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Broken U.S.-Bolivia relations require fix

By Patrick McAnaney     1/8/09 6:00pm

Over the eight years of his presidency, the only two significant elements of President Bush's Latin America strategy have been continuing the War on Drugs and signing individual free trade agreements. The Andean Trade Preferences Act, abbreviated as APTDEA was a perfect example of this strategy. In exchange for cooperation in cocaine reduction efforts, the U.S. signed trade deals with Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru to allow them to export textiles and other goods to the U.S. market. The APTDEA was a win-win situation: a boon for Latin American producers and a plus for U.S. consumers. Yet just three months ago the White House decided to undermine its own free trade agenda by suspending this agreement with Bolivia.

Let's rewind a few months to figure out how we got to this point. Since the 2005 election of Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, tension has grown between the poorer, indigenous Andean region and the hydrocarbon-rich tropical lowlands. The opposition leaders in the lowlands, the traditional elite, have pushed for their agenda as a means of resisting Morales, a situation which culminated in violent protests last September. During this same period, U.S. ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg was caught holding secret meetings with opposition leaders to discuss ways to promote their autonomy agenda. The relationship between Goldberg and Morales had always been tense: The previous ambassador, Manuel Rocha, said that Goldberg famously declared during the 2002 elections that the United States would cut off all aid if Morales were elected president, a statement which launched Morales from long-shot candidate to presidential runner-up. Tired of Goldberg's perceived efforts to undermine democracy, the Bolivian government declared him a persona non grata and expelled him from the country.

Furious at forced removal of its ambassador, the White House decided to retaliate by declaring Bolivia non-compliant with Drug Enforcement Agency standards. Although independent watchdog agencies such as the Washington Office on Latin America and the Andean Information Network note that Bolivia has actually been more successful than Peru and Colombia in reducing coca, and subsequently, cocaine production, only Bolivia received harsh penalties. The White House suspended the APTDEA, costing Bolivia 20,000 jobs and $150 million annually. In a time of worldwide economic crisis, this came as a tough blow to South America's poorest country. The true victims were the textile weavers - indigenous subsistence farmers who depend on U.S. markets to eke out a modest income of several hundred dollars annually. In essence, Bush's decision to politicize the APTDEA essentially targeted the poorest of the poor. What happened to "compassionate conservatism?"

President-elect Barack Obama has a chance to rectify this egregious mistake by the Bush administration as soon as he sets foot in the Oval Office. The APTDEA can be reinstated at any time with relatively little effort, should Obama choose to do so. The benefits are obvious: It would be a sign of good will to South America, reduce poverty in the region and maintain a viable employment alternative to cultivating coca. The question is whether the incoming administration has any intention of adopting a more conciliatory tone in its relations with Bolivia. Obama spoke often during the campaign about restoring our moral standing in the world and making allies, not enemies, in the international sphere. His election instantly reignited Bolivians' faith in the United States, as I was fortunate enough to witness in person. It is up to Obama not to disappoint them.

Patrick McAnaney is a Brown College junior and studied abroad in Bolivia last semester.

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