The trajectory of recent U.S. Bolivian relations
is a bit like the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland. It isn't that the roller coaster within the darkened mountain is any more curvy or extreme than the average roller coaster. It's just that, because you don't have a clue where you're headed, it seems more dramatic.
The underlying conflicts between Bolivian and the U.S. governments aren't that difficult to understand. It is the unpredictability of U.S./Bolivia relations that makes for most of the drama.
And so it is that the drama-averse Obama administration came to La Paz last week to see if it could infuse a little diplomatic normalcy into its relations with the government of Evo Morales.Following Up on the Sour Note of the Americas Summit
The timing of the U.S. mission to La Paz was not an accident.
The unofficial word after President Obama's trip to Tobago last month for the Summit of the Americas was that relations between the new administration and its Latin American neighbors looked almost universally warm and fuzzy – with everyone but Morales.
While Cuba and the U.S. were making tentative overtures to one another, and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez was cheerily adding a book to the White House library, Morales was demanding that Obama publicly declare that the U.S. had nothing to do with an alleged assassination plot against him, despite the absence of any evidence that the U.S. was involved.
At the summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who during the campaign last year had warm and fuzzy things to say
about Morales) and her Bolivian counterpart, Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, agreed to send a U.S. delegation to La Paz to see if the two governments couldn't get off to a new start with one another.
On the U.S. side, President Obama seemed to have a political interest in seeing the new diplomatic love in the Americas fill in the last piece of the map. With two Middle East wars to deal with and nuclear Pakistan facing a meltdown it would be handy for the U.S. to have relations with Latin America run on auto-pilot for a while. On the Bolivian side Morales very much wants Obama to reverse President Bush's move last year, axing Bolivia from trade preferences
with the U.S. That put more than 20,000 Bolivian jobs in jeopardy.
So a high level dialog between the two governments seemed to be something of strong mutual interest.The Return of Mr. Shannon
The Obama administration's emissary to La Paz last week was not a fresh face, but a familiar one. Thomas Shannon, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs is a career diplomat who has held the post since 2005. He was the Bush administration's official representative to Morales's inauguration in January 2006 and came back again last year to try to patch things up when relations between the two countries went deeply sour under U.S. Ambassador Phillip Goldberg.
During his brief Bolivian tenure, Ambassador Goldberg demonstrated a genuine mastery of ineptness. Members of his staff imported bullets in a relative's suitcase
and asked Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright Scholar to gather intelligence
for the Embassy. In Cochabamba Goldberg made a joke about a woman in El Alto being lynched. Then last September, when governors hostile to Morales started amping up their rhetoric against the government and their supporters were readying to torch government buildings, Goldberg visited Morales's adversaries for a smiling photo-op.
It was that move by Mr. Goldberg that led Morales to send the U.S. Ambassador home, charging that he was deliberately trying to undermine his presidency.
To be clear, almost any Ambassador from the U.S. is going to run into conflicts with the Morales government, but Goldberg seemed to eagerly look for them.
In contrast, Mr. Shannon is a diplomatic 'grown-up'. He is a man who chooses his words and his moves carefully and who has seemed genuinely committed to decent U.S./Bolivia relations even as other actors in the Bush administration were pushing hard in the other direction.
In comparison to several of his most notable predecessors in the post, Shannon seems almost a progressive. President Bush's first appointee to the position, Otto Reich, was a behind the scenes booster of the 2002 attempted coup against Hugo Chavez. In the Reagan years the post was held by the infamous Elliot Abrams, whose participation in secret arms deliveries to the Nicaraguan Contras ended in a plea bargain to escape jail (and a Presidential pardon).
Mr. Shannon's trip to Bolivia last week was also likely to be his last, as an Obama-appointed successor readies to take over his position next month, with Mr. Shannon likely headed to Brazil to be the new U.S. Ambassador there.Drugs, Jobs, Meddling, Ambassadors, and 'Goni'
What precisely was discussed in meetings between Mr. Morales and Mr. Shannon during the two-day visit last week is still hidden behind the vague diplomatic pronouncements each side made afterwards.
President Morales told reporters
, "After having problems in the past few years ... the government and I hope bilateral relations with the United States will improve." Secretary Shannon weighed in
with the equally vague declaration, "What the U.S. delegation has found here in La Paz is a strong willingness from the Bolivian government ... to find a way to write a new chapter in the relations between the United States and Bolivia."
However, it doesn't take much guesswork to know that five topics dominated those conversations: drugs, jobs, meddling, ambassadors, and 'Goni'.Drugs
The U.S. basically has one diplomatic objective in Bolivia, and that is its long-standing and much-questioned
"War on Drugs" aimed at Bolivia's coca crop. Mr. Shannon no doubt complained to Bolivian officials about Morales' ouster of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) last year – its Cochabamba headquarters is now a spiffy new Toyota dealership. Morales no doubt restated a commitment to fighting cocaine production and to defending the growing of coca.
Meanwhile, as drug labs continue to expand in the hills above Cochabamba's outskirts, it remains unclear what practical effect the coca conversation last week in La Paz will have on anything.Jobs
The Obama administration will need to make a decision at some point soon on whether it intends to reverse or continue the Bush administration's suspension of the ATPDEA trade preferences
for Bolivia. Mr. Bush yanked those preferences in September in retaliation for the ouster of Washington's ambassador, but blamed it on Bolivia's lack of cooperation in the War on Drugs.
Reversing that decision is an obvious part of the package of restoring friendly relations and it will be made at a political level in the administration not by bureaucrats in the office of the Trade Representative. So watch this issue as a litmus test of how Secretary of State Clinton plans to handle her relations with Morales.Meddling
One of the issues most often mentioned from the Bolivian side is the various charges of U.S. meddling
in Bolivia's domestic politics. The Morales government has charged a broad conspiracy of interference involving USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, the DEA and others.
Mr. Shannon most likely reiterated the U.S. position
that U.S. assistance is benign and aimed at legitimate development goals including 'democracy building.' President Morales probably said in private what he and other members of the government have said in public, that aid from the U.S. should be funneled through the national government (which Morales controls) and not rival governors or NGOs. Bolivian officials have also suggested that funds for so-called "democracy building" projects be re-directed to straight development projects like building roads. Keep an eye out to see if there are any changes in how U.S. funding comes into the country.Ambassadors
The first sign of return to normalcy in relations between the two countries will be a new exchange of ambassadors. The posts in both countries have been vacant since last September. For now Bolivian relations in the U.S. are being handled by its representative to the U.N. Pablo Solon, one of the more competent members of the Morales government. Even with a new Ambassador in place in Washington, Mr. Solon will probably still be directing things (he just recently met with Secretary Clinton in Washington). I'd bet that Washington's new Ambassador to La Paz will be a career diplomat and one with a cooler demeanor that Mr. Goldberg. I also bet that the exchange will happen soon to follow-up on the momentary goodwill left from last week's visit.Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada
The 'wild card' in the diplomatic road ahead is the pending Bolivian criminal case against former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada
. The former President, charged with murder in connection with his repression of protests in 2003, lives under U.S. political protection in suburban Maryland.
This is where the timing of the U.S. visit is particularly strange. By either coincidence or bad diplomatic planning by the U.S., Secretary Shannon landed in La Paz just as the nation's Supreme Court was opening its hearings in the historic trial of Sanchez de Lozada and his top Ministers. That in turn elevated the profile of one of the diplomatic disputes between the two countries that seems least likely to be resolved – Bolivia's demand that 'Goni' be returned for trial.
After the Shannon visit Morales' top Minister, Juan Ramón Quintana declared that the U.S. had committed to process the papers required for the ex-President's extradition. But I think there is a good chance that this is a wildly inflated version of some lesser bureaucratic commitment made by the U.S. representatives. Watch for Goni's protection under Obama to continue (President Obama's White House Counsel, Greg Craig was formerly Sanchez de Lozada's defense lawyer on the case).Getting Off the Roller Coaster
The thing about roller coaster rides is that while some people find them exciting, they make other people ill. So it is that while the twists and turns of the diplomatic battles between Washington and La Paz make for great material to write about, most Bolivians and U.S. citizens would be better off if the two countries could resolve their differences. Bolivia needs the jobs that U.S. trade preferences provide. The U.S. gains if Bolivia becomes more politically stable. Bolivian orphans need the door re-opened for adoption to U.S. families.
Each of the issues outlined above deserves a much fuller discussion that I can offer in this Blog post (though I have included links to past writings we have published). Each is complicated, some more than others. What is new however is that the overtures from the Obama administration should be taken as genuine. Under President Bush the U.S. was always internally at conflict and often hostile.
However, as I have written before -- U.S./Bolivia relations can't just be defined as the relationship between two governments. It is a relationship between two peoples who have no quarrel with one another and have much to gain from getting along. Leaving that relationship to the diplomats to sort out, even if they are good ones, is not enough. And that is where the rest of us come in.