Bolivia’s Process of Change in International Perspective

US Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia.

US Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia.

 La Paz’s Sopocachi and San Jorge neighborhoods extend well beyond city limits. As the home to many foreign embassies in Bolivia, a walk through these neighborhoods is a trot around the world. One embassy towers over its immediate neighbors, although for all intents and purposes it is empty, standing as a colossal shell without an ambassador. Since 2008 when Evo Morales expelled the US ambassador, the US Embassy has operated as a glorified consulate, which is not to say that the ghost of the US has been excoriated for good. On the contrary, my interest in Bolivia’s “process of change” in the international arena began with a question many Americans ask themselves since 9/11, but geared specifically towards the incendiary rhetoric of Evo Morales and his supporters: Why do they hate us?

Going beyond this US-centric question is the launching pad of my research as I set out to explore how anti-foreign sentiment operates in Bolivian political discourse, disputes and policies. Bolivia as the choice for my research is not fortuitous. The country’s tragic history of lost wars, squandered natural resources and recurring foreign intervention has left a fascinating geopolitical debate over who really controls Bolivia: Bolivians or foreigners. Evo Morales’s rise to the Presidency is no exception to this debate. The origins of his MAS political party can be directly attributed to struggles between Bolivian cocalero (coca farmers) and US-sponsored coca eradication. By denouncing the acquiescence of Bolivia’s government to US economic, military and political intervention, Evo crafted a potent discourse that advocated for national dignity and sovereignty that appealed to many Bolivians. As Evo soon learned, however, one thing is to espouse anti-foreign rhetoric from outside the government, and another is to manage it from the seat of maximum political power, with the contradictions and difficulties this entails.

The wake-up call for Evo came in 2011 in the form of a proposed road through the Amazon. Specifically, the road would bypass a national park and indigenous territory known as TIPNIS. TIPNIS is home to three indigenous groups whose right to decide the roads fate through “prior consultation” as protected by the 2009 Bolivian Constitution was bypassed much like their territory. Without consulting the indigenous groups, the Morales government unilaterally signed a contract whereby Brazilian companies and financing would carry the brunt of the road’s construction. Soon, road opponents began criticizing Morales as a vendepatria, a lackey to Brazilian imperial interests that brings to mind Morales’s own protests against prior Bolivian governments and their cozy relations with the United States.

In response, Evo accused road opponents of collaborating with the US while Bolivia’s Vice President released a book detailing the “imperialist” interests of the US and developed nations in controlling the Amazon’s resources for itself. The TIPNIS conflict brought to the surface debates over economic development, national sovereignty and indigenous rights. For my analysis the nexus of these disparate topics is their relation to Bolivia’s international relations and geopolitics. This focus takes up the task of bridging the gap between Morales’s rhetoric and actions by recognizing the international factors that condition Bolivia’s domestic “process of change” in its most serious challenge yet: the TIPNIS conflict

How could Bolivia’s first indigenous president betray the principles of indigenous sovereignty and self-determination? Did Morales’s promise of a plurinational Bolivia, composed of a 32 sovereign indigenous groups, simplydisappear? What does anti-imperialism look like in the practice of State formation? These are the questions many ask themselves in regards to the TIPNIS road. My research takes up the challenge of bridging the gap between Morales’s rhetoric and actions.

Michael Abbott – MA Candidate at CLACS

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