Bolivia’s socialist president Evo Morales has angered American officials by expelling the US Agency for International Development (USAID) from his country as part of a customary May Day speech. Along with Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Morales was a disciple of recently-deceased Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution. His latest attempt to emulate Chavez by defying American wishes is a petty statement liable to worsen the lot of the ordinary Bolivians he is supposed to champion.
USAID has been involved in Bolivia since the 1960s, contributing to educational, infrastructural and agricultural development which have in turn yielded jobs in one of South America’s poorest countries. The expulsion of USAID is a result, says Morales, of its desire to “conspire against the Bolivian people”.
He follows a path well-trodden by Chavez who frequently accused the Americans of meddling in the internal affairs of Latin American countries and made similar symbolic gestures against American “imperialism”.
The argument of the US conspiring to influence the politics of Latin America has some credence of course because, in the not too distant past, America was heavily involved in funding right-wing generals and paramilitary groups against what its leaders and intelligence community saw as dangerous communists.
Bolivia serves as a good example. In 1964, the CIA helped fund and organise a coup that saw General Rene Barrientos overthrow the centre-left nationalist government of Victor Paz. US Special Forces subsequently helped Barrientos solidify his power base by suppressing leftist peasant insurgencies. Barrientos died in a helicopter crash in 1969 and was succeeded by Alfredo Ovando, who had played a key role in the 1964 coup himself.
Times had changed, however, and Ovando had taken a sharp turn to the left. Soon after taking office he nationalised American oil operations in Bolivia and invited noted socialist intellectuals into his government. The US could not stand for it and they began to agitate for political change in Bolivia by backing home-grown insurgents. This at a time when Che Guevara and other communist revolutionaries began to see Bolivia as a perfect destination for their brand of socialism.
After Guevara’s death in 1967, and with pressure against his rule mounting, Ovando retired in 1970 only to be succeeded by an even stauncher socialist, Juan Jose Torres. Torres, Ovando’s right-hand man, and another person of military experience, would not be cowed by the Americans despite a CIA-backed coup attempt in 1970. It would take a second coup in August 1971 to overthrow Torres with Hugo Banzer, another general, lifted to supremacy with American blessing. Subsequent attempts at a counter-coup were quashed with American assistance.
Banzer would embark upon a seven-year dictatorship of characteristic South American brutality; kidnappings, assassinations and random arrests persisted. But, for the US, another country had been prevented from being swallowed by the communist tide.
Scepticism towards America is understandable in South America. Nevertheless, since the end of the Cold War and a democratic transition of some kind in most Latin American countries, the Americans have sought to re-engage with their southern neighbours on a more positive footing. Aside from USAID, the Americans have waived their claims to considerable debt repayments which Bolivia and its bordering states defaulted during the economic crises of the 1990s. Trade ties are also deepening. Barack Obama is meeting with President Nieto in Mexico this week to try to bolster cross-border economic relations.
Morales, meanwhile, threatens to isolate Bolivia with needless intimidation. He has already had the constitution amended to enable him to serve another term (something Chavez also did), angered the indigenous groups he always reminds people he hails from, and driven away foreign investment by the unprofitable nationalisation of key industries.
Morales does not have the charisma of Chavez; nor does he have the Venezuelan oil money. Instead, he is becoming a laughable figure preying on people’s fears of a resurrection of America’s historical role in the region, without recourse to facts. The only people he can harm are the Bolivians themselves.