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BOLIVIA-US: Drugs, USAID Complicate Relations

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Jun 16 2010 (IPS) - Relations between Bolivia and the United States are still on a roller-coaster, two years after Bolivia expelled the U.S. ambassador, with Bolivian President Evo Morales now threatening to kick out the main U.S. government aid agency.

In early June, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca announced “99 percent progress” in negotiations to restore full diplomatic relations between Bolivia and the United States, including the exchange of ambassadors.

But Morales’ allegations of U.S. meddling in Bolivia’s affairs appear to run counter to the rapprochement.

At the inauguration of a congress of coca farmers in the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba Jun. 5, Morales complained that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is financing non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and foundations that actively oppose the government.

“If USAID continues working in this way, I will not hesitate to expel them because we have dignity and sovereignty, and we are not going to allow any interference,” the president said.

Four days later, Morales again asked USAID to modify its behaviour.

“In the field of international politics there are no friends or enemies, only interests. It’s a famous line in international relations that can be applied to this case, a kind of pragmatism regardless of ideologies,” Iván Camarlinghi, a diplomat, told IPS.

Washington has shown apparent interest in rebuilding the weakened bilateral relations, by sending high-ranking State Department officials to Bolivia.

In 2009, Thomas Shannon, then Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and on Jun. 2 his successor, Chilean-born Arturo Valenzuela, tried to come to an agreement with the Bolivian Foreign Ministry.

But Valenzuela’s reception left a lot to be desired. The day before he arrived, Morales declared that the United States, the world’s largest market for drugs, tolerated the drugs trade and that its anti-drugs policy was a pretext to intervene in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, the three top cocaine producers.

Nevertheless, Camarlinghi identified some points of agreement.

Washington focuses on drug shipment seizures, while the Bolivian government defends the growing of coca — the raw material for cocaine — for social, cultural and religious purposes, he said. “Shared responsibility (in the fight against drug trafficking) is one of the points of convergence,” Camarlinghi said.

But the issue has domestic consequences.

“Accusing international organisations is a way of avoiding” the conflict between the Bolivian government and social and labour organisations, and shows “a lack of political clarity,” Félix Patzi, a sociologist and a dissident from the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS), told IPS.

In early May, trade unions representing teachers, factory workers and miners protested the government’s wage policy with a 24-hour strike. And indigenous peoples in the oil- and gas-rich east of the country are clashing with the Morales administration over non-fulfilment of agreements for greater indigenous autonomy and environmental protection in areas being explored for fossil fuels.

The influential Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), which represents lowland native groups in the eastern provinces, is planning to start a 1,400-kilometre protest march Thursday from the northern city of Trinidad to the seat of government in La Paz.

Autonomy Minister Carlos Romero said he suspects USAID of being behind the demonstration. USAID finances activities of the Central Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of La Paz, which is affiliated to CIDOB, he said.

“There may be influences from NGOs, or there may be foreign actors,” Romero said Monday.

USAID currently spends 85 million dollars a year in rural areas of Bolivia, through bilateral agreements and programmes carried out by NGOs, the private sector and civil society, according to the U.S. embassy.

CIDOB’s national coordinator for protected areas, Jorge Tomicha, responded that indigenous organisations do not allow outside interference in their own decisions, nor do they receive financing to further their demands.

At a national meeting in La Paz last week, indigenous leaders expressed concern about violations of indigenous peoples’ rights over natural resources in their territories. “We asked to speak directly with President Morales to claim our rights, that are guaranteed by international conventions,” Tomicha told IPS.

Morales is an Aymara, an ethnic group that like the Quechua live in the impoverished Andes highlands in the centre and west of the country. The Aymara and Quechua are more numerous than the lowland native groups, in this country where approximately 60 percent of the population is indigenous.

Patzi, a former education minister in the Morales administration, and a former MAS candidate for the post of governor of La Paz province, says the disappointment of some of Morales’s supporters is due to broken promises of major economic and social changes.

“These have not happened; they have only seen greater regulation of their organisations, and workers are reacting against that,” said Patzi.

But while some groups are turning against Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, he was reelected in December by an even bigger landslide than he had enjoyed in 2006.

The lack of reflection in the dialogue with Washington is an obvious failing, the former Morales ally said.

La Paz has demanded from Washington mutual respect, the principle of equal rights between states, and shared responsibility in the fight against drug trafficking.

“If the Bolivian government has tangible evidence (of U.S. meddling in indigenous organisations) it has every right to carry out an investigation, but making aggressive statements does not contribute to restoring diplomatic relations,” Franklin Pareja, the head of the La Paz association of political scientists, told IPS.

Morales’ verbal attack on USAID could also be interpreted as “a political calculation to unite the social organisations behind him,” the analyst said, referring to the groups that are questioning his policies on wages, the environment, and oil and gas exploration.

In 2008, Washington suspended Bolivia’s duty-free access to the U.S. market under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), claiming Bolivia failed to cooperate with the Unite States on anti-narcotics efforts — a decision that has cost Bolivia some 63 million dollars’ worth of manufacture exports.

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