Bolivia and the U.S.: Where do Things Stand After the Summit?
Relations with Bolivia were especially tense. In September Bolivia and the U.S. took turns kicking out each other’s ambassadors (Bolivia went first), the Bush administration axed Bolivia out of trade preferences that could potentially cost more than 20,000 jobs, and the Morales government accused Washington of a litany of conspiracies involving the DEA, USAID, and other U.S. programs.
So it was with some hope that boosters of the Bolivia/U.S. relationship looked to the election of Obama as a moment for change. The new president of the north pledged to remake the U.S.’s relations with the rest of the world. His incoming Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had said supportive things about the Morales government during the campaign (see the video here). Morales saw the linkage between he and the new, unusual leader in the north and seemed almost giddy, “What is happening in the world?" he asked. "An indigenous man is president in Bolivia and a black man is president in the United States."
Watchers of U.S./Latin America policy also knew that the symbolic opening of the new administration’s new approach to its neighbors to the south would be at the pre-scheduled Summit of the Americas, which took place last week in Trinidad. All the players in the Drama of the Americas were on the scene, from Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, who the U.S. worked hard to overthrow in his last term, to Hugo Chavez, who famously called Obama’s predecessor “the devil” in a speech before the UN several years ago.
So, what do we know about the dance of U.S./Bolivia relations this week that we didn’t know last week?
Symbolically, the summit was a bit of a love fest between President Obama and the Latin American leaders most hostile to his predecessor.
Obama said warm and fuzzy things about improving relations with Cuba, and the Presidents on Latin America’s left congratulated him and urged him to be even warmer and fuzzier – to extend his pledge to allow more family visits and remittances to the island into a dropping of the five decades old embargo that has been so successful at toppling Cuban communism.
Chavez reached out to Obama with a gift, a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (an improvement in my view, to Chavez’s previous marketing of Noam Chomsky). Obama shook the Venezuelan President’s hand so many times and so smilingly that it made right wing pundits in the U.S. go apoplectic. They apparently had hoped that the U.S. President would have frowned and then cleaned up his hand with a handy wipe.
Ortega wanted to make sure that Obama had a long walk through of U.S. adventures in the region since his birth in 1961, which included a reminder of the Bay of Pigs invasion of the Cuba when Mr. Obama was still in his mother’s womb. Obama replied, good-humoredly, that he hoped Latin American leaders would not hold him responsible for events that took place when he was in diapers.
It is however, the state of Bolivia/U.S. relations at the summit that seem most curious.
Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, went to the summit against the backdrop of an alleged assassination conspiracy against him that concluded with a shoot-out in a Santa Cruz hotel and three suspects dead.
Chavez, who had been much more embattled with Washington, eagerly smiled for photo-ops with the new U.S. leader and pledged immediately to replace his own nation’s ambassador to Washington.
In contrast, Morales renewed claims that the U.S. may have had its hand in the alleged attempts to kill him. As the New York Times reported:
Yet some old tensions remained. President Evo Morales of Bolivia confronted Mr. Obama during a private session with a charge that the United States is meddling in his country and had plotted to assassinate him. Mr. Obama responded on Sunday, saying, “I am absolutely opposed and condemn any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically elected governments.”
The Paraguayan President told reporters that Morales raised the charge directly to Obama in a closed-door meeting at the summit. Bolivia’s President said afterwards that if Obama didn't denounce the alleged assassination plot, "I might think it was organized through the embassy."
That statement led Obama to declare on Sunday:
"Specifically on the Bolivia issue, I just want to make absolutely clear that I am absolutely opposed and condemn any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically elected governments. The United States, obviously, has a history in this region that's not always appreciated from the perspective of some. I am responsible for how this administration acts and we will be respectful to those democratically elected governments, even when we disagree with them."
What evidence Morales had to suggest that the U.S. had any involvement with the Hungarian, Irishman, and Bolivian shot last week in Santa Cruz is unclear.
Bolivia’s Foreign Minister, David Choquehuanca, met at the summit with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Afterwards he told reporters that he pressed Secretary Clinton to reverse the Bush administration’s policy removing Bolivia from the ATPDEA trade preferences. Clinton pledged to “study” the issue, which means no change in that policy anytime soon.
So, as a new exchange of ambassadors between Caracas and Washington does seem imminent, when will that happen between Washington and La Paz? Not anytime soon either, according to statements from Bolivia’s UN Ambassador, Pablo Solon, the Bolivian government’s current point man for U.S. relations.
The news agency AFB reports Solon saying that, “First we clearly want to lay down the rules on all the issues on our agenda." Those issues reportedly include 'cooperation, drug trafficking, commerce, political change and mutual respect.' Said Solon, "Once there's that framework, the time for exchanging ambassadors will have to be studied."
What does all this mean, reading the complicated coca leaves of international diplomacy? While most of Morales' Latin American presidential colleagues seemed to be anxious to jump-start a new honeymoon with Obama, and he with them (at a symbolic level, at least), Morales seems to be the region’s most reluctant bride.
Maybe this is because the Bolivian President felt threatened by a plot he says was aimed at his head and didn’t feel in a friendly mood. Maybe the Bolivian government isn’t willing to engage in all the niceties of others until the details get worked out. Or maybe, in the scheme of things, the Bolivian government just doesn’t consider its relations with Washington all that important, and has decided that antagonism with the U.S., including with Obama, plays to some domestic political advantage.
But whichever reason is behind the chilly first encounter between Morales and Obama last week in the Latin American tropics, it means there is still a lot of diplomatic work to be done to make the U.S/ Bolivia relationship something different than the battleground it has been for three years. And there is a lot of room for that relationship to just stay testy.