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It's Time for a New Relationship With Bolivia

Doug Hertzler

Evo Morales is the most popular President Bolivia has ever had, winning re-election last month with 64% of the vote in spite of the fact that he is often at loggerheads with Bolivia's upper classes who have control over the country's print and television media.

Evo Morales and representatives of the US government have a history of tense relations as well. The situation dates back to the 1980s, when the United States government declared the War on Drugs and Evo Morales became a leader of a federation of indigenous farmers' unions representing the growers of the coca plant. US policy of forced eradication of the coca plant turned Morales' home community into a war zone.

While coca leaf is often processed into concentrated cocaine to meet consumer demand in the US and elsewhere, it has a very different significance in Bolivian culture. Millions of Bolivians chew the leaf daily, because in its natural form coca acts as a harmless stimulant similar to coffee, and the leaves have been central to indigenous religious rituals for centuries. Imagine how US citizens might respond if a foreign power declared war on both their morning cup of coffee and their Sunday communion wafers.

The Morales government has been quite serious about its policy of "Yes to coca, but no to cocaine." In spite of rocky diplomatic relations, Bolivia has continued to cooperate with the Narcotics Affairs Section of the US embassy. Bolivian police have confiscated more cocaine under the Morales administration than any previous government. The government has also worked to limit coca production to small family plots per family intended for legal uses. This policy has not worked perfectly, but it has reduced conflict, and Bolivia produces less cocaine than either Peru or Colombia, countries who are major allies of the United States in the region.

Evo Morales' first landslide election victory in 2005 shocked Bolivia's upper classes. Many of them did not believe that an Aymara Indian who never had a chance to finish high school should be allowed to govern the country. The right wing began engaging a blockade of the parliamentary process and threatening secession of lowland departments where they still held control of regional governments.


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At the height of the conflict in October 2008, US Ambassador Phillip Goldberg met publicly with the conservative Prefect of Santa Cruz Ruben Costas. Many Bolivians interpreted the meeting as a show of support for the right wing elites, just before allies of Costas launched attacks on indigenous people and burned government buildings. A few days later the Bolivian government accused Goldberg of supporting a coup attempt and expelled him. Unsurprisingly the United States retaliated in kind by expelling Bolivia's ambassador. A short time later, Morales also expelled United States Drug Enforcement Administration police, stating that some were being used in espionage actions to support the right wing coup effort.

In spite of the diplomatic spat, Bolivia has continued to cooperate with the US Embassy's Narcotics Affairs Section, which had a much larger presence in Bolivia than the DEA. But the United States government has been reluctant to patch things up and has continued retaliatory measures. First the Bush administration withdrew the Peace Corps, and then trade preferences were cancelled costing jobs to thousands of poor Bolivian who worked in the textile industry.

The election of Barack Obama brought great hope for a better relationship, but after one year, little has changed. The Obama administration and the Democrats, citing erroneous data on the drug war, have twice refused to restore trade preferences which were unjustly removed and they have refused to acknowledge the ways in which Bolivia has been cooperating with counter-narcotics efforts.

Meanwhile, support for the right wing in Bolivia has diminished and Evo Morales has grown more popular. His policies have recognized the dignity of poor indigenous Bolivians and provided economic stimulus by redistributing natural gas income. This resulted in the poorest nation in South America showing the best economic growth in the hemisphere during a global recession.

Morales has played a key role in ushering in a new era of democracy where the majority of poor and indigenous Bolivians are able to choose a candidate who they identify with and who is attempting to address their situation. Bolivia is still a long way from solving its many problems, but the United Sates needs to recognize that a genuinely democratic process of change is underway in Bolivia. The United States' old approach to the drug war and economic development policies has been counter-productive and it's time to allow Bolivia to try its own ideas. As Evo Morales begins his second term in office on January 22, the United States should move forward to reach agreement with Bolivia on respectful relations, transparent aid, and a new exchange of ambassadors.

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Doug Hertzler is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Eastern Mennonite University. He has conducted periodic research in Bolivia, spending a total of six years in that country since 1988.

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