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The Bush Administration Worries About Its Bolivian Chickens Coming Home to Roost

I suspect this received little or no notice in the US, but this week Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice had a few things to say before the US Senate about Bolivian politics, and especially its possible tilt to the left.

While she was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-Rhode Island) asked Rice if there wasn’t “something curious” about the strengthening position of “the political party of the coca growers.” He added, “In moments in which we are advancing democracy we have this phenomena in Bolivia. In reality does this party exist that is having so much success?” Here is the article in Spanish in the Bolivian daily La Razon.

For those not versed in Bolivian politics the Senator was speaking about the party Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) headed by coca grower leader Evo Morales. Chaffe was quite right about MAS moving ahead politically. In the last Presidential election in 2002 Morales came within two percentage points of finishing in first place and MAS won a large block of seats in the Congress. In the nationwide municipal elections a few months ago the party took control of a number of small towns.

Rice quickly signaled that the Bush administration shared the Senator’s concern. “We are very worried [about MAS],” she said.

The odd thing of course is that MAS and Morales owe a great deal of their political success to the US government. The coca growers union came together largely as response to US-sponsored anti-coca laws and forced eradication. Even if you think there is wisdom in sending in soldiers to rip people’s livelihoods out of the ground (there are decent arguments both ways) there should be no doubt that the US drug war has jailed thousands of innocents in the name of providing US Ambassadors with happy arrest statistics to show off to their superiors in Washington. Here’s an article we published some time ago about just such a case, the woman who takes care of my two-year-old daughter.

Morales also owes a big chunk of his 2002 vote directly to the US Embassy here. The Ambassador at the time, Manuel Rocha, made a big public statement just before the vote calling on Bolivians to reject Morales and MAS and saying that US aid hung in the balance. That statement may have boosted Morales’ vote by as much as nine points and the coca leader joked about the Ambassador being his campaign manager.

There are plenty of foreigners, here and abroad, who are sort of Evo groupies, putting him on the pedestal as a charismatic Aymara Indian leader, leading the left from out of the wilderness – a Bolivian Lula. I am not in that group. There is a good deal of dirty laundry in the cocalero closet.

However, if the US government is really trying to dismiss MAS as the party of the coca growers, then the US hasn’t developed any better sense of Bolivia then it had during its “Don’t vote Evo!” debacle in 2002. Why is the MAS powerful? True it has a political base among coca growers whom, while wildly motivated, remain a pretty tiny group. More importantly, Bolivians across class lines (except perhaps the very wealthy) have grown very wary of the US backed “Washington Consensus” economic model which has delivered up one bad result after another, from overpriced water to microscopic economic growth. Evo is a smart politician and he has positioned himself as the electoral champion of public anger at World Bank and IMF economic policies imposed on Bolivia.

That ultimately is my point; Evo Morales is a politician and that is something that the US government would be wise to figure out. Love him, hate him, or somewhere in between, Morales and MAS have decided to play politics. They want power and they have decided to aim for it through organizing and elections, with some street pressure added in from time to time to strengthen their negotiating position in disputes with the government – as with the demand in January to rollback an increase in gas prices.

One of the most significant and positive political events in Bolivia in 2004 was the fact that so many of Bolivia’s public debates, such as that over gas exportation, moved from blockades on the roads to public ballots and the corridors of Congress. That happened in large part due to MAS’ decision to be a real political party.

What wouldn’t the government and the people of Colombia give these days to have a serious negotiating partner as its opposition instead of armed guerillas? If Senator Chafee and Secretary Rice really want to help Bolivian democracy along they could start with getting the US government to stop demonizing MAS and Morales and start respecting both as a legitimate political voice, even if they don’t care for what that voice has to say.

Then again, maybe MAS and Morales would prefer that the US attack them even more. There is an election coming up again in two years and they can use the votes.

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