President Obama Ends U.S. Trade Preferences for Bolivia
Since he took office five months ago, President Barack Obama has had to show his political cards on one issue after another. How interventionist would he be dealing with the collapsing financial system? How far toward state-run care would he go on health reform? Where would he stand on gay marriage? What kind of candidate would he put on the Supreme Court? How soon would he pull troops out of Iraq and how many would he put into Afghanistan?
On the political back burner, behind these high profile questions was another one: How will President Obama play the complicated cards of the U.S. relationship with Latin America – in what ways would he be different than President Bush and in what ways would he be the same?
This week two issues have forced President Obama to show some of his cards on Latin America. The first is his response to the military coup in Honduras. The second is his announcement last Tuesday that he is ending U.S. trade preferences for Bolivia. Both reveal something of the new President's political math as he deals in earnest with his neighbors to the south.
The Honduran coup was probably not a tough call for the administration. It doesn't take much political courage to oppose the first military coup in Central America in a quarter century (though some have charged that the administration's initial condemnation of the coup could have been stronger). Nevertheless, it was a welcome break from the days of April 2002 when the Bush administration gave comfort and support to the short-lived coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Bolivia – Following in Bush’s Footsteps
On Bolivia, however, President Obama took a very different stance this week – putting himself squarely in alignment with the policies of the President Bush.
Last September, when the governments of Bolivia and the U.S. were playing an escalating game of diplomatic tit-for-tat, beginning with President Evo Morales' expulsion of the U.S. Ambassador, President Bush overruled Congress and suspended U.S. trade preferences with Bolivia. The move put at least 20,000 Bolivian jobs at risk.
The Bush administration's official basis for the suspension was that it had “decertified” Bolivia's anti-narcotics efforts, charging that Bolivia had failed to fulfill its commitments to fight illegal drug trade in the country. By U.S. law, those ATPDEA trade preferences are tied to Bolivia's anti-narcotics efforts. But coming as it did square in the midst of diplomatic battle, and contrary to a bipartisan vote in Congress to continue those preferences for Bolivia, it seemed clear that the Bush administration’s move had a lot more to do with politics than drugs.
Since January those watching the issue – especially thousands of workers in textile factories in Bolivia's impoverished highlands – have been waiting hopefully to see whether President Obama would reverse the Bush policy. On Tuesday the President announced that he would not. In fact he made the suspension of the trade preferences permanent.
"No duty-free treatment or other preferential treatment…shall remain in effect with respect to Bolivia after June 30, 2009," reads the ruling from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
So what was behind President Obama's decision on Bolivia?
Administration representatives and defenders will argue that it was a straight up ruling that Bolivia's anti-narcotics efforts do not meet the standards required to continue the trade preferences. The Trade Representative's Office writes in its findings, "The current challenges include explicit acceptance and encouragement of coca production at the highest levels of the Bolivian government," and it argued that a large portion of that growing crop is headed for cocaine production, not herbal tea. That finding was also buttressed by a new United Nations report this month claiming that cocaine production in Bolivia has increased by 9% over the past year.
Analysts with more expertise than I have, on all sides of the issue, can debate the statistics and the evidence about Bolivian coca's ultimate destination. But anyone living in Cochabamba can tell you that the hills on the outskirts of this valley are populated by a growing number of clandestine operations devoted to turning coca into cocaine. When the Obama administration argues that its decision is simply a strict reading of the facts and the law, it has a case.
However, other observers more skeptical of Washington’s moves will attribute the decision to other considerations.
Some may suggest that, in its dealings with the combative Morales, the Obama team decided that Bolivia might make a nice line in the sand – a signal that, while it intends to be more friendly toward some of the governments the Bush administration loathed, Obama's Washington still has its limits. President Morales has not done himself many diplomatic favors in his dealings with the new administration. This includes his breaking up the warm handholding at the April Summit of the Americas with a demand that President Obama publicly declare himself free of involvement in an alleged assassination conspiracy against Morales.
Others with even more sinister suspicions may claim that Washington is subtly trying to weaken Morales politically in advance of December’s Presidential election. The end of the trade preferences pits two parts of Morales’ political base against one another – coca growers who benefit from increased cultivation and workers in the factories who may now lose their jobs because of that increased growing.
I myself am not big on conspiracy theories.
What is not in question, however, is that the announcement from Washington on Tuesday signals an end to whatever shaky honeymoon existed between Obama and Morales. Bolivia's President wasted no time in pouncing on his counterpart in the north. “President Obama lied to Latin America when he told us in Trinidad and Tobago that there are not senior and junior partners,” he declared in La Paz. He added, “Even if the appearance of the government in the United States has changed, the politics of the Empire haven’t.”
We can probably expect rhetorical attacks aimed at President Obama to become a part of Mr. Morales' speeches on the stump as he heads into December's elections for President, as attacks aimed at President Bush have been before.
In fact, one result of the political machinations between the Obama administration and Latin American leaders in recent months is that President Morales seems to have replaced President Chavez as the South American ‘bad boy’ in terms of relations with the U.S. While Chavez is gifting books to President Obama and exchanging ambassadors once again, Morales seems more and more isolated as Mr. Obama's chief critic in the region.
But What About the People?
All this is about the politics and the political calculations involved in these matters, the stuff on which political analysts and political followers tend to dwell. But what about the people affected by all this? Where do they fit in to the political calculations in Washington and La Paz?
One other thing that is certain as a result of the Obama administration’s Bolivia decision is that thousands of workers here are now likely to lose their jobs. This brings me back to the fundamental question we asked in September when President Bush first suspended the trade preferences, the same question we put forward in the video of worker testimony (click on the frame above) that we showed in Washington in October when the Trade Representative held its hearing on this issue:
Why is it in the interest of the United States to put these people out of work?
The answer is, it isn’t.
Just today, President Obama spoke of his concern for the rising number of unemployed in the U.S. Too many families, he noted, worry about "whether they will be next" to lose their jobs. Being thrown into unemployment in Bolivia, where economic opportunity is scarce, is no better. But nowhere does that show up in the Obama administration's Bolivian calculation.
Another thing that it is certain about the impact of President Obama's decision is that it won't do anything to combat the production of cocaine in Bolivia. If anything, it will make things worse. Putting tens of thousands of people out of work is only likely to push more of them into some kind of involvement with the illegal drug trade. That is a fact that should not have been hard for analysts in the administration to understand.
So What Will Obama Do that is Different than Bush?
President Obama has made clear this week at least one way in which he is content to copy the policies of President Bush. Now the question is whether, on the issues of illegal drugs and trade, he is willing to demonstrate some of that creativity he promised to do things differently than Mr. Bush.
Here are two ways he can do just that.
First, the Obama administration could recognize the basic fact that helping create honest work in Bolivia is simply good policy for both Bolivia and the U.S. It should find a way to quickly restore the trade preferences without any link to drug policy. That is how it should have been from the start and doing so now would demonstrate genuine political courage and intelligence. Those preferences are about the thousands of workers impacted and the thousands more they support. Their future should not be dependent on coca production they have nothing to do with or whether their President tosses public insults at Washington.
Second, if the Obama administration is serious about wanting to help reduce cocaine production in Bolivia, it should move past policies that don't work and start adopting new ones that have a chance.
That begins by not insisting on making the U.S. a central player in Bolivia's anti-narcotics program. Washington's "Drug War" has a horrific history here, including giving Bolivian prosecutors special U.S. salary as an incentive to put thousands of innocents in jail. The U.S. will never be trusted here on drug policy. A serious U.S. strategy to combat illicit Bolivian coca would encourage more involvement by Argentina and Brazil, two governments that have far more cordial relations with Morales and whose people are the real target for the cocaine produced here, not the U.S.
A genuine approach would also make the logical distinction between the coca leaf, which is not an illicit drug, and cocaine, which is. Supporting the legal export and sale of products such as coca tea – served and recommended by the U.S. Embassy in La Paz – won't soak up all the leaves headed for processing into cocaine, but it will make a difference and create honest employment.
Both these directions would mark a radical departure from the myopic policies the U.S. has pushed here for more than two decades, but they make sense.
What's left now is to see is whether President Obama has a few cards left in his hand that he hasn't played, ones other than those he just picked up when President Bush left them behind on the table last January.