WASHINGTON – He’s an avowed socialist and a leader of drug-crop growers. He has led strikes that nearly brought down one of Latin America’s weakest democracies. And his impoverished supporters are demanding he deliver on the radical changes that got him elected president of Bolivia last month.
But for now, at least, the Bush administration is hoping that Evo Morales, who once threatened to become “America’s worst nightmare,” is a man with whom it can do business.
In congressional testimony last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the administration has “tried to leave an opening there to work with Bolivia,” while her aides have signaled that the administration is open to a dialogue with Bolivia about how best to combat drug trafficking without punishing poor farmers who grow coca.
“We are prepared to sit and talk with him,” said Thomas A. Shannon Jr., the State Department’s senior official for Latin America, who called on Morales in La Paz just before he took office. “We respect his election, and we have many of the same interests. We want to support Bolivia, but drugs are a real threat. We have to find a way to deal with it.”
Morales, 46, has already toned down the harsh anti-American rhetoric that peppered his campaign speeches. Most significantly, he has backed off from a blanket condemnation of U.S. anti-drug programs as an excuse for military intervention and has said he will allow such operations to continue if they abide by Bolivian law.
In reaching out to Morales despite his antagonistic track record, and despite strong objections from some quarters of the U.S. government, analysts said, the Bush administration is trying to avoid mistakes that have been made with two other countries: Vene-zuela and Afghanistan.
In the case of Venezuela, a war of words between Washington and President Hugo Chávez, a fiery populist who controls lucrative oil reserves, has escalated into a permanent confrontation while Chávez seeks closer ties with Cuba, Iran and China. In the case of Afghanistan, a near-exclusive U.S. focus on anti-terrorism policies has helped allow the farming and trade of opium poppies to burgeon.
More broadly, the administration has come under criticism for neglecting Latin America because of its preoccupation with terrorism at a time when the region’s vaunted shift from military rule to pro-market democracies has detoured into authoritarian civilian rule in Peru and Venezuela or to left-leaning populism in countries such as Brazil or Uruguay, where poverty, violence and social inequities persist.
Cultivating Morales, analysts said, would show that Washington has the confidence to distinguish between nominal and real adversaries, while combating many Bolivians’ mistrust of U.S. motives.
“The United States has learned a lot of lessons in the region,” said John Walsh, an analyst with the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America. “Although there has been a sharp internal debate on Bolivia, with hard-liners who are pressing to isolate Morales, it makes sense to test the waters. Also, the country is very vulne-rable to American influence, so there is no need to come down heavily.”
Still, the initial goodwill could easily be undermined by a number of problems, experts and officials said. For one thing, it will be tricky to separate the needs and traditions of Bolivian coca farmers, whom Morales has pledged to protect, from the urgent goal of curbing international drug trafficking.
“If you have people selling bags of coca leaf by the highway, how do you know it will end up being chewed in a Bolivian’s mouth rather than taken across the border to process into cocaine?” asked one congressional staff member who works on drug issues. The United States currently spends $80 million a year to fight drugs in Bolivia, and some members of Congress strongly oppose any softening of the effort.
A second potential problem for U.S.-Bolivian ties is that Morales’ backers expect follow-through on pledges of radical economic changes, such as tightening controls over natural gas reserves, which could discourage foreign investment and push Bolivia away from U.S.-backed regional trade pacts.
But though Morales might seem ideologically compatible with Chávez in Venezuela, U.S. analysts and officials said Morales appears to be more pragmatic and open to compromise. They said he may also have more to gain by forging ties with another neighbor in the region, President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, a staunch U.S. ally.
In an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters last week, Uribe took pains not to criticize either Bolivia or Venezuela. He stressed that both countries should be included in regional trade agreements, and that the only way to cure the region’s increasing political polarization is to address problems of poverty and inequality.
“We do not want to create problems for Venezuela or Bolivia,” Uribe said. “We need to solve the problems of Latin America in common. To overcome the political debate within Latin America, we must be able to show that free trade is fair trade.”
By Pamela Constable
The Washington Post