The re-election of Bolivian President Evo Morales to a third term is a stark reminder of Washington’s self-inflicted irrelevance south of the border.
In 2006, Morales became the first indigenous president of Bolivia, a country where native peoples make up nearly two-thirds of the population.
His life history is itself a story about U.S. policy blunders in Latin America.
Fresh out of high school, he was conscripted into the army of Gen. Hugo Banzer, one of the many brutal military dictators that Washington propped up across South America during the 1970s.
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After his military service, Morales settled in Bolivia’s tropical lowlands, the only place his family could afford land. At the time, the country became a laboratory for the package of radical free-market reforms that were eventually adopted throughout Latin America at Washington’s insistence. As elsewhere, the results in Bolivia were disastrous.
Morales watched as a mass exodus of laid-off workers flooded into the lowlands looking for opportunities, as these so-called reforms brought on an economic crisis.
Like Morales, these homesteaders began growing the only viable crop in the area: coca. Used for millennia by local indigenous groups for a number of household purposes, the coca plant is also the raw material of cocaine.
As coca cultivation spread, Bolivia’s lowlands became ground zero for the U.S. war on drugs.
Protesting against the resulting human rights abuses, Morales became well known as an outspoken community organizer. After several failed runs, he finally won the presidency in 2006.
Morales vowed to assert state control over the country’s newfound resource wealth and redirect its riches to improve the lives of its impoverished indigenous majority. He also promised to overturn the most harmful aspects of the U.S. war on drugs.
Despite U.S. resistance on both fronts, he kept these promises.
After nationalizing the oil and gas industries, the Morales administration invested in social programs and a number of job-creating infrastructure projects. Poverty has been reduced by 25 percent since he took office, and extreme poverty has been reduced by 43 percent, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Rather than following the militarized U.S. approach of trying to completely eradicate coca, Morales moved to regulate its production, recognizing the many local cultural uses that have nothing to do with cocaine.
According to the United Nations, by including local communities in the regulation of the crop, the government has reduced the amount of land cultivated with coca by more than 25 percent.
Despite these evident gains, the Obama White House claims Bolivia has “failed demonstrably” in combating the drug trade. The move effectively blocks U.S. aid to the country, South America’s poorest.
But U.S. hostility has not crippled Bolivia, as Morales has found allies outside of Washington’s orbit.
The days of Washington bullying its southern neighbors with impunity are over — in no small part thanks to leaders like Morales.
Teo Ballve is a fellow of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2014 Teo Ballve