Continued Turbulence in Bolivia's Relations with U.S

Article excerpt

After maintaining its diplomatic relations with the US at the same level for three years, the Bolivian government has given clear signs of wanting to repair the bilateral ties, and it has done so in a variety of ways.

President Evo Morales first showed his interest in April when he accepted US aid to control coca plantations. But he set limits. "US personnel," he said, "will not perform any concrete task; the cooperation will be strictly logistic and economic." The warning froze a dialogue that had just begun.

On June 27, Morales was explicit in asking "friendly European countries" to mediate with the goal of re-establishing ties with the US. And, he again set limits, saying, "We want to maintain good relations, but they have to be as equals."

Despite the opening, no progress was made. On July 18, the Bolivian government returned to the issue, this time through the Ministerio de Desarrollo Rural y Tierras (MDRyT), which said that Bolivia was looking for financing to destroy 907 tons of coca leaf confiscated from drug traffickers and that it would accept US help. There was no immediate response, but the press quoted diplomatic sources as saying that contacts had been made between the two governments.

But the possibility of breaking the impasse was again thwarted. The Bolivian government showed alleged proof of interference by the US Embassy and a group of Bolivian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that could be receiving US government and private funding. The government accused them of helping to organize and carry out the protest by indigenous who oppose construction of a transportation corridor that crosses a natural reserve. Environmentalists accuse the government of being at the service of Brazil, which, they say, has geopolitical and economic interests in the highway's construction.

Bolivia's poverty exposed

When Morales said on April 19 that his government was willing to accept help from the US, as well as from Brazil, to pay for equipment to verify the elimination of illegal coca plantations, it demonstrated a positive turn. But it also exposed the scarce resources of the South American country, which had to negotiate with two powerful governments to obtain just US$350,000 in aid.

The program to destroy clandestine coca fields used only US$250,000 in US support (to pay for equipment and instruments) and US$100,000 from Brazil to buy inputs and train Bolivian personnel who would participate in the eradication campaign.

Bolivia preceded the signing of that agreement with some actions and gestures particularly important for the US in its campaign against drug trafficking. Among them, the detention of Bolivia's former anti-drug chief, Gen. Rene Sanabria, accused of cocaine trafficking, and his later extradition to the US, where he will be tried in a Miami, Florida, court. Sanabria headed the Bolivian anti-narcotics office between 2007 and 2009, the years when Bolivia expelled then ambassador Philip Goldberg NotiSur, Sept. 19, 2008 and US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) personnel NotiSur, Jan. 16, 2009.

Another 40 officers assigned to the fight against organized crime were also detained on charges of corruption and complicity. It was already known at the time that in May Bolivia would receive six Chinese K-8 aircraft for use in the anti-drug effort, for which the government would spend the significant sum of US$58 million. Those factors seemed to pave the way for conversations aimed at improving relations.

Some media ran opinions and statements from official sources indicating a certain, subtle improvement in relations. However, for the pieces on the board to be moved, it was necessary to wait until late June, when Morales asked the European countries to help fulfill a mediation role that in diplomatic language is called that of "amiable composition."

Just days later, new signs appeared, when the MDRyT announced that the government was looking for foreign financing to destroy those 907 tons of coca leaves. …