Can the US and Bolivia Get Along?

With the Obama administration's policy toward Venezuela pretty much decided,
and the embargo on Cuba considered untouchable because no one is
willing to risk losing support among Cuban-Americans in the swing state
of Florida, that leaves Bolivia as a left government in the region
where the hostility of the Bush administration could be quickly reversed.

However,
there are a number of outstanding issues between the two countries. The
United States and Bolivia currently do not have ambassadors. Bolivia
expelled the US ambassador on 10 September, on the grounds that he and
Washington were intervening in Bolivia's internal affairs. Among other
offences, the US embassy was caught trying to use Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar for spying; US ambassador Phillip Goldberg had met privately
with opposition leaders at a time when elements of the opposition were
engaged in destabilising violence; and the US seemed to lend tacit
support to the Bolivian opposition by not condemning this violence or
even offering condolences when dozens of government supporters were
massacred in Pando on 11 September.

The Bush administration
responded to the expulsion of the US ambassador by expelling Bolivian
ambassador Gustavo Guzman. But there are also other important issues
for Bolivia. On 26 September, the Bush administration suspended
Bolivia's trade preferences under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug
Eradication Act. The official reason was that Bolivia had not been
cooperating sufficiently in the war on drugs. But according to the UN's 2008 report,
Bolivia's coca cultivation had increased by just 5 per cent, compared
to a 27% increase in Colombia, the biggest beneficiary of US aid in the
region.

The Bolivians are eager to begin a new chapter of
improved relations with Washington. To demonstrate this willingness,
the Bolivian government refrained from filing a complaint at the World
Trade Organisation (WTO) against the United States for the suspension
of its trade preferences. Their legal case is quite solid: under WTO
rules, countries are allowed to establish rules for preferential access
to their markets, but the rules must be applied equally to all
countries receiving the preferences. Before filing a complaint at the
WTO, however, Bolivia wanted to see if the new administration is
interested in improving relations.

Then there is another holdover
from the Bush administration: Bolivia's new constitution declares that
healthcare, along with water and other necessities, is a human right
and cannot be privatised. In keeping with their constitutional law,
Bolivia asked the WTO for permission to withdraw the previous
government's commitment to open up its hospitals and healthcare sector
to foreign corporations. According to the WTO's procedural rules, if
there are no objections to such a request within 45 days, it is
approved. The EU, home to some of the big healthcare corporations that
might have an interest in the issue, responded that it had no
objections. On 5 January, the last day of the waiting period, the Bush
administration objected.

The Obama team has not yet decided
whether it will rescind the Bush administration's objection to
Bolivia's WTO request. Presumably they will - if not, it would be an
unmistakable signal of continued hostility. Far from being an arcane
detail of constitutional or international law, it has real meaning to
millions of Bolivians. The struggle against water privatisation was a
significant part of the movement that brought Evo Morales to power.
This is the political origin of the constitutional provisions
establishing these essentials as human rights that cannot be infringed
upon by private interests: many poor Bolivians had found themselves
unable to afford water after it was privatised and user fees tripled.

Bolivia
has also kicked out the US drug enforcement agency, and it does not
look like they are coming back. To the Bolivians, the US is using the
"war on drugs" throughout Latin America mainly as an excuse to get
boots on the ground, and establish ties with local military and police
forces. They see the whole process as destabilising and a threat to
their sovereignty and democracy.

Despite all of these
differences, it is still possible that Washington might choose to
normalise relations with Bolivia. There are apparently some divisions
within the administration over tactics. The "doves" apparently include
Thomas Shannon, the current top state department official for the
western hemisphere, and a holdover from the Bush administration. These
officials can see that there is a public-relations problem in abusing
Bolivia, the poorest country in South America and more importantly one
led by the country's first indigenous president, Morales. To most of
the world, he is the Nelson Mandela of Bolivia, with his government
bringing an end to centuries of apartheid-like exclusion of the
country's indigenous majority.

For the "doves" in the new
administration, it would be better to avoid a public fight with
Bolivia, so as not to distract from the guy who is sitting on what may
be the largest petroleum reserves in the world - in Venezuela - and
whom they have already successfully vilified in the media. On the other
hand, there are hard liners who feel the need to "lay down the law"
with Bolivia. We will soon know who has prevailed.