Morales and Obama at the 5th Summit of the Americas in April 2009 (Source: Radiomundial.com.ve)
Between Evo Morales’s election into office in December 2005 and the final months of the Bush administration, US-Bolivian relations – already fragile from a history of failed neoliberal policies, US support of dictators in the region, and a quagmire of fiscal and geopolitical turmoil – were embittered by a series of tit-for-tat policies, that reached a climax with the suspension of Bolivia from the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) in November of 2008, which was estimated to cost $155 million and between 12,000-85,000 jobs (CEPB, 2008).
Given that the ideological, hemispheric warfare has by and large taken the limelight in the media, namely in the west and the right-wing outlets in Latin America, since the rise of the leftist, indigenous leader, it is essential to reflect upon the policies of the Morales administration, particularly as the 2009 presidential elections approach on the 6th of December. Polls continue to indicate that Morales will be re-elected, but he has also promised that this will be his last term. n. Morales has taken bold steps to fulfil the promises of his 2005 campaign – a new Constitution, regulations on land ownership, large-scale nationalizations – and if re-elected, the success of the next four years will lie in how effectively his administration can reckon with the goals of a socialist agenda and the realities of a capitalist world order.
BA Candidate, Environmental Studies, minor in Anthropology and Latin American Studies
United States and Bolivia: Rhetoric and Reconciliation
While Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez has seldom failed to turn an ordinary news programme into an explosion of anti-capitalist sound-bites, Morales has attempted to distinguish himself and his vision of Bolivia from Chavezian rhetoric. Martin Sivak, biographer of Morales has described Morales’s assertiveness in private meetings with men like Chávez and Castro. According to Sivak, there was a certain assertiveness to Morales, a pronounced independence from Chávez or Fidel Castro, in spite of his deeply rooted ties and profound respect for the both of them. Sivak explains that Morales is pragmatic, pointing to his zero cocaine policy, which prioritizes curbing growth of coca for cocaine, while maintaining that the crop itself, a main source of economic growth in other aspects, should not be criminalized. Sivak argues that this pragmatism should be given more credence than the anti-capitalist rhetoric studded banner of socialism, which is simply a political device to garner the support of his constituency (Sivak, 2009).
But while it may be true that Morales prioritizes progress over ideology, his anti-capitalist rhetoric does not ease US-Bolivian tensions. At a recent summit in Venezuela on the 27th of September, Morales expressed his appreciation for and approval of the injection of more investment into Banco del Sur, a fund designed to help finance social development programs in South America, by Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. Morales commented on how non-capitalist countries like Bolivia could not rely upon the IMF for funding, that they needed regional alliances to prosper, alluding to how historically the monetary aid given by the US or IMF has encroached on the country’s sovereignty (El Universal, 2009). In contrast to Sivak, Patricio Navia, a political scientist, believes that Morales is more ideological than Chávez. Navia argues that, in spite of Chávez’s incendiary rhetoric, he has continued to sell oil to US, surviving even the worst of storms in US-Venezuela relations (Navia, 2009).
On the other hand, Morales has also demonstrated willingness to cooperate with US in spite of his socialist ideology and anti-capitalist rhetoric. For instance, through the bilateral agreement signed in April 2009 with US, Bolivia receives $26 million for the execution of anti-narcotic programs (Ledebuer and Walsh, 2009). It was in part such overtures that appeared to portend improved relations between US and Bolivia, and an eventual revoking of the suspension from the ATPDEA. Morales, during the 2008 US presidential elections, expressed his excitement at the prospect of an American president who, like himself, is a minority in his country. Obama was the real maverick, pledging change, hope, all those concepts that had also coloured Morales’s 2005 campaign. Thus, the hangover experienced in the US as the euphoria of Obama’s campaign faded was felt abroad as well, as the newly elected president’s policies gradually came into effect.
Washington’s decision to prolong the suspension of Bolivia from the ATPDEA chagrined Morales deeply. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) released a report in June 2009, soon after the White House announced its decision, analyzing the premises of this puzzling policy decision and revealing that the decision seemed unfounded, given the overtures in place since April 2009- including the $26 million bilateral deal and the continued cooperation between Bolivia and the US embassy’s Narcotics Affairs Section (Ledebuer and Walsh, 2009). Despite WOLA’s calls for a reversal of the decision, the President concluded during the September 15th certification that Bolivia, along with Burma and Venezuela, “failed demonstrably during the last 12 months to adhere to international counter-narcotic agreements and take counter-narcotic measures” (Kelly, 2009). However, Obama did execute a national interest waiver so as to safeguard the aid programs already in effect in Bolivia. Regardless, the continued alienation of Bolivia is confusing, given Morales’s intolerance of narco-trafficking and his willingness to partner with capitalistic countries including the US. Thus, how genuine his ideologically-charged rhetoric remains unclear, but it is evident that Morales is, rationally, inclined toward building partnerships that will enable development, while also ensuring sovereignty, of his country.
Land Reform and Regional Tensions
The outlook for the Bolivian elections and for the future of the country at large provided by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research firm that provides in-depth country analyses, is bleak, if not harsh. The report, released in September 2009, maintains that, while Morales is likely to be the President until 2014, friction between the national government and eastern landowners will hinder the success of the socialist agenda. In Bolivia, the conflict between socialism and capitalism is accentuated by the stark political differences that exist within the country’s borders. Santa Cruz was the homeland for the Civic Committee, an organization of women, mostly wives of wealthy landowners, who were understandably opposed to Morales’s presidency in 2005 because of, in particular, his redistribution policies. Daniel Beeton, the International Communications Coordinator at the Centre for Economic Policy and Research, emphasizes the sobriety of the situation: “The elite families (in Santa Cruz) want to hold on to their land.” And hold on they do. Beeton explains, “The largest farms in Bolivia, while only 0.63 percent of the total, include more than 66 percent of all agricultural land. Some of the largest concentrations of land holdings are in the department of Santa Cruz, and I don’t think it’s surprising that Santa Cruz has been the epicentre of the violent, extreme right wing resistance to Morales’ government” (Ledebur and Walsh, 2009). While it would seem logical enough that in order to develop the country and mitigate rural poverty there would have to be a re-appropriation of land, this logic was lost among those Bolivians who think not in nationalist but regionalist terms.
The regional politics surrounding land policy is hindering national development. Patricio Navia succinctly describes the Bolivian predicament. Historically, when countries were more rural, revolutions were geared toward land reform. However, the revolutions of the 21st century, in particular, strive for improved access to education and greater economic growth. Meanwhile, Bolivia “is still in the first chapter, as it has been for the last 50 to 60 years” (Navia, 2009). The new administration will have to hone the resources to close this chapter, even if it means a politically unfavourable decision for the Morales government. However, if Morales is re-elected, perhaps losing some popularity will not be the worst of trade-offs, given that he will not be occupying the presidential seat again.
Beeton, Daniel. Personal Correspondence. 1 Oct 2009.
CEPB, “The Importance of ATPDEA for Bolivia,” Confederación de Empresarios Privados de Bolivia, Oct 2008, .
Economist Intelligence Unit. “Bolivia.” 2009.
El Universal, “Banco del Sur tendrá más capital de Argentina, Brasil y Venezuela,” 27 Sep. 2009, < .
Ledebur, Katherine and John Walsh. “Obama’s Bolivia ATPDEA Decision Blast from the Past or Wave of the Future?.” Washington Office on Latin America. 11 Aug 2009. .
Kelly, Ian. “Presidential Determination for Major Drug-Transit and Major Illicit Drug-Producing Countries.” United States Department of State. 15 Sept 2009. .
Navia, Patricio. Personal Correspondence. 6 Oct. 2009.
Sivak, Martin. Personal Correspondence. May 2009. For a more in depth analysis of this perspective, see Sivak’s biography of Evo Morales, Jefazo.