In front of the U.S. Embassy, an indigenous man waves the Bolivian Wiphala flag. Photo by Antonio Suarez
“Democracy In Danger”
By Martín Sivak
A century ago, the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia suggested that coca-leaf consumption, a millenarian tradition among indigenous peoples, was the source of Bolivia’s problems. He proposed instead “plain American chewing gum for everyone.” The gum would be donated by U.S. companies and distributed by the embassy.
At the beginning of this century, another U.S. ambassador interpreted the 2002 elections in terms of the Wars on Terror and Drugs, calling for a massive vote against the coca-growers’ union leader, Evo Morales. This U.S. stance increased Morales’ share of the votes substantially, leading him unexpectedly to finish second. In the wake of the 2002 election, according to State Department documents, the U.S. embassy proposed strengthening opposition parties to offset the growing power in Bolivia of MAS, Morales’ party, calling him an “illegal coca agitator.” Neither the chewing gum strategy nor that of supporting political parties in decline managed to reduce coca consumption or dampen the popularity of Morales, who won the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections by a wide margin.
U.S. State Department documents, made public by Wikileaks and available on the website of Bolivia’s vice president (http://wikileaks.vicepresidencia.gob.bo), demonstrate that during Morales’ first presidency, the United States did not explicitly propose anything it could not achieve. The documents reveal what the United States was most worried about: the president’s anti-imperialist rhetoric: Cuban and Venezuelan presence and aid, the war on drugs, protection of U.S. investments in Bolivia—particularly in the mining sectorand the erosion of democracy.
In August 2007, a cable from the U.S. embassy in La Paz declared that democracy was “in danger,” adding that the support of democracy in Bolivia was the foremost priority. The embassy raised “serious questions” about Morales’ commitment to democracy—understood as separation of powers, checks and balances, an active political opposition and free press—“given his demonstrated impatience with compromise.” The cable defined him as a “leader with strong anti-democratic tendencies,” adding, “over the years he has been known to bribe, threaten and even physically intimidate anyone who stood in his way, including government officials, politicians and cocalero colleagues.” To the embassy, Morales’ project of change and renovation of the justice system exemplified his authoritarianism.
Thus, throughout the Wikileak documents, the United States appears as one of the last defenders of the ancien regime—that of pacted democracy and neoliberal reforms—which had been severely challenged in Evo Morales’ 2005 landslide election victory. Even groups that are moderately critical of Morales concede that the government has begun a process of putting into practice a plurinational state granting social inclusion and increased rights for indigenous and peasant sectors. In other words, democracy has been expanded.
This article attempts to point out the U.S. government’s difficulties in adjusting to new times and, above all, to what I call the “Bolivianization” of bilateral relations (I first used this term in “The Bolivianisation of Washington-La Paz Relations: Evo Morales’ Foreign Policy Agenda in Historical Context, in Evo Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia, London: Institute for Study of the Americas, 2011).
Starting with the 1952 National Revolution (nationalization of mines, universal suffrage and agrarian reform) to Morales’ inauguration, the United States’ grand narrative framed Washington-La Paz relations as part of the U.S. agenda—particularly the War against Communism, War on Drugs and War on Terror. After the turn of the century, the crisis of the regional neoliberal consensus marked the emergence in Bolivia of a radical political cycle with an ethno-cultural accent. This radical movement began with the 2000 Cochabamba Water War (the successful upheaval that prevented water price hikes by a multinational company, replacing it with a cooperative) and reached a peak with the Gas War in October 2003 (the rebellion against gas exports to the United States via Chile that forced President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to resign). These radical protests introduced a new tone to the notion of national sovereignty and control of natural resources, which proved to be crucial in redefining the relationship with the United States.
The Morales administration has established a new domestic agenda strongly driven by these two wars, especially the Gas War, and by the cocaleros’ active rejection of U.S. intervention with coca crop eradication through the War on Drugs. The government has significantly reduced U.S. participation in the fashioning of public policy—especially in the areas of economics, defense and security, and in the war on drugs. It has rejected free trade agreements proposed by the United States and has proposed to Washington a bilateral relationship based on the communal concept of reciprocity.
The first symbolic step in this reciprocity was to require U.S. tourists to purchase a visa (Brazil does the same). At the same time, the government has established regional alliances with Cuba and Venezuela in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), and with the rest of South American countries through the trade agreements known as UNASUR and MERCOSUR. It has also signed trade agreements with China and Iran, among others.
The president’s anti-U.S. discourse—yet another novelty in bilateral relations—is the most frequent complaint of State Department officials, according to Wikileaks. “We also have to urge the Morales government to temper its rhetoric if it is indeed interested in improved bilateral ties,” says one of the documents. In another, Ambassador David Greenlee warns Vice President Alvaro García Linera that “anti-American remarks may damage Bolivia’s chances for an APTDEA extension.” (APTDEA grants trade preferences to Bolivia in exchange for its commitment to the War on Drugs; formally, it does not include the issue of “rhetoric.”) The cables maintain that Morales’ anti-U.S. stance is being used to cover up domestic problems, leaving out any question about historic reasons for such attitudes in Bolivia.
Echoes of Terrorism, Cold War and War on Drugs
Foreign policy has also been “Bolivianized” by how the Morales administration interprets the new U.S. intervention in Bolivia in terms of domestic dynamics, particularly the conflict between the elites in the Santa Cruz area and the national government. The Bolivian government asserts that the United States belonged to a broad coalition led by these elites that are bent not on saving Bolivia from Communism or terrorism, but from the MAS government agenda. The Morales government expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg in September 2008, accusing him of being the leader of the opposition headquartered in Santa Cruz that seeks to overturn the government. Although no definitive proof supports this accusation, the government was able to create a narrative that enjoys a broad social consensus in Bolivia, in which the United States is seen as intervening at the heart of national politics.
In the days following the expulsion of the ambassador, relates one cable, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Spanish ambassador to the United States concurred that Morales was “out of his league.” Months later, in a confusing operation in Santa Cruz, Bolivian security forces killed a group of hitmen allegedly contracted by members of the regional elite to defend Santa Cruz or to obtain its secession from the country. The U.S. embassy’s version of the events, as revealed by Wikileaks, is that the Bolivian government itself hired some of these hitmen and tortured the two survivors of the operation. The source, whose name was blacked out on the document, earned the confidence of the officials, who titled their cable “Gob [government of Bolivia] involved in Terror.” In this fashion, the Morales administration received the label of “terrorist.”
The role Venezuela and Cuba play in the Bolivian government also has a dominant place in the Wikileak cables. A February 2, 2007 embassy cable is subtitled “One Place Where We Are Not Big Brother.” The cable charges that “Cuban and Venezuelan advice, interference, and assistance continue to be of serious concern. Cuban doctors and newly inaugurated hospitals bring medical care to isolated communities. Venezuela has agreed to purchase Bolivian soy, has provided microcredit financing to small businesses, has donated tractors to Bolivian farmers, and has funded community radio stations to broadcast the Gob’s messages…The Venezuelan programs receive frequent public acclaim from Bolivia’s poor.”
The presence of the supposed big brother who controls everything brings echoes of the Cold War. The “twins”—Cuba and Venezuela—have replaced the former Soviet Union as rivals to the United States for big brother status. Venezuela is seen as a guide and inspiration for Bolivian policy; a cable of August 2007 states, “Evo seems to be following in Chávez’s footsteps.” As an example, it cites a draft of the Bolivian constitution (“financed by Venezuelan and Spanish advisors”) that contains a clause for indefinite reelection. In the document entitled “Venezuela- Bolivia: how much fire behind the smoke,” Morales is described as acting like a “smitten school girl” when he appears in public with the Venezuelan leader.
Even though Chávez is Bolivia’s ally and offers the country economic assistance, his influence in political terms is much less than what people in Washington and even Caracas think. The notion of the mentor relationship, in any case, underestimates Morales more than it overestimates Chávez’s powers. This mentorship tries to explain the trajectory of the Morales government through the lens of Venezuelan and Cuban influence, completely overlooking the domestic reasons for the radical cycle that began in 2000.
The so-called War on Drugs is a central theme in Washington-La Paz relations since the 1980s. The United States sees the eradication of coca leaf as indispensable and for several decades managed to convince Bolivian governments to share this point of view. The Morales government has implemented a different policy: voluntary eradication of crops and social control (through the cocalero union) of the considerable legal production of coca leaf (a 40x40 plot of land per family and 49 acres in total). It has allowed less participation by the United States (in fact, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency was expelled on charges of conspiring against the Bolivian government). The government strategy has not impeded the growth of coca leaf production (about 75 acres—25 above the legal limit), but it has obtained good results in the area of interdiction, a fact recognized in the U.S. documents themselves.
The United States subtly questions the program of voluntary eradication, particularly noting that Morales talks of counternarcotics as a “shared responsibility,” and expresses its concern for the increased production of coca leaf and cocaine exports. At least in the cables revealed by Wikileaks, the United States does not blame Morales for the drug trafficking in Bolivia, as it alleged in the 1990s. It merely criticizes the government strategy.
The Morales government has looked for some continuity in the Washington-La Paz relationship despite significant ruptures. One example is an attempt to reclaim Bolivian certification (tariff preferences for Bolivian exports in exchange for progress in the so-called War on Drugs). But Bolivia was decertified a few days before the U.S. ambassador was expelled.
The second continuity is that Bolivia keeps receiving U.S. aid. The documents show that some $90 million were funneled to Bolivia through USAID to “further social and economic inclusion of Bolivia’s historically marginalized indigenous groups and to support democratic institutions and process, including decentralized governance…” The details of how this money was distributed are unavailable to both the Bolivian government and U.S. taxpayers.
The Morales government has insisted that the money should be channeled only through the Bolivian state, rejecting the possibility that local governments and non-government agencies receive these funds. In meetings with U.S. officials, as noted in the cables, Morales seems to be demanding that aid be unconditional, accusing the officials of conspiracy, while at the same time thanking them for their help during recent floods and alternately telling them that he has received thousands of letters from all over the country asking that USAID be expelled. It is a style that tends to disconcert officials from the United States and many other countries.
In a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon in August 2008, Morales asked for the extradition of former president Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, who has been charged with responsibility for seventy deaths in the Gas War. “Send us back Goni and you will become the mayor of El Alto,” he told Shannon in perhaps the only joke contained in the documents. In November 2009, Shannon became U.S. ambassador to Brazil: everything indicates that the United States will not extradite Goni and Shannon will not govern El Alto.
About Martín Sivak’s Evo Morales: The Extraordinary Rise of the First Indigenous President of Bolivia
- "Evo Morales is already a historic figure. The best known Bolivian since Bolivar, he is a political leader with a difference because he won office after years of popular mobilization with an unprecedented mandate for political, economic and cultural change. Evo's presidency is the product of mass struggle, but as Martin Sivak's vivid study shows, the president is also a remarkable man. Sivak has plainly gained unusual access through winning Evo's trust, and this is an understandably sympathetic study. But it is also independently-minded, insightful and attentive to the details that do not flatter. This true insider-account is indispensable for understanding 21st-century Bolivia, and it will unsettle a good many easy convictions on both sides of the fence." — James Dunkerley, author of Bolivia: Revolution and the Power of History in the Present
- "A vivid and moving portrayal of one of the most fascinating figures of our times, this book is also an entertaining romp through recent Latin American history. Like Morales himself, this intimate story of his life, from Aymara shepherd to powerful President, constantly surprises and enthralls us." — Ariel Dorfman, author of Death and the Maiden
- "Nearly five centuries after the Spanish conquest of Bolivia, race-based slavery still remains in force in many places in that high, wondrous country. This is why Evo Morales, along with the indigenous-rights activists, environmentalists and trade unionists who helped elect him, matter enormously for the health of democracy in the Americas. And I can think of no better guide to the hopes Evo represents, and the change he has managed to achieve, than Martín Sivak, one of Latin America's most respected non-fiction writers. Sivak's meticulously observed biography is important and compelling." — Greg Grandin, author of Fordlandia and Empire's Workshop
- For the Spanish Edition: "The narrative force of a novel and the seriousness of the best journalism." — Tomás Eloy Martínez, author of Santa Evita
Martín Sivak is the author of four books about Bolivia, including a biography of Hugo Banzer (El dictador elegido) and a portrait of Evo Morales (Jefazo, published in English as Evo Morales: The Extraordinary Rise of the First Indigenous President of Bolivia [Palgrave, 2010]. Sivak is completing a doctorate in Latin American History at New York University (NYU).