In June 2005, two weeks of massive street protests and widespread blockades in Bolivia culminated in the resignation of President Carlos Mesa and a subsequent power vacuum in the country. U.S. officials suggested that Bolivian coca leader and Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party head, Evo Morales, manipulated popular protests within the country. Washington has also asserted that the governments of Cuba and Venezuela provoked and funded the social unrest.
Accusations put forth by Bush administration officials represent both a misreading of the complex Bolivian political crisis and the latest incarnation of an unsuccessful long-term strategy to prevent a Morales presidency, which U.S. officials claim would be a destabilizing force in the region. As public statements once again failed to impede popular support for Morales, the U.S. has likely resorted to behind the scenes attempts to affect Bolivian politics, or to influence the viability of a Morales presidency if elected. In the context of a potentially volatile political climate, U.S. attempts to thwart a Morales presidency threaten to produce exactly the prolonged political instability they purportedly are seeking to avoid.
The US War of Words Falls Flat
Morales, an indigenous representative in the Bolivian congress, has long been vocal about his distaste for U.S. intervention in Bolivian affairs, be it through the U.S. War on Drugs or the dictates of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. U.S. officials, in turn, have repeatedly tried to publicly discredit Morales as a drug trafficker and radical element. In the 2002 elections, U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha went so far as to warn Bolivians not to vote for Morales, " if you elect those who want Bolivia to become a major cocaine exporter again, this will endanger the future of U.S. assistance to Bolivia". The move backfired, and increased support for Morales, who came in a close second.
After President Mesa’s resignation in June and with early elections scheduled for December 2005, top U.S. officials attempted to explain the crisis in Bolivia by accusing Fidel Castro in Cuba and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela — who officials claim are trying to install allied "popular Marxist-socialist" governments in the region (Los Tiempos 7/28/05) — of providing funding and instructions to MAS and Morales. In August, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that, "There is certainly evidence both Cuba and Venezuela have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in unhelpful ways" (AP 8/17/05). When pressed, Rumsfeld refused to be more specific in his claim. One of Rumsfeld’s deputies, however, stated that Bolivian elements, including Morales, have received organizational support from Cuba and financial resources from Venezuela (AP 8/17/05). The grouping of Bolivia with Venezuela and Cuba, two countries which Bush’s top Latin America aide has popularly characterized as a Latin American "Axis of Evil" (National Review 3/28/05), could be used to justify increased involvement in Bolivian internal affairs.
Though Morales makes no attempt to hide a personal friendship and political affinity with both Castro and Chavez, he denies receiving any financing from either. Members of the Bolivian traditional political elite have promoted the Chavez intervention thesis to U.S. government officials in an attempt to stimulate further U.S. efforts to block Morales’s election and to garner support for their own candidacies.
Miscalculating the Roots of Social Unrest
It remains unclear whether Morales or MAS receive economic support from Cuba or Venezuela. The greater danger, however, is that by broadly characterizing the people protesting in the streets of Bolivia as products of Cuban or Venezuelan provocateurs (AFP 8/16/05), U.S. officials misinterpret a diverse and complex political landscape, and vastly underestimate the systemic causes of popular dissent within the country. Members of the traditional Bolivian political elite characterize the forces clamoring for change in Bolivia as factions of radical extremists seeking to destroy the nation’s democracy, an analysis that dovetails neatly with Bush Administration officials’ objectives. In reality, the voices of dissent in Bolivia include diverse union, civic, professional, and indigenous groups as well as regional elites with varied interests. Past protests have sought the meaningful inclusion of these groups within the existing structure in order to affect change, rather than the destruction of the political system. In fact, many of the leaders of protesting social groups announced their candidacies in the upcoming presidential and congressional elections.
Bolivian elite and U.S. claims that social groups needed external Venezuelan and Cuban funding to take to the streets reflect both a desire to misrepresent popular unrest and a failure to comprehend that subsistence farmers and other poor social sectors can enact significant change without money. The ground rules in Bolivia are changing, and a monopoly on economic wealth is no longer synonymous with a monopoly on political power. Mass political and social movements, many of whose members live on less than a dollar a day, have learned to run successful political campaigns and carry out extended protests on people power and a shoestring budget — a phenomena terrifying to both the nation’s discredited political elite and U.S. economic interests.
Since the tumultuous "gas war" of October of 2003 that brought the ouster of former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, recurring popular unrest has been unified around two key demands: a popular Constituent Assembly to redraft the constitution, and the nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas resources. Support for the Constituent Assembly has been polled at 75 percent (Los Tiempos 6/25/05) and a national referendum in 2004 found that over 90 percent of Bolivians support of recovering control of gas resources, though the particular demands of diverse sectors vary.
Less concise, but even more pronounced is the overarching demand that Bolivian elected officials govern legitimately for the benefit of the Bolivian people, rather than serving the interests of the U.S., foreign capital or their own pockets. Though there is not unity in the exact road that Bolivia should take, the demand for fundamental change is widespread.
MAS on a Tightrope
MAS’s attempt to respond to these demands, repeatedly ignored and postponed by previous administrations and legislators, has made the party a major political force. Widespread disenchantment with corrupt traditional party politics has led sectors of intellectuals, middle class and even military to join MAS’s original largely indigenous and campesino ranks, although it remains unclear how long these groups would support a Morales administration. In the 2002 elections, Morales came in second, garnering 20.94 percent of the popular vote, less than two points behind winner Sánchez de Lozada. Though Bolivian polling data is notoriously inaccurate and subject to fluctuation, the majority of recent polls show MAS in the lead by one or two percentage points. Bolivian polling samples grossly underrepresent rural areas, suggesting that Morales’s lead may be even greater.
However, MAS does not "control" Bolivia’s social movements or the protests they carry out. The decentralization of social movements is perhaps the only "given" of the nation’s political environment. The patchwork of Bolivian social actors employs a diversity of organizational and decision-making structures. Most of them do not take direction from Morales, and many are openly at odds with MAS’s politics.
Morales currently walks a fine line between being far enough to the left to extend concrete benefits to the long-disenfranchised Bolivian people, and not far enough to spark immediate capital flight or further U.S. impositions and pressure. MAS has taken pains to appease international interests and allay fears of a radical socialist regime, but faces significant popular pressure to enact sweeping reforms. Bolivia has gone through three presidents in the last three years, amid mass discontent and recurring cycles of conflict. The greatest source of instability has been the inability of Bolivian presidents to respond to profound economic and social demands, due to internal weakness and externally imposed conditions. The inherent frailty of the Bolivian political system, with its highly ineffectual and partisan congress that has consistently blocked efforts at legislative reform, has exacerbated the crisis.
Should the U.S. Fear Morales?
Within the Bolivian political context, Morales’ anti-neoliberal positions are not extremely radical. With 64 percent of the population living in poverty, many Bolivians realize that they have not fared well under U.S. mandates and neoliberal policies. They’ve struggled against an ineffective and damaging War on Drugs, disastrous water privatization schemes, IMF-mandated privatization of national gas resources, and mounting foreign debt. In this context, many within Bolivia’s social movements view Morales’ and MAS’s positions as not going far enough to reverse neoliberal policies. For instance, during the protest that led to Mesa’s resignation, MAS did not originally support the nationalization of oil and gas. Pure electoral reality forced the party to change course, though even now, their "nationalization without confiscation" platform is more of a business-friendly increase in regulation rather than anything approaching expropriation. Even pro-free trade second place candidate, Jorge Quiroga, has realized the tide of popular sentiment and has adopted his own rhetoric of "nationalization" as well as cancellation of Bolivia’s external debt (El Mundo 10/12/05), though his formal policy proposals don’t reflect this discourse.
On the issue of coca production and control, a priority for the United States, MAS proposes what it calls a "zero tolerance" policy with regard to drug trafficking. The party’s policy of coca industrialization and decriminalization, however, clearly ruffles U.S. feathers. MAS calls for continued controlled coca production along with cooperative reduction of excess plants. The platform opposes military forced coca eradication, which has been imposed and funded by the U.S. in the Chapare for almost a decade, with disastrous consequences for the region. The MAS platform also includes a politically modest campaign targeting the U.N. for removal of coca from its list of controlled substances, an issue promoted by several previous administrations.
There are several potential outcomes to the current situation in Bolivia. According to most polls and in spite of U.S. opposition, Morales has a good chance of winning the popular vote in December, but it is doubtful that he will obtain the 51% necessary to take office. MAS would need a significantly broader base of support within the congress to put together a majority governing coalition. A MAS alliance with a more conservative party, such as third place candidate Samuel Doria Medina’s UN party, could deteriorate its legitimacy with popular sectors. If the party fails to form a coalition, Quiroga’s PODEMOS, along with other conservative or center parties potentially could come to office. Diverse social groups would immediately question the mandate of a new Quiroga presidency as unresponsive to social demands. Social movements would almost assuredly take to the streets, and the response by Quiroga government forces could be violent. During his previous administration in 2001-2002, Quiroga used the armed forces to repress protests. More than a dozen Bolivians were killed during anti-drug missions and demonstrations against them.
If MAS did form a governing coalition, it would need to maintain continued access to the steady flow of international aid and revenues from oil and gas taxes, on which Bolivia’s economy has become dependent. Bolivians are well aware that if the U.S. cuts off economic support, as it threatened to do in 2002, it will be impossible for the government to keep the country running, let alone meet new social demands. If a MAS government failed to address basic social needs, they too could be pushed from power, pitching Bolivia once again into chaos.
U.S. Attempts to Influence Bolivian Democratic Processes Could Have Devastating Results
Though U.S. rhetoric often paints Bolivian unrest as anti-government, the vast majority of Bolivia’s social forces are pushing for more legitimate representation within it. Electoral participation, the demand for a constituent assembly, the legislative proposals around gas, coca, and distribution of resources are all attempts to improve the system by working within it. But this strategic leaning is not a given. The Bolivian system is suffering from an extreme crisis of legitimacy. U.S. economic sanctions or increased policy impositions could further erode the tenuous threads currently holding the system in place.
The promise of elections has forestalled conflict in Bolivia. But lasting stability for Bolivia paradoxically requires profound changes that are unlikely to appeal to the Bush Administration. Any Bolivian president will face almost insurmountable challenges, attempting to govern in a political climate as full of demands as it is of constraints and obstacles. While an administration more acceptable to the U.S. may not face foreign aid cuts, it will still face intense internal pressure. A government responsive to the needs of the Bolivian people stands a greater chance of staying in power long enough to enact meaningful change.
U.S officials of late have been refraining from explicit public statements on preferences in Bolivian elections, which have backfired in the past. However, behind the scenes efforts to affect electoral outcomes and restrict funding to a democratically elected administration could set off the long-term political instability that the U.S is purportedly seeking to avert. By pushing for a U.S.-friendly government, the U.S. could easily push too far. The results could be counterproductive for the U.S., and devastating for Bolivia.
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