Bolivia and the Changing Shape of U.S. Power

January 28, 2013


November 2011, Bolivia and the United States signed a “framework agreement” to resume diplomatic relations, more than three years after President Evo Morales ejected the U.S. ambassador on charges of conspiracy. In contrast to the diplomatic breakup, which made international headlines, the reconciliation, held in Washington and presided over by a Bolivian vice minister and a U.S. under secretary, was sparsely covered in the news media.

Afterward, Bolivian vice minister for foreign relations Juan Carlos Alurralde declared that future developments between the two countries would be based on principles of “mutual respect and shared responsibility.”1 While at first glance this statement looks like diplomatic boilerplate, on closer consideration it reveals a major shift in the history of the two countries’ relationship. For the first time, the United States has let Bolivia—a small, poor, and geopolitically disadvantaged country—reframe the terms of the bilateral relationship through a progressive (and aggressive) campaign to halt what Morales has repeatedly characterized as a history of imperialism. Moving beyond Bolivia, this event also has potentially important implications for power dynamics throughout the region.

Since at least World War II, when the United States became interested in the country for its tin deposits, it has dictated the terms of its relationship with Bolivia. Ranging from its demand for natural resources to a fear of falling Communist dominoes, from military outposts to the war on drugs and experiments in neoliberalism, U.S. actions in Bolivia have in many ways been representative of its behavior in Latin America as a whole. Morales’s September 2008 expulsion of Ambassador Philip Goldberg, part of a diplomatic firestorm in which he also expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and appropriated certain U.S. Agency for International Development programs, was a fierce response to this historical dynamic of domination followed by dependency that in turn opened doors to new forms of domination.

Many on the international left have long considered Morales and his MAS party to be shining examples of an emerging political “pink tide” in South America, driven by widespread rejection of U.S.-style neoliberalism. In this context, Morales’s 2008 actions were viewed as an achievement, a mile marker in the continent-wide movement away from the long shadow of the United States. As such, the recent reconciliation has been greeted with quiet disappointment by many left-leaning observers.

There seems to have been a collective knee-jerk aversion to taking a second look at something that at first glance portends a backslide in Bolivian and indeed regional independence. Meanwhile, some in the Bolivian and international left who have become increasingly critical of the MAS see the agreement as yet another step down the slippery slope toward “reconstituted neoliberalism,” in the phrase of historian Jeffrey R. Webber, or “neoliberalism with an Indian face,” as Aymara political leader Felipe Quispe Huanca has put it.”2 As a result, there has been a broad failure to note something that is truly significant for anyone who feels that Bolivia and all of Latin America would benefit from more “mutual respect” in their relationship with the United States.

Notably, the November agreement is almost entirely concerned with broad principles. The document’s founding principle is the aforementioned mutual respect for national sovereignty. The accord additionally refers to respect for human rights, non-intervention, the rights of states to choose their political and economic systems, and peaceful resolution in all disputes. It then calls for the establishment of a joint committee to oversee and approve all further actions between the two countries, particularly mentioning the allocation of U.S. financial assistance.

As the only technical point in the agreement, this proposal is a powerful one, speaking to a half-century in which Bolivia was among the world’s highest per capita recipients of U.S. aid, often distributed unilaterally with the goal of bolstering U.S. interests in the country and region.

NACLA blogger Emily Achtenberg, in one of the few English-language analyses of the accord, published in her article “A Political Victory for Bolivia,” paints a more complete picture of the agreement’s basic thrust.3 While advising a wait-and-see attitude before reaching any final verdict, Achtenberg concludes that “the framework agreement provides a powerful symbol of enforced equality between a weak and a powerful nation.”

Considered in the historical context of Bolivia-U.S. relations, this founding document is indeed a powerful symbol. As Deputy Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Alurralde points out, it is the first accord since 1951 to move beyond mere technical cooperation to include broader issues of political dialogue and shared responsibility. While Alurralde was speaking only of Bolivia, it is in fact the first time in more than half a century that the United States has signed any accord in South America that so directly addresses its position of dominance and exploitation.

Indeed, while many Latin American governments have criticized U.S. influence when trying to break away from the country, none before the MAS have maintained their critique during the subsequent thawing of relations. Instead, some mixture of U.S. gunboat and dollar diplomacy has pressured the transgressing government into returning to the United States with hat in hand, asking for forgiveness in the form of more aid or more trade. Bolivia has taken strides to break free from this dynamic by winning not only the war—in this case the diplomatic conflict of 2008—but also the subsequent cold war, for which the November agreement effectively serves as a peace treaty. So while the 2008 conflict was the more exciting story, the recent détente has been by far the more groundbreaking, setting a diplomatic precedent that could be used by other countries in the Americas to appeal for more equal relations with the United States.

At this point, a skeptic might contend that the devil is in the details—in this case, not the document’s grandiose language but the concrete actions between the two countries. In this regard, it thus far appears that Morales and the MAS intend to do things differently. On January 20, Bolivia signed a new drug accord with the United States and Brazil, additionally including the United Nations in a supporting role. In preparing the agreement, Morales was reported to have repeatedly dragged his heels, threatening to call off negotiations if further concessions to Bolivian sovereignty were not made. This tenacity marked a clear intention to immediately apply the principles of the newly established accord.

The resulting document has created a more substantive balance of power than had previously existed in the U.S. war on drugs, certainly in Bolivia and perhaps in the continent as a whole. While the United States will continue to provide equipment and some training, Brazil will also assist in training and monitoring duties, and Bolivia will be responsible for anti-narcotics efforts. Meanwhile, the United Nations will act as an observer. While the precise terms of the new drug accord have not been disclosed, it appears to give Bolivia greater flexibility to implement more of the voluntary “social control” programs favored by the Morales administration and never before featured in any U.S.-Bolivia drug accord.

Some may criticize any continued U.S. involvement in Bolivian drug policy, while others question the rising regional power aspirations of Brazil. Indeed, as the disastrous exploits of the United Nations’ Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) remind us, foreign intervention is always troublesome, regardless of how many countries are involved in its oversight.

However, the U.S. war on drugs has been a powerful element and symbol of its military and political domination of much of the Americas over the past two decades, and the sight of the country losing its grip over the terms of that war is a powerful affirmation of growing South American independence.

Over the next several months, as if to reassure those doubting the direction of the relationship, Morales fired off a series of sharp reprimands of U.S. power in Bolivia and the region. These included calling out the Obama administration’s foreign policy as interventionist and authoritarian, and culminated in a renewal, on March 19, of his threat to expel the United States if its embassy continued to infringe on Bolivian sovereignty. He did not reveal the specific nature of the alleged transgression, but following the 2008 expulsion, the threat surely cannot be taken as mere empty rhetoric.

This string of accusations and threats also made apparent another possible reading of the previous months of cooperation: that Morales, in the face of dipping approval, both nationwide and particularly within his party’s base, had invited the United States back to provide the MAS with a common enemy around which to again rally popular support, much as it had in 2008 against its political opponents. While this is only one of several interpretations, it is an alternative explanation for Bolivia’s desire to reconcile that, in light of the threat, appears more logical than any intended capitulation to U.S. pressure.

One week later, on March 27 in the eastern department of Beni, Bolivian officials stopped a U.S. embassy vehicle transporting unauthorized weapons, munitions, and communications equipment. This type of extra-official behavior had been commonplace in previous years, escalating particularly in the eastern parts of the country leading up to 2008. Again, the Morales administration showed itself determined to push back against any perceived U.S. incursions, taking the opportunity to further give shape to the principles espoused in the November agreement.

Despite these recent hiccups—or perhaps in concert with them if we are to believe that the current administration has invited the United States back as a target of critique—on March 29, Morales officially ratified the “framework agreement.” Foreign minister David Choquehuanca characterized the move as an act of good faith by Morales, despite his “many bitter experiences” with the United States. He again echoed the demand that the new relationship be based on “full respect for national legislation” and “the sovereignty of the people.”4

Aside from Morales’s continuance of fiery rhetoric—such as calling for an end to the U.S. dictatorship over South America at the Summit of the Americas in April—in the past months there have been relatively few developments in the Bolivia-U.S. relationship. Taking account of the present state of affairs, we see the Morales government again pushing back against what it considers undue U.S. influence, while at the same time reengaging the country through diplomatic channels.

As often as not, this push-and-pull is executed simultaneously, with Morales issuing combative rhetoric while other MAS officials stress points of agreement and cooperation. Regardless of whether this dynamic is the result of political calculation or a genuine rift within the MAS, it has so far been effective in permitting Bolivia to shape the contours of the relationship more than it ever had in the past.

The danger of backslide is of course still present. Various U.S. Embassy and USAID officials in Bolivia, interviewed April 2010 on condition of anonymity, repeatedly likened Morales and the MAS to Víctor Paz Estenssoro and his MNR party, leaders of the country’s 1952 revolution who later gave up more radical political goals in exchange for U.S. financial assistance. The hope then is that Morales and the MAS can also be swayed by the sirens of dollar diplomacy. For the United States, the November agreement likely offers greater opportunities to work this black magic. But the United States has had to concede far more control than ever be fore to reach this point, and Morales and MAS thus far appear intent on accentuating their gains.

On the whole, what emerges from the November agreement and subsequent developments is a plausible blueprint for a new way of relating to the United States in the 21st century. While it might not be revolutionary, it does appear to be a relatively practical and potentially durable way forward. Regionally, another step away from United States domination has certainly been taken. The November agreement serves as an admission by the United States that it is more willing than ever to accept the terms pushed on it by a sufficiently stubborn country, regardless of size or power disparities.

Much as the 2008 expulsion of the U.S. ambassador in Bolivia was soon followed by similar moves in Venezuela and Ecuador—as well as more open critiques of U.S. power throughout the continent—so too does the recent accord create more space for other countries to redefine historic power dynamics on more equal terms.

Indeed, Argentina’s April expropriation of Spain’s Repsol oil subsidiary YPF was closely followed by Bolivia’s May Day nationalization of its principal power-grid company, formerly owned by the Spanish Red Eléctrica Española. More recently, Ecuador’s decision to protect WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in its London Embassy has received widespread support from South American leaders, several of whom—Morales included—have been quick to note the hypocritical rhetoric emerging from countries like Britain and the United States, both of whom have long histories of granting asylum to murderous dictators. In both cases, albeit in different ways, we see a region that appears to be gaining consciousness of an increased freedom of independent political action vis-à-vis the 20th century’s great powers, all the more so when its governments act in concert.

While the future of Bolivia-U.S. relations is far from set in stone, the November agreement serves as a quietly powerful precedent for reshaping power dynamics on the American continent in the 21st century.



Ethan Earle holds a master’s degree in international relations from FLACSO-San Andrés in Argentina, He is writing his thesis on the history of relations between Bolivia and the United States. He currently works as a project manager for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s New York office.



1. See Bolivia Information Forum, “BIF News Briefing.” December 5, 2011, available at

2. See Jeffery R. Webber, From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales (Haymarket Books, 2011).

3. See Emily Achtenberg, “A Political Victory for Bolivia” (NACLA blog), November 19, 2011), available at

4. See Bolivia promulgó un acuerdo para recomponer la relación bilateral con Estados Unidos Telam (March 29, 2012):



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