A Thaw in U.S.-Bolivia Relations?

Relations between Bolivia and the United States took a dive during the Bush administration. Overtures made by both the Obama administration and Bolivian President Evo Morales suggest a possible thaw in bilateral relations. But stubborn and perhaps insurmountable obstacles stand in the way of diplomatic ties moving beyond Bush-era lows.

June 23, 2009

Relations between Bolivia and the United States took a dive during the Bush administration. Both countries expelled respective ambassadors, while Washington revoked trade preferences and Bolivia ordered the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to pack its bags.

Overtures made by both the Obama administration and Bolivian President Evo Morales suggest a possible thaw in bilateral relations. But stubborn and perhaps insurmountable obstacles stand in the way of diplomatic ties moving beyond Bush-era lows.

Outgoing U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon recently met with Morales in La Paz. Both emerged from the meeting optimistic of renewed and improved relations. Morales said, “After having problems in the past few years ... the government and I hope bilateral relations with the United States will improve.” Shannon affirmed, “What the U.S. delegation has found here in La Paz is a strong willingness from the Bolivian government ... to find a way to write a new chapter in the relations between the United States and Bolivia.”

The most significant issues standing in the way of this "new chapter" are trade and the drug war, which are uncomfortably bundled in the U.S. Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Enforcement Act (Atpdea). The program provides preferential trade for Andean countries in exchange for collaboration with the U.S.-directed drug war, particularly coca crop eradication. Indigenous groups in the Andes have long used coca leaves for medicinal and ceremonial purposes, but the plant is also a key ingredient of cocaine.

Bolivia had relied on Atpdea for somewhere between 20,000 to 50,000 local jobs. During last year’s diplomatic freeze, President Bush punitively suspended Bolivia’s trade preferences for the country's supposed “failure to cooperate with the United States on counternarcotics efforts.”

In addition to serving as Bolivia's President, Morales – a former coca farmer – still retains his post as the leader of the coca growers' federation. His stance on the native crop is summed up by his government's motto of "coca sí, cocaína no." Morales wants to promote coca cultivation for traditional and legal commercial purposes, while reducing the amount of the crop destined toward drug production.

Bringing the DEA and its militarized drive to eradicate coca back into Bolivia would be tantamount to reneging on a life-long defense of the coca leaf, complicating the reinstatement of Bolivia’s Atpdea preferences. Still, there's a chance the positions could be reconciled if Washington is willing to provide cooperative support to Bolivian interdiction of cocaine production and trafficking in lieu of the more ideologically motivated eradication of coca fields.

Domestically, Obama has shown a willingness to change course on decades of failed drug war policies with the appointment of drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, who advocates shifting from a focus on incarceration to treatment and harm reduction. But it remains unclear if Kerlikowske's appointment will change U.S. drug policy abroad. With so many Bolivian jobs hanging in the balance, any normalization of U.S.-Bolivia relations requires a resolution of the trade preference question.

Another sticking point – and an even harder sell – is the extradition of Bolivian ex-President Gonzalo "Goni" Sánchez de Lozada, who comfortably resides in a posh Maryland suburb with U.S. protection. Jorge Berindoague and Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, two of Goni's top ministers also living in the United States, also face unresolved extradition requests. They are all wanted for a “trial of responsibility” now underway in Bolivia, related to their involvement in the 2003 lethal use of force to crush protests against the government’s gas export plan, which left 67 dead and around 400 injured.

Goni and his ministers are politically well connected with the Washington establishment, being defended by Gregory Craig, who once represented Bill Clinton and was appointed by Obama as White House counsel. An article published by Law.com notes, “Most recently, Craig has been defending former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and former Defense Minister Carlos Sanchez Berzain against a lawsuit brought on behalf of families of civilians killed during protests against the Bolivian government in 2003.”

A final major stumbling block to re-engagement will be the nature of Washington's "soft-power" wielded through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the quasi-governmental National Endowment for Democracy (NED). During the presidential campaign, Obama pledged to double foreign assistance to $50 billion by 2012. The Democrats' campaign platform emphasized the need to “modernize our foreign assistance policies, tools, and operations [and] coordinate and consolidate… foreign assistance programs currently housed in more than 20 executive agencies into a restructured, empowered and streamlined USAID.”

USAID, funded by U.S. taxpayers, has a dark history in Bolivia. The agency, which once characterized Morales as an “illegal coca agitator,” has supported opposition leaders, attempted to steer Bolivia’s domestic agenda toward U.S. interests, and promoted the exploitation and export of its natural resources.

Recently declassified USAID documents acquired by investigative journalist Jeremy Bigwood confirm the politicized machinations behind much of the funding provided by the U.S. government. Author and lawyer Eva Golinger writes that the documents confirm "the U.S. agency has been one of the principal funders and fomenters of the separatist projects promoted by regional governments in Eastern Bolivia." Golinger adds, “USAID’s work in Bolivia covers almost all sectors of political and economic life, penetrating Bolivian society and attempting to impose a U.S. political and ideological model.”

The politicization of U.S. aid was underlined by Mónica Mendizábal of the Gregoria Apaza Center for the Promotion of Women in El Alto, who explained to reporter Reed Lindsay in a NACLA investigation that USAID representatives instructed her not to allow the dialogue to become “too free” at a forum on communal justice for indigenous people. At another event, Mendizábal spoke of indigenous participants walking out in protest of organizers’ attempts to convince them that their traditional systems of justice must be incorporated within Bolivia’s state system of justice.

In May, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of Latin American leaders like Morales and admitted, “The prior administration tried to isolate them, tried to support opposition to them, tried to turn them into international pariahs. It didn’t work.” What's more, this approach inflamed political crisis and emboldened an increasingly violent autonomist movement in Bolivia.

A new regional diplomatic approach based on an "equal partnership" in which "there is no senior or junior partner," as Obama pledged at a regional summit, will first have to bring relations out of the ditch dug by the Bush administration. Going beyond that, however, will prove difficult, especially with Bolivia.

Jason Tockman is a NACLA Research Associate.

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