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.

Dignidad y dinero: Ecuador, Bolivia reject US pressure on climate

The central aim of any climate summit is not to save itself and accept any outcome, but to come to an agreement that will save humanity.” — Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s climate negotiator

In the days before this week’s conference, and while a global preparatory negotiations were being held on climate change in Bonn, this news came:

The US State Department is denying climate change assistance to countries opposing the Copenhagen accord, it emerged today.  The new policy, first reported by The Washington Post, suggests the Obama administration is ready to play hardball, using aid as well as diplomacy, to bring developing countries into conformity with its efforts to reach an international deal to tackle global warming.  The Post reported today that Bolivia and Ecuador would now be denied aid after both countries opposed the accord. (Guardian)

This came as a shot across the bow of other developing countries who are caught between environmental principles and economic realities.

These pressures are quite serious. A leading daily newspaper in Cochabamba, Los Tiempos, ran an op-ed yesterday that circled around the movie Avatar, a story of indigenous resistance to extractive industry. It was a blunt caution to the Bolivian government under the headline “Truths that hurt“:

If Bolivia were to act in a more diplomatic way, it could have a great opportunity in the carob market, and this could even be a part of the new economic base of the country. … With the poverty of people, they cannot make speeches which at the moment of settling accounts will amount to no more than that. Bolivia could play its cards in a different way, avoiding the politicization of an issue in which its vote matters very little. The rest is for the movies and for science fiction.

Of course, Bolivia is making just such speeches and hosting a massive civil society gathering on climate change. And it’s clear from the compendium of speeches all of us participants were given by the Foreign Affairs Ministry that this didn’t start yesterday. Instead, Bolivia has been playing a diplomatic role on behalf of the world’s hundreds of millions of indigenous people: pushing for the passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, calling for the Rights of Earth to be globally recognized, and connecting with environmental and indigenous delegates in the Copenhagen summit. It would represent a major reversal of rhetoric and a betrayal of the government’s indigenous base to turn back under pressure.

It’s also true that for many countries, the outcome of climate negotiations is the primary issue. The overall targets agreed to, and the effectiveness of the measure worked out determines how severe climate change will ultimately be. As long as negotiations are open, their resistance can push climate agreements to be more serious. Agreeing to take money from a mechanism

But there is something else at stake. To abandon a political initiative under this kind of pressure, is effectively to admit that the hemisphere’s great power  determines your policy. As Bolivian climate negotiator Pablo Solon put it, “We are a country with dignity and sovereignty and will maintain our position.” To do otherwise would be to admit that the country’s principles come with a price tag.

At yesterday’s Root Causes panel, Ecuador’s Ambassador to the UN, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, took this one step further.

Last week, the United States suspended Ecuador from$2.5 million in assistance in its climate change agenda because Ecuador did not adhere to the Copenhagen Accord. It was a punishment that the United States carried out upon Ecuador for not adhering to that Accord that was not an Accord. It was a spurious document made by just a few, without consulting all the governments and all the peoples of the world. Ecuador is not going to accept these forms of extortion. In return, the president of Ecuador and the people of Ecuador have said to the United States with all seriousness that Ecuador offers the United States $2.5 million if the US would sign the Kyoto Protocol. [applause] And we say it seriously. If the United States signs the Kyoto Protocol, we will transfer $2.5 million in cooperation to that country  to help them in their process of technological conversion that will so help the planet.

The offer stands.