist establishment. Morales has cannily positioned himself as a less blustery alternative to Chávez as an area spokesman, and by doing so he has become far more than just another irrelevant populist gasbag, like, for example, Alan García who just beat out Ollanta Humala to be the new president of Peru. His high-flying rhetoric has been backed by tactful concrete action; he is a leader who covets results. In a series of electrifying moves on May 1, he nationalized Bolivia’s gas reserves and raised royalties on the country’s two biggest gas fields from 50% to 82%. In an auspicious coincidence, two weeks later, Chávez raised royalties on Venezuela’s four largest foreign crude oil arrangements from 16.6% to 33%.
Bush would be wise to view any discussions with the Bolivian president through the lens of pragmatism rather then self-satisfying Babbittry, since Morales has already displayed a keen sensitivity to attempts by outside forces – especially those operating from Washington – to manipulate his government’s domestic strategy. This holds true especially with respect to such core issues as gas nationalization and coca eradication.
Gas Nationalization Must Stay
Morales’ nationalization of Bolivia’s extraordinarily valuable natural gas resources at least temporarily has thrust the Washington-backed neoliberal economic model to the sidelines. But, it would be a mistake for Bush to consider aggressively strong-arming Morales in an attempt to revise his stand on either that issue or the Bolivian’s increasingly warm ties with fellow free trade dissenters, Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. Chávez, both in recent months and for the foreseeable future, will be able to do far more for Bolivia with his abundance of petro-dollars than has been the case with the White House. Washington’s decision to stress trade far more than aid, while also failing to cut short the long bureaucratic process by which its funds are traditionally allocated to poverty-stricken Bolivians, has done little to create a positive relationship. Moreover, a single-minded war on drugs has proven highly destructive to ties between Bolivians and the United States.
Control over his country’s natural resources was the banner commitment that vaulted Morales to the presidency. To the Bolivian indigenous community, he successfully contrasted his crusading image with that of the ‘plundering’ foreign gas companies, vowing to strive for a Bolivia for Bolivians, one in which his countrymen would be the lead actors rather than the chorus. Morales is all too aware that backing down on his campaign pledge to nationalize hydrocarbons would have cost him the overwhelming popular backing he needs to carry through on far-reaching radical reforms, such as redistributing millions of hectares of state-owned property to the country’s historically oppressed Quechua and Aymara-speaking minorities. If Bush persists with attempts to impose a Washington Consensus-like formula on Morales, he will not only fail, but he will also alienate a leader who could have helped the White House orchestrate a more moderate and responsive policy regarding U.S. basic interests in Bolivia and elsewhere in the Americas. By accepting Morales’ bona fides, and the depth of his shared vision with Castro and Chávez, the White House would reflect its comprehension of the widespread consensus throughout the region that there is no going back for some of the region’s new leadership.
Cooperating in the Coca Leaf Eradication Effort
Bush and Morales must also achieve a happy middle-course in their efforts to stem coca leaf cultivation. The plant is a key raw ingredient in U.S.-bound cocaine, but it is also Bolivia’s quasi-sacred traditional crop. Although at this point, coca leaf-eradication programs throughout the country have been largely restored to pre-Morales levels, many are now ‘voluntary,’ as per Morales’ instructions. While U.S. representatives have pressed their desire to accelerate forcible eradication programs, as of yet they have tolerated Morales’ controversial campaign for legalization of the coca leaf at the United Nations. Bush would be wise to study Morales’ compromise position of a slower, voluntary pace of eradication. This approach has its roots deep within the national psyche. Bolivians are fiercely nationalistic, and if the populace perceives that the coca leaf is being denied them by the actions of foreigners, joint anti-drug efforts will inevitably fall prey to nationalist sentiment. Harmonious collaboration must be the distinguishing characteristic of any successful eradication efforts; in Bolivia, the war on drugs will only go as far as Morales’ voluntary acquiescence can take it.
So when is the State Visit?
It will be easy for President Bush to dismiss Morales’ latest accusations as further proof that he is nothing more than a paranoid extremist in need of tutoring from Washington, but in doing so he would be dismissing a man who is emerging as a very important factor in South America’s new left-leaning world, one which is convinced that the West’s development model has not worked for the bulk of its citizens. On the other hand, it would be expected, and all too easy, for Morales to tune out the economic and anti-narcotic concerns of the United States and play only to his Bolivian constituents. But by doing so, he would be ignoring the one country whose support could be perhaps negotiated to help secure his country’s stable future. Still, Bolivia will not mutely follow nor dumbly submit, and the socialist-minded Morales is not likely to switch to requiring forcible coca eradication any time soon. Nor will he reverse course on the issue of private domination of energy resources. In order to contain an increasingly hostile relationship between Bolivia and the United States, Bush and Morales must personally intervene and be prepared to make real concessions to each other’s fundamental national interests. This process would have to include a mixed economy featuring some degree of state control of national resources, as well as basic guarantees for private companies operating in Bolivia. For the U.S., this would mean far more modest concessions than it appears to be ready to make in dealing with North Korea, Iran, Libya, and Vietnam. And, after all, Bolivia is situated in Washington’s vaunted “back yard.”