Tommorrow, Bolivans will go to the polls, and polls indicate that indigenous socialist leader Evo Morales will likely be the next president of Bolivia. Morales may be a coca farmer, but for the past twenty years Bolivia has been addicted to the neo-liberal economic crack coming from IMF and the World Bank. One of the more sickening consequences of the policy prescriptions prescribed by the IMF was the privatization of the water system of the country's 3rd largest city, Cochabomba. The Halliburton subsidiary
granted the contract went so far as to claim they owned the rain forcing dirt poor people to pay permit fees to collect rain water.
Morales threatens to tumble the neo-liberal orthodoxy in the country, with the campaign promise that if elected he will nationalize the gas fields:
On the surface, many of the policies advocated by Morales and his political party, the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS), parallel those of the two leading opposition parties, Quiroga's Poder Democrático y Social (Podemos) and Doria Medina's Unidad Nacional (UN). All three parties agree the core foreign policy issues are the exploitation of petroleum and natural gas deposits, as part of a broader policy to increase foreign trade and investment, together with sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean. Unanimity is particularly noteworthy on the seaport question, a central issue in Bolivian politics since Chile occupied Bolivia's sea coast during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883).
Every Bolivian politician since that time has put the question of regaining a Pacific port at the top of the foreign policy agenda. The three leading parties also agree the exploitation of natural gas reserves is the key to stronger, more diversified economic growth. Surrounded by energy-hungry neighbors, Bolivia's gas reserves are estimated to be more than 50 trillion cubic feet, second only to Venezuela on the continent, and worth some $70 billion. While there is widespread agreement on the need to exploit this treasure, MAS separates from Podemos and UN in insisting on the
nationalization of the oil and gas industries. Morales has ruled out expropriation, but he has yet to articulate a detailed plan for the hydrocarbon industry. Pledging to revise existing contracts and speaking of "partners" as opposed to "masters," he appears to be advocating creation of a public sector company, like Petrobras in Brazil , as opposed to a
more radical, Cuban-type expropriation of the assets owned by foreign energy companies.
There's already talk in Washington about who lost Bolivia, and the sense of melancholy emerges from sense that this is the watershed moment when Latin America's long march to the left results in the final rejection of the neo-liberal theories of the Washington Consensus. Maybe it's that they value democracy more than dollars in Latin America these days, good for them, and shame on the Bush administration:
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 preferredeconomic policies. It has valued "free" markets over democratic independence. This stance, 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 prefers. 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 US 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.
I reserve the right to be suspicious about Morales, I sincerely hope that Morales quick disavoment of statement perceived by some to suggest there might be a coup or at least another wave of street demonstrations to force out any leader except Morales. Taking a look what was actually said it looks less like sedition and more like silliness from the neo-liberal right:
''Our movement is against the neoliberals, against the traditional parties. It's not peaceful but confrontational, and Evo Morales will become president, no matter what,'' Román Loayza, a senator from Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party, said Wednesday.
Loayza, who also claimed the police and army would help Morales, said Thursday he was misinterpreted, noting that his native language is Quechua, not Spanish.
At least this man had the courage to suggest putting the knife to you face, and not hiding it under layers of computer code.
The Latin American left is resurgent, our as our own Chris Kulczycki put it Che Guevara Smacks Bush!, a great primer on what happening in Latin America, but I have to take issue with invoking Che. Less blood and tears, more bread and roses is what I'm hoping for. The collapse of neo-liberal capitalism in Argentina shows that making captialism more humane doesn't mean descending into violence, far from it Argentina is stronger now with Kirchner than ever before with an economy growing by leaps and bounds willfully ignoring the bad medicine prescribed by the IMF and the World Bank.
For the hard core of neo-liberals in Washington, the policy prescriptions of the Washington Consensus aren't suggestions they're commandments, and neo-liberalism is their faith. Hence their pain when confronted with evidence that the worship a false god, and so they lash out. And there is no greater apostate in Latin America than Hugo Chavez, who is Washington's greatest whipping horse in the region. Chavez has been the object of multiple attempts to remove him from the office he was democratically elected to. It should be no surpise then that the Bush administration's claims the Chavez is funding Morales. promoting the theory that if Morales wins it will be the result of a Bolivarian plot by Chavez rather than the will of the people. The neo-cons want to bring "democracy" to the Middle East, the neoliberals want to take it away from the indigenous peoples of Bolivia.
Where this idle talk, it would be disturbing, but there's more.
For the past year, the US government has been building an air base in western Paraguay near Mariscal Estigarribia, the US government has blown off allegations this is a permament base to keep an eye on Bolivia, but the (plausible) denials look a lot like those issued when contructing a base at Manta in Ecuador, now hosting the largest US military presence in South America. While this story has received vitrually no play in the US press, Latin America papers have been on this like flies on shit, there's a deep suspicion that there's more than meets the eye at Mariscal Estigarribia.
"There have been these joint exercises since 1943," Bruce Kleiner, U.S. press attaché in Asuncion, told In These Times. "The only difference is this time they authorized 13 at one time, for expediency."
Kleiner says U.S. military personnel have been given no special treatment, and no blanket immunity. The joint training exercises generally involve less than 50 personnel, and last for two weeks at a time. And he adds, "There are no U.S. military personnel at Estigarribia, and no exercises planned there."
The hand-wringing grew more intense in August, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Asuncion and met with Duarte Frutos, partly to discuss Cuba and Venezuela's "unhelpful" and growing influence in Bolivia. As a senior defense department official told reporters, "The challenge ... is to help the Bolivians steer this situation to a democratic outcome."
Rumsfeld's comments fueled suspicions that the United States was making a move to block Morales' rise to power, or at least stifle any move he might make to nationalize gas reserves at the expense of U.S. corporations. U.S. officials have also said that the three-borders region, where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet, is home to financiers of Islamic terrorist groups, but presented no strong evidence to back this.
Jorge Ramon de la Quintana is a former Bolivian military officer who spent three years in the Defense Ministry conducting political analyses of national defense strategies. He says the confluence of all of these factors is ominous.
"I don't believe in the arguments being put forth by the Secretary of Defense or the Embassy in Asuncion," Quintana told In These Times. "The military presence in Paraguay reflects a series of perceived threats by U.S. Southern Command."
Quintana says the main motivation to invade Bolivia would be to stop the spread of socialism. With Hugo Chávez enjoying broad support internationally, and left-leaning presidents at the helm in Brazil (Lula da Silva) and Argentina (Néstor Kirchner), Washington is finding its backyard increasingly insubordinate and difficult to control. The last thing the State Department wants to see is Morales, a good friend of Chávez, taking over. Strong socialist movements might develop next in increasingly unstable Peru and Ecuador. "This is the return of the Domino Theory," says Quintana.
It's far from a forgone conclusion that war is imminent, but the mixed messages, and the panpoly of reason floating in Washington to "stop Morales" are taking on the uncanny and unhealthy tinge of other recent debates in Washington. It's a policy in search of a problem, saying that this is about oil, or even stopping the spread of socialism in Latin America isn't going to cut it. My money's on the war on drugs going hot sometime soon. Morales is a coca farmer, and he does want to legalize the production of the plant. But he's also an expression of indigenous democracy, attacking Bolivia on the pretext that he's going to create an influx of coke into the US is a huge mistake. Heroin production in Afghanistan had skyrocketed since the overthow of the Taliban, US occupation doesn't mean Bolivia would stop growing coca.
And the Bush admnistration could hide an attack on Bolivia.
Much of the anti-drug work done for the US goverment in Latin America is preformed by mercenaries, expenses for a war against Bolivia could easily be hidden in the DEA budget
or something equally innocous.
We could go to war, and never know that it happened.
And any Democrat with the courage to stand up and ask why could be shot down as soft on drugs.
Given that the US military has been quite clear about they way they feel about Bolivia, action by proxy is something that we should be worried about.
U.S. General Bantz J. Craddock, commander of Southern Command, told the House Armed Services Committee: "In Bolivia , Ecuador , and Peru , distrust and loss of faith in failed institutions fuel the emergence of anti-U.S., anti-globalization, and anti-free trade demagogues."
Bolivia has been placed on the National Intelligence Council's list of 25 countries where the United States will consider intervening in case of "instability."
This is scary talk for Latin American countries. Would the United States invade Bolivia? Given the present state of its military, unlikely.
Would the United States try to destabilize Bolivia's economy while training people how to use military force to insure Enron, Shell, British Gas, Total, Repsol, and the United States continues to get Bolivian gas for pennies on the dollar? Quite likely.
And would the White House like to use such a coup as a way to send a message to other countries? You bet. President Bush may be clueless on geography, but he is not bad at overthrowing governments and killing people.
There's more than Bolivia and blow at work here though.
Paraguay, the country hosting this base that's causing so much concern is embroiled in a trade dispute with the rest of Mercosur. Paraguay wants to form closer trade ties with the US, and be part of the proposed FTAA to lessen the influence they feel the Brazilians have on their economy now. The Brazilians have told Paraguay that the choice "between Mercosur and other possible partners." The recent anouncement that Venezuela will be joining Mercosur, and statments made by Chavez that he wants to politicize the organization raise question as to how this political Mercosur would repsond to US intervention in Bolivia.
"We have to politicise Mercosur," he said in Montevideo, Uruguay, at a meeting of the group's leaders convened to mark Venezuela's formal entry into the trade bloc. "We cannot allow this to be purely an economic project, one for the elites and for the transnational companies."
Chavez deeply belives that his is a Bolivarian revolution, and for the better part of a year Venezuela has been >arming itself against the threat of armed internvention:
The Venezuelan government has begun a process of military modernization. In this effort, he has signed an agreement a $120 million contract with Russia for the acquisition of 10 helicopters (7 transport helicopters and 3 offensive helicopters). In addition, the purchase of 100,000 Russian AK-104 assault rifles is expected. What's more, the acquisition of Buenos Aires of 20 advanced AMX-T trainer aircraft from Brazil's EMBRAER Corp. is taking shape, and it will soon acquire 12 Spanish-made CASA 295 cargo planes and naval vessels for patrolling the Venezuelan coast, which valued at nearly $1.7 billion.
(machine translation, original Spanish article here
The purchase of 100,000 AK-47's should be an alarm. With the purchase of this many rifles, the arms currently in the hands of the military can be used to arme the Bolivarian Circles. As well, if Washington decides to play nasty, Chavez can put thousands of AK-47's into the hands of Aymara and Quechas prepared to fight should their be US intervention.
The results of tommorow's Bolivian elections will be important, if Morales wins outright, and there is US intervention the possiblity of escalation and the spread of the conflict are likely. I can only hope the the White House has the sense to realize that attacking a democratically elected government is going to generate a lot of bad will, and could go bad in far to many ways to count. If the adminstration's actions against Venezuela are any guide to how they would repsond to Morales, we all should be very concerned that while the world is focused on Iraq, there might be big trouble far closer to home.