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Bolivia: The End of the Monroe Doctrine

Just after our November '08 delegation to Bolivia, Tom Driver and Anne Barstow submitted this insightful op-ed to the New York Times, which provides a succinct summary of our trip.  For a snapshot of the trip, check out the photos below

La Paz, Bolivia
November 21, 2008

While President Evo Morales has been in New York and Washington, we have been in Bolivia, where a number of things about him and his presidency have become abundantly clear.  Three stand out:

1.  Evo Morales' historic rise to the presidency is the culmination of a process begun before his birth.  The majority of Bolivians are Indian; they have determined to end some 500 years of colonial and neo-colonial rule and to reassert themselves as full human beings capable of running a sovereign nation.

2.  This process is part of a larger current of change throughout South America that is putting an end to the age of the Monroe Doctrine, when it was taken for granted that the US was in charge of hemispheric affairs.

3. The US diplomatic mission to Bolivia does not understand the second point at all, and misunderstands the implications of the first.  This lack of realism is bringing US relations to Bolivia and Latin America to the point of disaster.

Travelling with Witness for Peace, a politically independent organization, we have held interviews with leaders of the opposition to the Morales government as well as leaders within it, plus coca growers (cocaleros), indigenous weavers, farmers (campesinos), ex-miners, day laborers, union organizers, an Aymara spiritual leader and theologian, various NGOs involved in research and legal advocacy, and the US Embassy.  The rich tapestry of encounters with Bolivia has brought us to the conclusions already stated and to a few more particular observations:

US antipathy to Evo Morales and the social change he represents began years before he became president, poisoning the bilateral relationship in ways our embassy seems unable or unwilling to see.  This myopia lends credibility to Morales' charge that our ambassador was attempting to unseat him.

The US approach to the war on drugs is wrong-headed and offensive to Bolivians.  Bolivian traffickers produce far less cocaine than those in Colombia or Peru.  Furthermore, they send it to Europe rather than to the US.  For the US to make coca eradication the basis of its anti-narcotic program in Bolivia leads to a war on poor farmers and human rights abuses.  Coca has been for centuries important in the indigenous cultures of Bolivia. The Bolivians' own government has a better approach, emphasizing stopping the production and trafficking of cocaine, incentive-driven coca reduction programs, and education and prevention programs, from which the US could learn to its advantage at home.

Neo-liberal (free market) economic measures, imposed from abroad in the 1990s, proved disastrous for Bolivia's majority population.  Bolivia today is ready for economic, cultural, and political exchanges, but not under neo-liberal patterns.

It is difficult to portray with brevity the immense differences between the two cultures encountering each other in Bolivia today, mirrored in the conflict between President Morales and former Ambassador Goldberg, who was asked to leave the country in September.  The indigenous religious concept of Pachamama contains a deeply communitarian understanding of both humanity and nature, almost unintelligible by the equally deep individualism of the North Atlantic world and its technocratic approach to problem solving.  Add to this the more familiar yet agonizing conflicts of race and class, which in Bolivia are deeply and emotionally entrenched.  Then add a new configuration of national alliances in South America.  

A new reality is emerging, bringing a new mode of international cooperation.  If this is change in which the US cannot believe, our State Department will continue to flounder.

Anne L. Barstow is Retired Professor of History at the State University of New York, College of Old Westbury.  Tom F. Driver is Professor Emeritus of Theology and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  Both have spent the last 20 years travelling in Latin America to study the effects of US policy on human rights in that region.

Delegation Photos

 A marketplace in Santa Cruz, in which a particular vendor ran towards delegation members, smiled, flashed a thumbs-up sign, and shouted "Obama!" (Photo: Jaymie Exley-Peat)

 Delegation leader Evan Cuthbert watches as Marco Antonio Amareti of CEJIS (Center for Legal Studies and Social Research) explains Bolivia's vastly unequal land distribution, the existence of "modern-day slavery" on Bolivian plantations, and how the government aims to address both through land reform. (Photo: Bob Studzinski)

 Morning yoga over a river in the Chapare (Photo: Ben Beachy)

 Armando, a coca farmer, proudly displays his legal coca crop. (Photo: Ben Beachy)

 In a US-funded military base in the Chapare, a Bolivian military official demonstrates anti-narcotrafficking strategies. (Photo: Ben Beachy)

 Leaders of the Six Federations, the coalition of coca-growers unions from which President Evo Morales rose to power, stand with delegation members in the Chapare after recounting how the US-funded "war on drugs" strategy brought them two decades of gross human rights violations. (Photo: Marty Deputy)

 Delegation members join Bolivian hosts in sharing an Andean atapi meal. (Photo: Bob Studzinski)

 Doña Eli, Cochabamba resident, and delegation member Marty Deputy enjoy some chicha (Photo: Bob Studzinski)

 A memorial in El Alto marking the spot where Jose Atawichi was shot--one of 67 people killed during Bolivia's 2003 gas war, a struggle against the US-supported privatization of natural gas.  (Photo: Ben Beachy)

 Felipa and Saturnina Mamani of the Kullakas Women’s Artisan Cooperative stand with delegation member Deana Pratt, sporting a scarf made by the cooperative. (Photo: Rick Pratt)

 Calixto Quispe Huanco, author and expert on Andean cosmology, enlightens the group. (Photo: Bob Studzinski)

 Delegation member Don MacRae wows the group with his unorthodox rapping abilities. (Photo: Ben Beachy)

Headed home (Photo: Ben Beachy)