Responding to Bolivian Democracy: Avoiding the Mistakes of Early U.S. Cuban Policy

By Morales, Waltraud Queiser | Military Review, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview

Responding to Bolivian Democracy: Avoiding the Mistakes of Early U.S. Cuban Policy


Morales, Waltraud Queiser, Military Review


FOR MORE THAN 50 YEARS, U.S. Government policy has been to promote democracy in Latin America. The election of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia is perhaps the strongest evidence to date that countries on the Andean Ridge are achieving that often-stated policy goal. By all accounts, Morales's election gave him the first true public mandate in Bolivia's history. But Morales's platform, even since taking office, has included anti-foreign and anti-U.S. commitments that have disconcerted some U.S. policymakers (and to some extent European and Latin American policymakers as well). In turn, these policymakers have declared Morales a threat. That kind of reaction is premature, however, and could undermine long-term U.S. policies concerning human rights and democratic values.

The purpose of this essay is threefold: first, to consider whether failed U.S. relations with revolutionary and reformist regimes in the past, especially with Castro's Cuba, offer any lessons for building an effective U.S. policy toward the new Morales government; second, to analyze the key aspects of Bolivia's current social, political, and economic situation; and third, to evaluate the validity of North American concerns.

The U.S. and Latin American Revolutionary Movements

Revolutionary movements in Latin America have been especially challenging to U.S. interests. Overall, the United States has been inconsistent in its approach to these movements and often unfaithful to its own stated policies or to the humanitarian and democratic values that supposedly underpin its policies.1

U.S. policies toward revolutionary change in the hemisphere (and in other parts of the world) have been shaped by three factors: consideration of larger strategic concerns in other regions of the world, especially fear of global threats and Great Power rivalries; ideological and moral imperatives such as anticommunism and democratic enlargement; and protection of the economic interests of the private sector and the free market.2

As a result, in almost all of Latin America's major revolutions (Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, and Nicaragua-Bolivia in 1952 being the one exception), the United States treated revolutionary change as a threat to its interests. It believed such change would have an adverse impact on U.S. investors and would decrease U.S. political influence because new governments would adopt "more independent domestic and foreign policies and ... [would be] less likely to conform to U.S. policies."3

To be fair, in the cold war setting of the era, U.S. policy largely hinged on genuine security concerns associated with the Great Power rivalry pitting Western democracies against nations aligned with the communist Soviet Union and Maoist China. However, legitimate concerns about Latin America often degenerated into a single-minded obsession with anticommunism, an obsession that viewed popular revolutionary movements with suspicion and as little more than Soviet and Communist Chinese surrogates. U.S. policymakers justified subversive actions and militaristic confrontations with revolutionary regimes throughout the region, including those in Guatemala and Cuba, by citing the need to stem communism.

One such intervention occurred in Guatemala in 1954, when a CIA paramilitary operation overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz. As its codename suggests, Operation Success was initially viewed as a political victory. But it was a success only in the most mechanistic, superficial sense, and only for the short term.4 In its aftermath, Guatemala descended into 30 years of authoritarianism, civil war, and ultimately ethnic genocide that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The Guatemala case can hardly be considered a long-term success when viewed against the standard of human rights values upon which America was founded. In fact, only relatively recently has something like a democracy appeared in Guatemala. Simmering bitterness and the legacy of political violence unleashed in the 1950s have long scarred the country's political process.

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