Bolivian Democracy and the US:
a History Lesson
by Saul Landau
Counterpunch, Dec 16, 2005
The prospect of socialist peasant leader Evo Morales as Bolivia's
next president disturbed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
for Western Hemisphere Affairs Charles Shapiro. "It would
not be welcome news in Washington to see the increasingly belligerent
Cuban-Venezuelan combo become a trio," he emailed on October
21, 2005 to the Miami Herald's Andres Oppenheimer (Dec
Shapiro combined buzz words with clichés.
"The nature and scope of our cooperation with the next Bolivian
government will depend on our shared interests: strengthening
democracy, fostering economic development and combating illegal
narcotics, along with that government's commitment to its international
These trite but coded phrases tell the
next Bolivian government: do Washington's bidding, or get your
butt kicked. Shapiro may think that phrases like "shared
interests" and "democracy" Shapiro turn him into
a literary magician: "Presto, the coin (history) has vanished."
Such routine pronouncements on US-Latin
America policy presume that a policy exists, something beyond
Washington demanding Latin American obedience to its dictates,
so that US companies can continue their looting. Throughout,
the last century, the United States has provided different labels
for its domination. By the early 20th Century, the Monroe Doctrine
took the form of "Gunboat Diplomacy." The Navy would
routinely intervene to protect US investments and ensure "stable"--read
obedient -- governments.
In the early 20th Century, Theodore Roosevelt
invented "Dollar Diplomacy," Gunboat's twin sister.
"Diplomacy" became a euphemism for encouraging corporate
investment in Lat America and then defining those loans or investments
in bananas and minerals to define U.S. interests in the region.
To make sure dollars flowed to corporate
accounts, the Navy intervened when local political turmoil (independence
and revolutionary movements) arose. US forces collected customs
revenues and sent them to US banks. So, when students read a State
Department document that states that US forces occupied Panama
from 1903 to 1914 "to guard American interests," they
will understand the context.
In 1904, US forces protected "American
interestsduring revolutionary fighting" in the Dominican
Republic as they did in Cuba 1906-9, Honduras in 1907, 1910,
1911 and 1912, Nicaragua in 1910 and Cuba again in 1912.
In 1913, Woodrow Wilson relabeled intervention
as "The Good Neighbor Policy." Between 1913 and 1920,
while strongly advocating non-intervention as an inviolable principle
of international law, Wilson ordered US troops to occupy Haiti
and Nicaragua and intervene in Cuba, the Dominican Republic,
Honduras and Mexico. In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt laid out
the red carpet for called Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza
because he was "our son of a bitch."
Good neighborliness gave way to Cold
War anti-Communism, which Eisenhower used as a pretext to have
the CIA dislodge freely elected President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala
(1954) -- at the insistence of the United Fruit Company, whose
non-productive lands Arbenz had disobediently nationalized.
The 1959 Cuban Revolution pushed US officials
to offer a policy that recognized the development gap between
the United States and its southern neighbors. In 1961, John Kennedy
announced an "Alliance for Progress" to develop Latin
American infrastructure, build democracy and thus win the hearts
and minds from the lure of Castroism. Ironically, at a 1959 OAS
meeting in Argentina, Castro himself had suggested that if the
US cared about Latin America it would invest in its infrastructure.
Secretary of State Christian Herter thought he could turn this
notion against Castro, but Eisenhower lacked the energy to follow
Kennedy possessed lots of verbal panache,
however. But the US military remained unconvinced. So countered
his own progressive proposal with its opposite: a counter insurgency
program. The Latin American police and military got far more
money than went into the Alliance.
By the mid 1970s, US backed repressive
forces had obliterated the Alliance. Dictators and death squads
ruled in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia (on and off), Chile, Paraguay,
Uruguay, Peru (on and off), Ecuador (on and off), Colombia (on
and off) and in most of Central America.
Did Shapiro forget these events? Did
he believe his benign-sounding phrases, and think they would
fool Latin Americans familiar with their history? Indeed, Latin
Americans know well that revolutions or disobedience bring about
invasion or the CIA's covert action squad.
By the late 1970s and into the 1980s,
to make more effective anti Soviet propaganda, US officials added
democracy and human rights to belligerent Cold War rhetoric.
Although the United States had recently helped oust democratically
elected governments in Brazil (1964) and Chile (1973), they pretended
that a new era had arrived. Reagan spent hundreds of millions
on El Salvador's murderous military while simultaneously supporting
continuous elections, which Washington equated with democracy
-- as if voting could neutralize the death squads.
Washington's words don't match deeds.
Shapiro's "fostering economic development," must remind
Bolivians about the 1999 Bechtel purchase of the Cochabamba water
supply. Shockingly, Bechtel raised the price of water until Bolivians
forced their government to re-claim its own water and lower the
Shapiro also insists on continuing the
drug war. Does he expect drugs to surrender? The drug war has
meant the ecological destruction of entire regions, and the militarizing
of large areas of Colombia -- and the US insistence that neighboring
countries follow the same destructive path.
Finally, to demand that Bolivia commit
to its international obligations after Bush launched an aggressive
war against Iraq in contravention of all international law, sounds
like a mafia don insisting that his lesser rivals denounce crime.
Shapiro's platitudes illustrate Washington's
bind--or blind. Washington doesn't get it, or doesn't care. In
November, Bush humiliated himself at the Hemispheric Mar del
Plata, Argentina meeting by insisting on the failed free trade
formula that destroyed the Argentine economy. Instead of analyzing
its failure, the White House pointed accusatory fingers at Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez, who denounced free trade and called for
a cooperative development plan.
Stuck with its own free election language
(Chavez has won three free and fair elections since 1998), State
Department officials leaked to the crony press rumors that Chavez
would fix Venezuela's December congressional elections, that
Chavez had censored the local press and refused to respect human
rights. After the Miami Herald new York Times and other major
media published these accusations as news stories--relying heavily
on anti-Chavez "independent analysts" as their sources
-- official Washington confirmed them, in a louder voice. (Justin
Delacour, Counterpunch, June 1, 2005)
In fact, Chavez's opponents own much
of Venezuela's mass media. Because the United States screamed
about Chavez' unfairness, OAS and Carter Center monitors inspected
the December elections and declared them free and fair.
On human right, Chavez has expanded education
and medical care for Venezuela's poor, reforms that have won
near universal praise. To label Chavez as a dictator both defies
facts and flies in the face of his popular appeal.
Yet, Thomas A. Shannon, Assistant Secretary
of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, still defines Chavez
as "a threat to regional stability," because he makes
coherent anti-free trade arguments, offers a socialist vision
and his close association with Fidel Castro. They see Chavez
as one more disobedient figure, even daring to buy weapons from
Spain defying the Monroe Doctrine?--and encouraging socialist
movements, like the one headed by Evo Morales, in Bolivia.
In the old days, gunboats and marines
or the CIA would intervene. The rest of the puppet presidents
would say nothing. Today, however, Chavez enjoys support, not
only from Venezuela's majority, but from the Presidents of Argentina
Washington backs Chavez's rich and unruly
opponents, using the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to
finance anti-Chavez NGOs like Sumate, whose leaders worked with
Washington to back the futile military coup in 2002 and to boycott
the December elections, which made them look like silly sore
losers. The OAS monitors called the election clean. This further
lowers Bush's already diving reputation.
Chavez makes fun of US leaders, while
delivering reduced cost heating oil to the US poor, which Bush
has not done. As Bush rewinds his own tape on Iraq, and repeats
tired free trade phrases to Latin Americans, Chavez gains ground.
Pro-US Presidents, like Peru's Alejandro Toledo show declining
The former US backed president of Bolivia,
Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada, had to flee from office because of
his disastrous free-trade policies. Evo Morales, on the other
hand, enjoys high popularity ratings.
Morales called Bush's Free Trade Area
of the Americas "an agreement to legalize the colonization
of the Americas." He also condemned Washington's drug war
as a pretext to grab Bolivia's vast gas reserves. A Morales victory
will fill the growing ranks of left-of-center Latin American
leaders who see their priorities as addressing social needs:
education, health care, and land reform.
In the face of dire Latin American poverty,
worsened by US policies, Shapiro and Shannon simply repeat imperial
banalities. It's as if history grips their minds in an idiotic
vise and condemns the United States to continue playing an outworn
imperial role on a new world stage.
Saul Landau is a fellow of the Institute
for Policy Studies.