Bolivian Democracy and the US: a History Lesson

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 4, 2005).

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 obligations.”

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 up.

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 price.

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 and Brazil.

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 poll numbers.

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.



SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.