The US-Bolivia Relationship

Last week, Bolivia hosted a conference of defense ministers from all the countries in the Americas. This became front-page news here mainly because of the speech by President Evo Morales and proposals put forward by Bolivia. It also seems to have attracted at least a little attention in the United States.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates came to Bolivia with the public agenda of discouraging Bolivia-Iran economic cooperation. He was actually surprisingly diplomatic in his complaints, saying from the outset that Bolivia has the right to have relationships with whomever it chose, but cautioning that Iranian interest in Bolivia’s untapped uranium and joined Bolivia-Iran plans for civilian nuclear plants will be closely monitored.

During the summit, Evo’s opening speech criticized the United States’ history of intervention in Latin American democracies. He claimed that popular democracies are “three and one” in resisting attempted coups backed by the United States. The three are Venezuela (2002), Bolivia (2008), and Ecuador (2010); with the one being Honduras (2009). In fact, they are two inaccuracies in this score: the recent police revolt in Ecuador did not have any apparent American backing, as President Rafael Correa has said publicly; and Evo, like many other observers, leaves out Haiti (2004), the only case in which Americans had an on-the-ground role. The real score is a less optimistic two for the democracies, two for the United States-backed coups against them.

Nevertheless, what has gathered media attention is not Evo’s accuracy, but his audacity in making such a comment in front of a senior American official. The Heritage Foundation responded by saying that, “Morales demonstrated in his speech a quantity of venom, a lack of restraint, and complete disrespect for the U.S. that befits a bully and tyrant.” Heritage joins several right-wing congress members and urging more hostile relations between the United States and Bolivia.

It is difficult to imagine exactly what that would mean since the two countries have had not had ambassador-level relations since 2008, when Bolivia expelled the US ambassador for coordinating Bolivia’s right-wing opposition at a time when it was seizing and burning government buildings and taking over gas infrastructure. After the Obama election, both countries have expressed a desire for renewed relations and cooperation, but the Bolivian proposal for a treaty of mutual respect has languished inside the United States State Department. While in August of this year, the countries announced “90% agreement” on the treaty, there is then no action since. Now that members of the new Republican House majority are making angry noises about Bolivia, it will be even more difficult for the Obama administration to make headway on mending the relationship.

I’ve been meaning to write a bit of background about the US-Bolivian relationship, and the realistic and unrealistic fears of the Morales administration about US intervention. The threat is real; no one who pursues an independent policy as a Latin American president can ignore what happened to Salvador Allende (Chile, ousted by a US-backed coup in 1973); Maurice Bishop (Grenada, invaded by the US in 1983); and Jean-Bertrand Aristide (ousted by CIA-paid Army officials in 1991); and what nearly happened to Hugo Chavez in 2002. However, the rhetoric of foreign interference often gets carried over into domestic politics. A quick summary might be: Just because they are out to get you doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid; and, Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. However, since nearly 1,300 documents on just what the US Embassy has been doing in Bolivia are being released by Wikileaks beginning this week, I’ll suspend judgment on just who is paranoid until I read the documents.

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