US sees trouble in its backyard

By Published On: September 19, 2005Categories: Politics7 Comments on US sees trouble in its backyard

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan warned darkly of the dangers of a leftist government in the tiny Central American country of Nicaragua, declaring it aimed to “become a launching pad for revolutions…just two days driving time from Harlingen, Texas.”

Nineteen years later, similar rhetoric is again being used by the US administration regarding the small landlocked Andean nation of Bolivia.

Visiting Paraguay at the end of August, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned of an emerging left-wing “subversive” threat in Bolivia encouraged by Venezuela and Cuba.

Roger Pardo-Maurer, until recently US deputy assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere in a briefing in the US made specific allegations that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is "providing money and moral support" for the Bolivian opposition, whilst Fidel Castro provides the direction and organization. "They are trying to steer this revolution toward a Marxist-socialist populist state," he concluded .

It is as if the Cold War never ended.

When the US administration has been asked to provide evidence of this support it has noticeably failed to provide any. Instead it has relied on an excuse familiar from the infamous hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq war by saying the allegations were based on intelligence reports that could not be released to the public.

There is no doubt however, that the rising tide of allegations reflects a growing US worry that avowed socialist, indigenous leader and head of a coca-growers union, Evo Morales could be elected in upcoming elections scheduled for December in Bolivia.

In 2002, Morales came within breathing distance of power when he won 20.94% of the vote, only a couple of points behind the winning candidate, Sanchez de Lozada. Recent polls have shown Evo Morales neck and neck with the leading candidate from the right, José “Tuto” Quiroga.

Most vocal amongst the US concerns is the potential impact of a Morales victory on their long war against drugs. Bolivia is the third largest supplier of cocaine in the world. After a repressive and unpopular eradication policy in the late 1990s, illegal cultivation of coca was reduced by almost half from 52,900 hectares in 1989 to 28,450 hectares in 2002. However in 2004, according to UN reports, coca cultivation rose by 17%.

Morales came to prominence as a leader of coca-growing unions in Chapare, and his party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) continues to be strongly rooted in the resistance of the coca-growers to eradication. Morales has made clear that he would end an eradication policy and to defend the growing of coca for traditional use and for pharmaceutical purposes.

This is not just conjecture as it’s a common sight and smell to see Bolivian campesinos chewing coca to stave off hunger, and using the leaves in traditional ceremonies. In answer to critics who say that this will allow illegal cocaine production to grow, Morales says the focus should switch from the supply to focus on the ongoing demand for cocaine in the US.

However whilst coca may well be the flashpoint, the concern for the US is more broadly based in a rejection of their role in their own backyard. Morales, himself clearly identifies the war on drugs as part of a bigger struggle: “The war against coca is a pretext for the US to dominate Latin America, to dominate our people, to undermine our sovereignty.”

In fact, MAS’s popularity has grown across the country due to its challenge to what is seen as US-dominated economic and political policies that have enriched a small elite but excluded a largely indigenous and impoverished majority.

In the last few years, this dissatisfaction has exploded onto the streets on many occasions: in the Water War in Cochabamba in 2002 that led to the expulsion of privatised water utility Bechtel and the Gas War to nationalize Bolivia’s gas reserves that flared in October 2003 resulting in 67 deaths and the fall of President Sanchez de Lozada and more recently in May and June this year when Sanchez de Lozada’s deputy, Mesa was forced to resign and call elections.

A victory by Morales would reflect a swing to the left that has taken place across the whole Latin American continent in the last few years. Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay, Argentina and Ecuador have all returned left governments. Chile looks likely to elect a left of centre President in elections later this year.

The shifts in the Continent clearly go against the interests of a US administration which, influenced by a neo-conservative vision, has been determined to undermine threats to its power. These concerns are perhaps best expressed in a leaked Pentagon Defense Planning Guide drafted under Wolfowitz in the early 1990s: "America must prevent other states from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order….We must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."

However what is surprising is how slow the US has been in reacting to this change in its backyard. It took the Bush administration two and a half years to assemble a Latin America team and allegations were increasingly mounted that Iraq had distracted them completely from what was happening on their doorstep. “The US would no longer retain its superpower status if it ignores Latin America. Pre-emptive actions, so far not in evidence, should be undertaken before the worst case scenarios become inevitable” warned Scott Sullivan an official within the Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs over a year ago.

However Rumsfeld’s visit to Paraguay and his comments on Bolivia would appear to reflect a new focus on Latin America by the Bush administration.

In July, under heavy pressure the US Congress narrowly passed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). This treaty not only lowers tariff barriers but also secures changes in Central American government policies on investments, intellectual property, services and industry that will protect and advance interests of US companies in the region.

The administration is now pushing for a similar free trade agreement with the Andean countries including Bolivia, which it hopes to sign in November after a 12th round of negotiations conclude this week (19-23 September). If this is passed, it will have effectively extended a free trade zone from Canada to Chile in the South, leaving only Argentina and Brazil still resisting. “This is their tactics. To build ALCA (the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas) by stealth. It’s about political and economic control,” said Pablo Solón on behalf of the Bolivian Movement against ALCA.

Within Bolivia, the US is keeping a low profile whilst probably doing all it can behind the scenes to prevent a Morales victory. It seems to be keen to avoid making the tactical mistake of 2002 when US ambassador Rocha publicly said “I want to remind the Bolivian electorate that if you elect those who want Bolivia to become a major cocaine exporter again, this will endanger the future of U.S. assistance to Bolivia.” MAS exploited this with a popular campaign based on the slogan “Bolivians: You Decide. Who’s in Charge? Rocha or the Voice of the People.” Morales was later to say: “Every statement [Rocha] made against us helped us to grow and awaken the conscience of the people.”

However the US is likely to play a more visible role when the new Government is elected. If Tuto, a former IBM executive is elected, his government will probably face a wave of protests given his opposition to the issues that social movements have been most active on such nationalisation of hydrocarbons and his likely maintenance of a highly liberalised economy.

Following a brief period in office between 2001 and 2002, Tuto became known as someone who uses “mano dura” (a firm hand) in dealing with protests which in the current highly polarised climate would lead to bloodshed. He will therefore depend on the US for backing. In this context, a recent order in the US for an emergency operations centre in La Paz and equipment for 3700 riot police is an ominous sign .

If on the other hand, Morales wins, his government is likely to face immense opposition unless it manages to convince US and business leaders that it won’t harm their interests. “The US won’t need to invade, it can get its way by economic isolation and exploiting the rifts that exist here,” says Jim Schultz, a US commentator based in Bolivia.

Bolivia is not only divided between rich and poor, it has also has regional and cultural differences and a growing movement in the East led by strong business interests for autonomy. They would do their utmost to bring down a Morales government, supported by powerful multinational companies who are already threatening to sue Bolivia for billions of dollars if it doesn’t change its hydrocarbons law. Meanwhile any compromise, for example on nationalisation of gas, would lead to major protests from various social movements in Bolivia. A Morales-led government is likely to find itself squeezed heavily from both sides.

None of this is particularly new to Bolivians, who have become used to US influence on their economy and politics especially since the 1990s when the US launched its war on drugs which led to large-scale crop eradication in Bolivia. “Ironically, you could say Morales and MAS are a creation of the US” says Bolivian journalist Miguel Lora. “The party rose on the back on the coca-growers movement resisting the US war on drugs. Now they threaten to undermine not just the war on drugs but US economic and political interests too.”

It may be a small land-locked country thousands of miles away from the US, but it is clear that Bolivia won’t escape the glare of Uncle Sam in the coming months.

"Was there ever any domination that did not appear natural to those who possessed it?" John Stuart Mill, British philosopher and economist, 1806-1873



  1. Taylor Kirk September 19, 2005 at 5:46 pm - Reply

    Hi there, great blog! How did you end up in Bolivia? Re: recent grumblings from the US administration about events in Latin America, I think Bush & Co. have been irresponsible in their comments and actions regarding the region, though they spend much time wondering why the US is not trusted. They are so preoccupied with how Chavez is spreading cash around that they don’t bother to examine how our actions have destabilized the region.
    Taylor Kirk
    The Latin Americanist

  2. Nick September 20, 2005 at 7:19 am - Reply

    Thanks Taylor, probably best to read my post to find out why I am here. The US administration certainly does seem to have Chavez obsession although he also has a bit of a Bush obsession. Within Bolivia though it is ridiculous to say that the problems and upheaval are a result of Chavez, they are very much a result of economic policies that have created huge divisions and won’t be resolved until they are decisively tackled.

  3. Taylor Kirk September 20, 2005 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Saw your background, very interesting. So are you still based in Cochabamba? I recently read a new (in the US) book by that title edited by Oscar Olivera. It’s pretty anecdotal, but gave me a good sense of what’s going on, as I am by no means an expert on Bolivia.

  4. Miguel (MABB) September 21, 2005 at 6:42 am - Reply

    Estimado Nick,
    aside from the direct accusations that Chavez is plotting revolution in Bolivia, don’t you wonder why is Evo Morales traveling so frequently to visit Hugo Chavez? On Chavez’s expense?
    I often wonder where does Evo get the money for campaigning. He says the money comes from his supporters. Most of his supporters live with less than 3 dollars a day. How can that be?
    Why doesn’t he make his and his party’s accounts public knowledge. Or are they already, just not available in the net?
    It would dissipate a lot of fog if he’d do that.
    My big question is: Who’s financing Evo?

  5. Miguel (MABB) September 21, 2005 at 6:49 am - Reply

    Me again.
    The US has had its eye on Bolivian affairs (and the rest of its back yard) at least as early as the 1900s.
    In almost every major historical event in Bolivia, the US has been mentioned many times. Bolivians are not just used to US intervention, they expect it already!

  6. Nick Buxton September 21, 2005 at 7:18 am - Reply

    Hi Miguel, It’s clear that Morales sees a big ally in Chavez (and vice-versa) hence the regular rendezvous. However I can’t pretend to know whether that includes funding or not. What’s clear is that even if it does include funding, that doesn’t explain for me the level of his support in Bolivia. I am convinced this is based on more internal factors as well as policies imposed by international institutions like the IMD. After all, even his funding I doubt outdoes the funding that Tuto must be receiving. I agree with Jim Shultz’s post on this – . On transparency and your recent post – , I agree for a healthy democracy the more openness, transparency and accountability the better. Otherwise even if MAS were to come to power with a good programme, we could well see a similar situation to the depressing recent revelations of corruption in Brazil. This process might already be underway. I have been hearing from friends that the MAS office is receiving a growing number of people offering their support who had previously been very critical of MAS – suggesting that the lure of possible power is outdoing any sense of principle.

  7. Miguel (MABB) September 22, 2005 at 10:09 am - Reply

    Yes, what is clear is the relationship between Chavez and Evo. That is very clear. Depending on how you see Chavez as a leader, that would put that relationship in a good or a bad laight.
    Now, you talk about the level of support Evo has. I assume you are talking about the recently released Apoyo polls, which show (specially the last one) Evo’s support increasing (placed first).
    I am sorry but I also tend to question the acuracy of representation of those polls. IN my opinion, the Apoyo people cite the last poll as having too great a margin of error. That is, they skip, albeit urbanization, a significant portion of the population. Namely, the rural population. They have been doing this constantly for every survey they conduct.
    A quick look at the last census will tell you that 3.1 million people out of a total of 8.2 million live in the rural area. That is about 38% of the population. That is a big chunk to skip. I don’t know why these people in Apoyo are doing this. I am puzzled. So the numbers they come up with are not entirely representative.
    As far as the reasons why Evo might be getting support, I agree with you. There are internal as well as external causational factors.
    And one last thing, since you mention “healthy democracy”. I am highly sceptical, if Evo is elected president, we’ll be talking about a “healthy democracy” under his government.
    That is the problem underlining my scepticism about Evo. If I would be convinced that Evo would remain a “whole-hearted democrat”, heck I might even vote for him. 🙂

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