To truly promote democracy in Latin America, the U.S. must redefine its national interests in the region.
Published in Christian Science Monitor.
With presidential elections in Bolivia this month, Washington is buzzing with talk that another Latin American country may be “lost.”
Evo Morales, a former president of Bolivia’s coca-growers’ union and the leader of the Movement Toward Socialism party, is the current front-runner, according to the latest polls. If he wins the election, Mr. Morales will be the latest head of state to join the ranks of the region’s burgeoning New Left, already comprised of Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. For the Bush administration and conservative pundits, this would qualify as an unmitigated catastrophe.
Bolivia, however, is far from lost. By proposing a new path to development, a Morales administration would offer genuine hope of alleviating endemic hardship and inequality in South America’s poorest country. And if spreading democracy is truly the goal of US foreign policy, the United States should welcome such new approaches rather than demanding that other nations elect officials subservient to the views that currently prevail in the White House.
The Bush administration’s consistent mistake in dealing with Latin America has been to equate freedom with the pursuit of a rigid program of its preferred economic policies. It has valued “free” markets over democratic independence. This stance, while not a novel one for US administrations, has repeatedly generated tensions with such progressive leaders as Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner, Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and Uruguay’s Tabaré Vázquez. The administration’s most prominent antagonist in the region, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, needs only to point to the White House’s early celebration—if not active support—of an antidemocratic coup against him in 2002 to illustrate the thinness of Bush’s prodemocracy rhetoric.
In Bolivia, democracy is now set to collide with the economic policies Washington favors. American oil and gas companies doing business there reaped substantial profits from privatizing the country’s gas industry in the early 1990s, and they had high hopes of being able to increase their windfalls by exporting Bolivia’s gas to the energy-hungry U.S. market. Corporate gains did not trickle down to Bolivia’s poor, however, and massive protests against privatization have forced the resignation of two presidents in two years. They have also made a political star of Morales, a candidate who promises to redirect gas industry profits toward Bolivia’s social needs.
The Bush administration has watched Morales’ rise to prominence with a sense of quiet hysteria. Morales has been slandered by conservatives who label him a drug trafficker, a charge that has never been substantiated. Bolivian coca farmers point out that although coca can be used to produce cocaine, the natural plant leaves are used to make tea, have traditional importance for the country’s indigenous people, and are almost impossible to abuse in their natural form. State Department officials regard Morales as a puppet of Mr. Chávez and Fidel Castro. If their regular stream of insults has been muted of late, it is only because the administration is aware that its past criticism has boosted Morales’ popularity in a region where Washington’s policies are viewed with healthy skepticism.
The critics’ dire predictions notwithstanding, there’s no reason to fear a Morales victory. While he is committed to pushing for a political program that will benefit Bolivia’s poor and indigenous majority, Morales has shown consistent respect for the democratic process.
Since US-sponsored coca eradication efforts in Bolivia and elsewhere have had little to no effect on cocaine use in the U.S., a Morales victory should be occasion for Washington to reevaluate its failed drug war rather than to propagate alarmist rhetoric.
In terms of economic policy, Latin American leaders have increasingly concluded that the fiscal austerity and market reforms implemented in past decades under direction from the U.S., the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank have only exacerbated inequality. Despite an abundance of natural resources, over two-thirds of Bolivians live in poverty, and nearly half subsist on less than one dollar per day.
According to the World Bank, extreme poverty increased 5.8 percent between 1999 and 2002, and the gap between the rich and poor grew wider. Across the continent, per capita income hardly inched upward during the 1980s and ’90s, when policies of corporate globalization held sway, while it had surged in previous decades.
It remains to be seen if Latin America’s New Left will be able to reverse this situation by fashioning bold solutions to poverty in Bolivia and beyond. Certainly, it deserves the chance to try. In this context, demonizing Evo Morales will not advance our true national interests of promoting freedom and human development. But cheering an independent and democratic Bolivia just might.
Research assistance for this article provided by Kate Griffiths. Photo credit: EneasMx / Wikimedia Commons.