High Time for a U.S.-Bolivia Reset

By Rob Albro, CLALS Faculty Affiliate

President Evo Morales in a climate meeting at the University of Oslo | by Utenriksdept | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Evo Morales in a climate meeting at the University of Oslo | by Utenriksdept | Flickr | Creative Commons

Little has changed in the U.S-Bolivia relationship since each expelled the other’s ambassador and suspended full diplomatic ties in 2008.  Last month a Bolivian official accused the United States of trying to sabotage the administration of President Evo Morales, and Morales has not dropped his pugnacious anti-U.S. rhetoric.  Washington, for its part, has persistently criticized Bolivian anti-drug policies, while not acknowledging the failures of its own decades-long “war on drugs.”  As discussions surrounding Secretary of State Kerry’s January 24 confirmation hearing suggested, U.S. policy toward several Latin American countries – including Bolivia – is still on Cold War autopilot, continuing to use code-words like “socialism,” implicitly and incorrectly viewing the recent and historic changes in that country largely through the prisms of Venezuela and Cuba.

Along with many observers outside of Washington, the Bolivian government understands itself to be addressing long-standing demands to correct a historical lack of social inclusion, to institute a more participatory (and “plurinational”) democratic process, and to pursue economic sovereignty.  In notable contrast to Venezuela, with which Bolivia is often lumped together, the country’s long-marginalized indigenous majority is in the national political driver’s seat for the first time.  Despite Morales’s rhetoric to the contrary, Bolivia is far from rejecting the free market. It recently applied for full participation in MERCOSUR, and has welcomed foreign investment in its sizable petroleum and lithium deposits. Along with Peru and Ecuador, Bolivia has also sought ways to maintain economic growth while protecting the environment and avoiding unsustainable extractivist policies.  Bolivia’s is a hybrid approach: mixing an alternative democratic tradition domestically with the promotion of Bolivia Inc. globally.

It is past time for Washington to move on from its one-size-fits-all approach toward Andean countries, and to take more seriously the perspectives and priorities of their peoples and governments.  And Bolivia’s recent history provides ample opportunity for the U.S. to identify common – if not identical – ground.  Morales’s frequent statement that Bolivia is looking for “partners, not bosses” echoes President Obama’s own 2009 speech about “partnership” in our hemispheric “neighborhood.” Obama’s recent inaugural call for more effective “collective action” resonates with the spirit of Bolivia’s ongoing plurinational democratic experiment.  And if climate change is back on the U.S. political agenda, Bolivia continues to be a global catalyst for this important multilateral discussion. Emphasizing these shared problems, experiences, and aspirations, can provide a foundation for closer relations.

Ecuador Elections: Four More Years for Correa?

Photo by: Rinaldo Wurglitsch “Rinaldo W.” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Like him or not, President Rafael Correa has done what few recent Ecuadorean presidents have done – complete a term in office.  When he announced on November 10 his intent to run for re-election, observers in and outside Ecuador immediately declared him the favorite.  (Correa ran a second time in 2009, without completing his first term, under the rules of a new Constitution.)  Such predictions make it easy to forget how uncertain Correa’s presidency looked when he started it in 2007 – as a 43-year-old, U.S.-educated economist – and how few expected him to succeed.  In the ten years prior, social movements led by workers and indigenous peoples toppled a succession of seven presidents.  Rejection of IMF-led reforms had been both deep and broad in Ecuador, and it was hard for a president to complete a year, let alone a term.

High oil prices have helped Correa succeed by facilitating visible public spending, but that is not the whole story.  By almost all accounts, Correa has been far from perfect – his treatment of the press has particularly troubled rights experts – but he has provided some stability and halted the cycle of mass protests, strikes, and presidential turnover.  With a blend of economic populism and nationalist rhetoric, Correa has turned the same social movements that were once the scourge of Ecuadorean presidents into a base of support.  He has incorporated formerly marginalized people into the “nation” that he claims to defend – what academic Steven Ellner called “a new narrative of nationhood that challenges long-held assumptions.”  He has unified policies such as ending the U.S. lease of the Manta airbase with resource-based economic nationalism.

Though Correa’s reelection next February 17 looks easy, he will face increased tensions in his third term.  Government revenues remain dependent on oil and mining, which are susceptible to price fluctuations.  The expansion of extractive activities in areas inhabited by Correa’s indigenous base could strain his coalition – it has already stirred environmental concerns – and government spending has neglected the need to diversify the economy and reduce its reliance on the extractive industry.  In addition, Correa has benefited from the generosity of Venezuela, but that support could wane as President Hugo Chávez turns inward to deal with domestic challenges.  The opposition, which has continued to present half a dozen candidates for the presidency, will likely begin to unify if it feels threatened by a further concentration of power in the Executive.  To win reelection and govern effectively, Correa will need to maintain the unity of an uneasy coalition, without riding roughshod over the opposition and press freedom. 

Peru: Humala’s Difficult Balancing Act

Photo: Peruvian mine | Mihai (clandestino_20) | Flickr | Creative Commons

Peru’s new cabinet installed in July – President Ollanta Humala’s third since his inauguration a year earlier – faces the daunting task of sustaining national development while increasing social enfranchisement.  The reshuffle came amid loud criticism of a crackdown, which killed five people, on protests against the proposed $5 billion Conga mining project in Cajamarca.  The incident underscored the difficulty for Humala as he endeavors to implement a dual strategy of capitalizing on the growth potential of Peru’s mining industry – primarily gold and copper (60 percent of exports) – while respecting community concerns about the environmental consequences of extraction.  Mining wealth is needed to improve the lives of ordinary people –28 percent of Peruvians live in poverty – but unlike preceding governments this administration has committed itself to consultation with residents of localities that will be affected directly.    The new prime minister has announced suspension of the Conga project until the U.S. mining company involved provides better environmental guarantees.

Humala’s popularity has plummeted.  Despite new laws increasing Peru’s mining revenue, the creation of a new Ministry of Social Inclusion, and a new Prior Consultation Law, indigenous protesters feel betrayed by Humala.  They accuse him of continuing the aggressive extractive policies of his predecessor, Alán García, and insist his administration has not given adequate attention to concerns of local communities on issues such as the integrity of the water supply in zones affected by the mining ventures.  Recent signs of a resurgence in violence by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas and of setbacks in efforts to curtail the influence of the narcotics trade are also eroding Humala’s support.

Humala narrowly won the presidency as a center-left candidate, committed to creating a framework for the more equitable distribution of the wealth generated by Peru’s natural resources.  Now, some of his political allies say he has courted foreign investment for the mining sector without adequate consultation, and further protests seem likely.  Humala’s challenge is not unlike that of other countries, including Bolivia and Ecuador, trying to balance between these competing interests.  His success or failure will have an impact beyond Peru’s borders, as South American countries dependent on commodity exports struggle to walk the tightrope between satisfying foreign investors and domestic electorates.