May 02, 2008
WASHINGTON -- When Bolivia's Evo Morales was elected the Western Hemisphere's first indigenous president of a country with an indigenous majority, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez wasted no time proclaiming himself an ally.
Now, as four of Bolivia's richest provinces prepare to vote in referendums to declare their autonomy from the central government in La Paz, Morales might be wondering if his cozy relationship with Chavez has become his millstone.
Bolivians have long complained about foreigners meddling in their affairs. Yet Chavez has taken meddling to a new level. Since Day One of Morales' presidency, Chavez has wrapped Morales in his arms -- literally and figuratively -- with little care for the consequences in Bolivia.
Chavez's engagement quickly moved beyond the famous man-hug photo-op at Morales' inauguration. He has put cash directly in the hands of Morales, by many accounts as much as $80 million last year alone. Morales in turn has happily appeared throughout the country passing out checks to mayors and other local leaders.
This festival of giving seems to have no clear long-term development objective. Rather, it is seen as a brazen campaign to buy political support -- sometimes to comic effect: One mayor, according to Bolivian media, took a $45,000 check from Morales and fled the country.
The fast cash, though, is clearly corrupting more than just a single mayor. Jaime Aparicio, former Bolivian ambassador to Washington, told me he fears that Chavez's interference is distorting an already chaotic and challenging situation. Normally, Aparicio said, "when you need funds, you negotiate." But with Chavez's generosity, Morales has had little need to engage his opponents. Instead, he buys support and thus undermines a fundamental process of democracy.
While Morales might have thought he was shoring up support for his social revolution, he was in fact alienating what could be the engine of such a revolution: the eastern provinces responsible for 64 percent of the country's gross domestic product. The provinces have long complained about the central government's use of their wealth. But after a draft constitution giving more power to Morales was approved late last year without the opposition present, provincial leaders decided they would make it clear they don't need Morales either.
On Sunday, Santa Cruz province will hold the first of the referendums, even though the country's constitution does not recognize such a vote. Juan Carlos Rocha, director of the conservative Bolivian daily La Razon, pointed out that "there is no doubt that (the referendum) is illegal." Yet, he added, illegality is hardly an obstacle now that the government has shown that "the law is no longer a reference for what is acceptable and what isn't."
The referendums are expected to pass, but there is disagreement over what they will actually accomplish. Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas has said that there will be a "second republic" in Bolivia starting Monday. But others predict that the referendums will mostly serve to strengthen the position of the provinces in a political tug of war that is unlikely to lead to true secession.
The crisis raises the question of whether Morales has irreparably squandered the opportunity that 54 percent of Bolivian voters gave him in December 2005. He rode into office on a wave of anti-American sentiment that had brought down the presidency of Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada in 2003. Now his legacy depends on how he responds to the current power struggle with the provinces, a confrontation with ethnic and economic overtones that could lead to violence.
Bolivia was already near the breaking point when the Sanchez government failed. Two decades of aggressive economic reforms and strict fiscal discipline, implemented at Washington's urging, had failed to overcome the country's persistent poverty. Forced eradication programs, conducted as part of U.S.-funded anti-drug initiatives, enraged the nation's coca growers, who saw cultivation of the crop as their cultural right.
The anti-American sentiment was so high that the U.S. ambassador gave an unwitting boost to Morales, then the coca growers' leader, when he warned Bolivians against voting for Morales in the 2002 presidential election. Morales seemed to surprise even himself when he finished second in that contest.
As someone who once benefited from anti-meddling sentiment, Morales should be the first to recognize the risks of such a close association with Chavez, who has aligned himself with the Castro brothers in Cuba and promoted leftist causes in this hemisphere and beyond. Bolivian experience tells us that interference eventually backfires and gives more impetus to the opposition.