Is Washington Undermining Democracy in Bolivia?

This week's news that the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia has repeatedly asked Peace Corps volunteers and then a Fulbright Scholar to spy on people there is much more serious that it has so far been treated. In fact, together with other activities funded there by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and National Endowment for Democracy, there are grounds for a Congressional inquiry.

These actions reinforce Bolivian officials' claims that Washington seeks to destabilize and even topple their democratic government. This has potentially severe consequences in a region where in recent years approval of the United States, and especially its foreign policy, have reached the lowest levels in the non-Muslim world.

These interventions are also morally reprehensible, and put the United States on the wrong side of a struggle for civil rights, justice, and equality that has much in common with our own civil rights movement of the 1960's. It is perhaps not surprising that the Bush Administration, whose party was on the wrong side of that struggle, too, would be intervening against the government of Evo Morales.

Morales, an Aymara Indian, broke more than 500 years of tradition by being elected Bolivia's first indigenous president at the end of 2005. While vowing to end centuries of discrimination against Bolivia's indigenous majority, who are much poorer than their compatriots of European ancestry, most of the government's measures have benefited the vast majority of Bolivians - of all ethnic groups. For example, the government's re-nationalization of its hydrocarbons industry - mostly natural gas - has brought more than a billion dollars of additional revenue to the government. (This would be equivalent to more than $1.4 trillion dollars in the United States). The government has begun to use this revenue to build hospitals and schools, promote land titling and land reform, and to increase social security payments for the elderly - a major anti-poverty initiative.

All of this has run into opposition from Bolivia's traditional elite, and especially opposition governors who want to keep the gas revenues in the provinces where the gas is located, rather than sharing more of it nationally. It is ironic that the United States ostensibly supports the national sharing of such revenues in Iraq, but not in Bolivia.

USAID has a special "Office of Transition Initiatives" (OTI) that is operating in Bolivia, funneling millions of dollars of training and support for right-wing opposition governments and movements, and trying to influence other political actors as well. According to USAID, "OTI intervenes rapidly and undertakes quick-impact interventions through short-term grants that catalyze broader change." The OTI also claims to support democracy, but they appear to be mostly supporting the "white separatist movement" that has already had four governors declare their provinces autonomous, threatening to break up the country.

Unfortunately, some elements of the Bush Administration have adopted a "Cold War" attitude toward Bolivia. In this new Cold War, Venezuela is the equivalent of the old Soviet Union (never mind that it has a democratically elected government and a capitalist economy) and governments such as Bolivia and Ecuador are seen as client states. Hence the Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholar were asked to report on any Venezuelans or Cubans that they saw in the country.

But there is no evidence that Venezuela - despite the billions of dollars of aid and loans it dispenses throughout the region - has influenced government policy in Bolivia. This is in sharp contrast to the twenty years prior to Evo Morales' government, when Bolivia operated under IMF agreements for virtually the entire two decades. There is a whole paper trail of agreements showing Washington's clear influence over major economic decisions, including macroeconomic policies, privatizations, and trade policy. These policies were also a disastrous failure on their own terms- income per person in Bolivia ended up less than it was 27 years prior.

Since Bolivia has become independent of these institutions, and its democratic government is attempting to deliver on its promises, President Bush has stated that he is "concerned about the erosion of democracy" there -- and his administration is intervening. Now they have put Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars at risk. Congress should investigate these abuses.


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