U.S. Bolivia Relations in a Nutshell
Back from the book tour. Back from the snows of Minnesota and Chicago to the sunshine of Cochabamba. Back from planes, trains, and subways to simple morning walks to greet the neighborhood cows. Back to work.
Across the U.S. for the past month one of the questions we were asked the most was: What does the future hold for new relations between Bolivia and the U.S., under President Barak Obama?
I want to tackle that question in two posts this week. This first one is an overview, a look at the recent trajectory of relations between the two nations. Later this week I'll be back with a post: Three Things that the U.S. and Bolivian Governments Should Do.
The photo for today's post, appropriate to the subject at hand, was taken by the partner of one of our Democracy Center staff in Oruro at Carnaval a week ago. He took just before he sprayed foam on Evo from behind. Bolivians, Presidents included, like to have a good time.
Thanks again to everyone who came out to see us on the tour!
U.S. Bolivia Relations in a Nutshell
The Way it Was
For many years Bolivian governments and governments in Washington had a splendid relationship. But it was one based on Bolivian governments being quite happy to do pretty much anything Washington asked.
In the War on Drugs, Bolivian governments willingly allowed local drug prosecutors to receive special salary bonuses directly from the U.S. embassy. To keep those bonuses coming the prosecutors on Washington's payroll put thousands of innocent people in jail, giving the U.S. Embassy the escalating arrest statistics it happily reported onward to the State Department as evidence of its success. President Morales suspended the bonuses after taking office.
In reform of the nation's economy, the U.S. government and the international financial institutions associated with it (the World Bank, the IMF, and others) found happy allies in Bolivia's governing elite. Together they made the country a test lab for the policies of the Washington Consensus. While these moves made U.S. energy firms like Enron happy (the Texas company took control of Bolivia's oil pipelines), Bolivians were made worse off.
That convivial relationship changed in 2006, when President Evo Morales took office. A fierce U.S. critic, he told a stadium rally in Cochabamba that if the U.S. intended to continue using Bolivia as an economic test lab that he would "become the U.S.'s worst nightmare." On election night he ended his victory speech with an old cocalero chant, "Grow coca, death to the Yankees." But he said it in Quechua and none of the U.S. correspondents caught it.
Given that, it is actually surprising how well the Bush/Morales relationship began.
Shortly before the Morales inaugural I had conversations with both Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera and the Bolivian government's designee for U.S. Ambassador. Both told me they hoped for good relations with the U.S., an intent that was clearly signaled to Washington as well. By happenstance I ended up flying the next day, from La Paz to Washington, on the same flights as the State Department's Assistant Secretary for Latin America, Thomas Shannon. Shannon had been the Bush administration's official representative at the Bolivian inaugural. He told me that was genuinely impressed by the new government's desire for cordial relations.
That message snaked its way up the diplomatic chain of command and resulted, some weeks later, in an official congratulatory call from President Bush to President Morales. Someone I know who listened in says that all went well on the call until Evo mentioned his political party, Movement Toward Socialism. Bush, I was told, could be heard turning to his aids and saying with some surprise, "He's a socialist?"
From afar it seemed like the Bush administration was suffering a bout of internal schizophrenia about what to do with Evo. One day Bush called Evo to congratulate him, then a few days later then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stood before a Washington press club, lumping Morales with Hugo Chavez and warning about the dangers of the continent's new "populist" leaders.
But on substantive policy matters the non-hawks in the administration seemed to carry the day. Bolivia's anti-drug efforts were certified as meeting U.S. standards and Bolivia continued to be included in the Andean Trade Pact (ATPDEA) that allowed its textiles tariff-free access to U.S. markets. Morales also stuck to his more dovish post-inaugural tendencies toward Washington. When asked by a U.S. journalist if he joined in Chavez's famous declaration at the United Nations calling Bush the devil, Morales demurred, saying he found no benefit to attacking people personally.
It was probably inevitable that the Washington/La Paz honeymoon wouldn't last. President Morales distrusts the U.S. government viscerally, having been personally on the blunt end of the U.S. War on Coca. And the Bush administration was never comfortable with a cocalero socialist who counted Hugo Chavez as a close friend.
Diplomacy is the business of seeing how such conflicts can be kept in check, allowing for the mutual benefit of both sides. But skillful diplomacy takes a skillful diplomat. And the man who Mr. Bush sent to La Paz as his new Ambassador in August 2006, Phillip Goldberg, was not, by a stretch, a skillful diplomat.
It didn’t take much more than 5 minutes in the room with Goldberg to witness his condescension toward Bolivia and his cluelessness at diplomacy. In a roomful of U.S. citizens here in Cochabamba I watched jaws drop as Washington's chief diplomat in Bolivia made a joke about a woman being lynched in El Alto.
And time after time Goldberg displayed an innate ability to make international incidents out of diplomatic molehills.
First there was 'Ammogate'. In June 2007 Mr. Goldberg's military attaché, a U.S. Army Colonel, arranged for his son's fiancé to bring 500 rounds of ammunition into Bolivia in her suitcase. When the bullets were discovered at the La Paz airport the story was major front-page news. Ambassador Goldberg downplayed the incident publicly and paid an apology visit to the Bolivian Vice President. Even members of Goldberg's staff told me later that the Embassy had blown it by not making the Colonel apologize on television or sending him packing altogether. Imagine how U.S. Homeland Security might react if the niece of the Bolivian ambassador to Washington was stopped in Miami with 500 rounds in her suitcase.
Here's a Latin American joke: Why has there never been a coup in the United States? There isn't a U.S. Embassy.
Further evidence Mr. Goldberg's inability to run the Embassy came in February 2008, when news broke that one of his security aides was asking Fulbright Scholars and Peace Corps volunteers to spy on behalf of the U.S. government by passing along information about Cubans and Venezuelans in the country. The Embassy's antics put hundreds of U.S. young people at risk and were a direct violation of U.S. rules. Yet again, in public, Goldberg tried to treat the incident as minor, failing to understand totally the reactions of the Bolivian people.
To be clear, in the breakdown of U.S./Bolivia relations Goldberg has had a good deal of help from President Morales. Time and time again his anti-U.S. instincts took over. Sometimes it came as declarations, including a public repeat of his "Death to the Yankees" slogan when foreign reporters were watching. But words were not the only thing Morales tossed into the mix. When incoming U.S. Senate leader Henry Reid paid a visit to La Paz over New Years 2007, Evo took that moment to announce that U.S. citizens would be newly required to carry visas. Last year when Senator Christopher Dodd – one of the most important progressive voices on Latin America in the Senate – boarded a plane for Bolivia, he was told that Evo wouldn’t see him. Not even frenzied phone calls to the Bolivian Embassy in Washington could change Evo's mind (Dodd met only with the Vice President).
Finally, in July of last year, Assistant Secretary Shannon made a return trip to Bolivia in the hope of resolving some of the tensions that Goldberg and Morales could not. Happy statements of continued friendship came out of those meetings, but the mistrust sewn in both directions for two years were, in the end, insurmountable.
The September Meltdown
Whatever diplomatic civility remained between Bolivia and the U.S., if there was any, melted entirely in September as Bolivia was in the midst of its own domestic political meltdown.
In August President Morales survived an election showdown with his regional adversaries, winning the backing of 67% of voters in a national referendum. That same vote also ousted two of his fiercest opponents among the governors, both by wide margins. When Evo announced that he would use his fresh mandate to push forward with a national vote on a MAS-drafted constitution, the remaining regional governors opposed to Morales decided to go to war. In Santa Cruz the governor egged on mobs of youth who torched public buildings. In the Pando the Governor there was charged with involvement in a massacre of more than a dozen campesinos.
A wiser diplomat would have remained carefully neutral, issuing calls for peace from the bunker-like U.S. Embassy in La Paz. But on the eve of the violence, when it was clear that the nation's divisions were headed for a violent precipice, Mr. Goldberg went on tour, to visit two governors who were Morales' harshest critics – Sabina Cuellar of Chuqisaca and Ruben Costas of Santa Cruz.
What was said in these meetings is known only to those present. But shortly afterwards Cuellar called for Morales' resignation and Costas launched the street attacks in Santa Cruz. Here is a link to the September declaration by a group of MAS Congress Members which outlines the specific actions charged by the Bolivian government against Mr. Goldberg.
Those visits set off the string of events that leads us to where we are today. In short order Morales declared that Goldberg was encouraging the governors' efforts to undermine democratic rule in Bolivia and ordered him out of the country. With that move, whatever dovish instincts may have still been alive within the Bush administration were quickly overtaken by the move into retaliation mode. Bolivia's ambassador to the U.S., Gustavo Guzman, was ordered out of the U.S. Bush then suddenly 'decertified Bolivia's anti-coca efforts and removed it from the Andean Trade Preference Program.
The administration also pulled more than 100 Peace Corps volunteers out of Bolivia, citing "security concerns". The Embassy here apparently had no such security concerns when it asked some of those volunteers to spy on its behalf. I have spoken to many of these volunteers in the months since. Most felt totally safe where they were, they were not told they were being pulled from Bolivia when they left their villages, and they are bitter at the possibility that they were used as political pawns.
This was the Bolivia/U.S. relationship inherited by the Obama administration.
What Would Obama Do?
The election of Barak Obama inspired great hope here in Bolivia as well as in the U.S. Taxi drivers in El Alto asked me about him. President Morales seemed to feel a personal sense of connection. "What is happening in the world?" he asked. "An indigenous man is president in Bolivia and a black man is president in the United States." But how does that translate into changes in diplomatic relations?
When asked about this on our book tour I made two points.
The first is that U.S. relations toward Bolivia are operating at the moment on Bush holdover autopilot. As a source in Washington, close to the administration, explained to me, Obama will focus all of his attention and his political capital on three things – the economic crisis, the War in Iraq, and the War in Afghanistan. Latin America, and Bolivia less so, is not even on the radar screen. What decisions are being made are mostly likely being made at a level far below President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The administration hasn't even gotten around to naming a successor to Assistant Secretary Shannon, the person that will lead administration policy development toward the region.
The second is that in the absence of a strong vision for U.S./Latin American policy, it is possible that some of the basics will be driven by politics. As I said in the U.S., I think the new administration will have a naughty list and a nice list, with Hugo Chavez heading the former and people like Lula of Brazil heading the latter. Where Evo ends up is up for grabs.
Oil Corruption, the CIA, and Human Rights
All of which brings us to the stories currently grabbing a few column inches in the U.S. and headlines in Bolivia.
For the last month the Morales administration has been hit with a major corruption scandal involving its newly reconstituted state oil company (YPFB). The scandal broke when an oilman by the name of Jorge O'Connor was killed in late January in La Paz. He was carrying $450,000 in cash, apparently on its way to be handed over to the head of the state company, Santos Ramírez. Stung badly, Morales ordered Ramírez to jail and fired many of those who worked with him.
As I was quoted in yesterday's Washington Post, "I don't think it's any secret to anybody that corruption in the Bolivian government did not end when Evo Morales became president."
Then last week Morales came up with a new theory of why the state oil company has suffered such a string of corruption and mismanagement charges under his administration. The C.I.A., he charged, has infiltrated the company to create problems for his government. The Embassy in La Paz angrily denied the accusation and Morales opponents declared that the President was just trying to shift attention away from the corruption scandal.
This is not the first accusation by the Morales government that the U.S. has been meddling in internal affairs in Bolivia. In addition to the charges leveled against Goldberg, his government has accused USAID of providing backing to his opponents and also accused the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of meddling and ordered it to leave.
Finally, this week the Obama administration tossed its own grenade into the mix, with the State Department's annual issuance of human right reports on 191 nations across the globe (not including the U.S.) – from Albania to Zimbabwe. These reports are always received with skepticism, coming as they do from a country that makes rendition flights to sweep people away to U.S. operated torture camps. It is worth noting, for example, that the Cuba report makes no mention of the surest source of human rights abuses on the island, the U.S. prison at Guantanamo.
The report on Bolivia -- which was surely written long before Mr. Obama took the presidential oath -- included warnings similar to those under prior governments. These include unjust detentions, abuses by police and soldiers, and infringements on press freedom. Yesterday Morales declared, "The State Department does not have the moral right to speak of human rights, those who have most punished the whole world…who went to Iraq to kill."
I think it is a very good thing to have a global review of human right situations around the world. But it also seems clear that the U.S. has shot itself in the foot for a long while to come as a credible messenger.
This is how we got here, to a place in U.S./Bolivia relations where neither nation has an ambassador to the other, where 20,000 Bolivian workers remain at risk due to President Bush's political moves on trade, where the Peace Corps is gone and not coming back, and where the relationships between two peoples that ought to have good relations are now deeply soured because of the actions of their governments.
How can we get to a better place? Tune into our next Blog post later this week.