“Washington’s reaction to [Evo] Morales’ election, policies, and rhetoric has been to ‘wait and see,’” says a new Council Special Report. “Yet after nearly nine months in office, the Morales administration’s policy agenda has taken shape and, unfortunately, has exacerbated political, ethnic, and racial schisms in Bolivian society.”
But articulating specific “red lines” or trade-offs is both “premature and unwise,” says the report. “Presenting a struggling government with ultimatums, isolating and weakening Morales, not discussing conflict management strategies with Bolivia’s neighbors, and in general isolating Bolivia and the Morales government—will increase the potential for political instability and social unrest in the region,” says the report, Bolivia on the Brink, produced by the Council’s Center for Preventive Action.
“In order to prevent further escalation of violence and social unrest, the United States must prioritize conflict prevention over any particular item on the traditional U.S.-Bolivia policy agenda,” says the report. “This involves using and even expanding current trade and development assistance to increase economic opportunity, bolster the independence of the Bolivian military, and deepen Bolivian civil society’s commitment to democratic compromise. It also involves showing flexibility on counternarcotics issues, staying away from politicized rhetoric, and generally avoiding policies that would provoke Bolivia’s ruling authorities and inhibit the ability of Bolivia’s neighbors to help create a framework for domestic consensus.”
Since the election in 2005 of President Morales, an Aymara Indian and coca union leader, and close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, tensions in Bolivia have risen and Bolivians remain polarized. “Despite Bolivia’s moderate macroeconomic growth over the past year, Morales’ once soaring popularity has declined substantially since the government adopted controversial approaches” such as nationalizing the gas industry and relaxing coca-policy, says the report.
“As long as crisis persists, the United States will find it difficult to make progress on its traditional policy agenda in Bolivia. Indeed, should any of these tensions reach a boiling point, sparking widespread social unrest or violence, U.S. commercial, energy, security, and political interests in Bolivia and in the Andean rim sub-region may be threatened,” warns author Eduardo Gamarra of Florida International University.
To support these efforts, “a broader regional exchange is urgently needed, and the United States can take a leading role in initiating that process,” says the report. “Washington must look to regional partners and open a transparent, multilateral dialogue about the implications of widespread social unrest in Bolivia. In particular, Bolivia’s direct neighbors, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, should be encouraged to approach the Morales government and the opposition in an effort to bring all sides to the negotiating table.”
Further recommendations include:
- Focusing less on the drug war.
- Maintaining and deepening support for democratic initiatives and civil society.
- Renewing bilateral military assistance.
- Expanding and publicizing social programming.
- Promoting trade and investment.
- Working with European donors and multilateral organizations.
- Providing the opportunity to accede to the Millennium Challenge Account.
“Although specific policies of the Bolivian government, particularly its community coca eradication programs, may contradict traditional U.S. approaches, an unstable, conflict-ridden Bolivia would be a bigger headache for Bolivia’s neighbors, Latin America, and the United States,” concludes the report.
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