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Once More, Bolivians Seek Independence

by Jeremy Ravi Mumford on Nov 11, 2003

Jeremy Ravi Mumford

Bolivia’s new president, Carlos Mesa, came to power in mid-October after violent protests drove his predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada, from office. This small, poor South American country is hardly familiar to most Americans, but we have a stake in it, especially because our policy is failing there.

It’s failing because Bolivians are trapped in a colonial past — and not just in the sense that the United States dominates their government. At a deeper level, Bolivia suffers from a permanent, explosive distrust between the majority and the ruling class. U.S. policies are only make things worse.

America’s goals in Bolivia come down to two things: limiting the production of cocaine and promoting Latin American stability. Along with nearby Peru and Colombia, Bolivia is the source of the coca from which most of the world’s cocaine is produced, and the U.S. government has been working with Bolivia’s to eradicate the crop. With several neighboring states on the edge of chaos — violent protests in Peru, a constitutional crisis in Venezuela, guerrilla warfare in Colombia — the region can ill afford another country in crisis.

The distrust between Bolivia’s poor and its political elite, expressed in this month’s protests, dates to colonial times. Most Bolivians are poor and Indian. They cook the meals and clean the homes of the country’s light-skinned political class, but have little sense of shared citizenship with those who govern. There’s a language barrier, too: many Bolivians speak indigenous languages, while the rich speak only Spanish. To protesters, last month’s demonstrations were a revolt by the Indian majority against a neo-colonial elite.

The target of the demonstrations, in which soldiers shot some 70 protesters, was a government plan to export natural gas to the United States. To many Bolivians, the plan was one more colonial abuse. Bolivia has produced great fortunes throughout history — its colonial silver mines were the wonder of the world. But those fortunes went elsewhere, while Bolivia remained the poorest country in South America. Many Bolivians don’t trust their politicians to do anything with national resources that will benefit the country.

Bolivians compared the recent protests to the most famous rebellion in their history, when an Indian army laid siege to the Spanish capital, La Paz, in 1781. The uprising took place at the same moment that British colonists were winning independence in North America. Like Washington and Jefferson, the leaders of Bolivia’s 1781 rebellion are revered as heroes by their countrymen. The difference is that many Bolivians believe they’re still fighting the same battle today.

To some, the main enemy now is the United States, which they feel has replaced Spain as the colonial power. The last president was a millionaire businessman who was born in Bolivia but grew up in Washington, D.C. He speaks Spanish with an American accent.

Through development aid and pressure, the United States forces the Bolivian government to pursue economic austerity plans and eradicate coca. These policies have little chance of success unless ordinary Bolivians come to feel more ownership of their own government.

One possibility for creating this sense of ownership lies in the Indian-based political parties. They invoke the spirit of colonial rebels, while urging ethnic pride, economic populism and a defense of the coca leaf as a sacred national plant. One of this movement’s leaders, Evo Morales, came within a few thousand votes of the presidency in 2002.

The United States dismisses this movement as an enemy in the War on Drugs. Before the election then-U.S. ambassador Manuel Rocha spoke out against Morales and even pressured the Bolivian congress to expel him from its membership. This posture only confirmed our image as a neo-colonial power.

Our approach is focused on outcomes, such as eradicating coca, but we need to focus instead on supporting Bolivia’s political process. When the process fails — as it did this month — Bolivia can’t accomplish what we want it to.

The United States must let the Bolivian people govern their own country. This will mean continuing our foreign aid even if Bolivia’s voters choose populist economic policies we think short-sighted. And it will mean letting them deal with the coca-growing problem at their own pace. The consequences of not doing so would be worse: more political turmoil and perhaps civil war.

Before entering politics, President Mesa was a historian and journalist. One of his books was prophetically titled “Bolivia’s Presidents: Between Rifles and Ballot Boxes.” He’ll need all the historical wisdom he can muster to help Bolivia escape the burden of its past. The United States could help him by casting off the outworn role of colonial power.

Jeremy Ravi Mumford is a doctoral candidate at Yale University.