“What I have here is the map of the imperial occupation of Bolivia,” said a high official of Evo Morales’s government, speaking at a conference in which I participated last week in La Paz. He held up a map of Bolivia depicting the country’s hundreds of municipalities (counties), which the majority of them shaded in. “The few white parts of the map are all that are left to us.”
Was he showing us a map of U.S. military deployments, or security-force units that get U.S. aid? No. It turned out to be a map ofÂ locations in Bolivia where the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has recently funded projects.
USAID has come under heavy fire from the Morales government for allegedly channeling resources to the political opposition, and even to separatist movements in eastern Bolivia. Last week, Morales urged leaders of coca-growing communities to reject USAID funding: “It is not possible that some of our compaÃ±eros, former and current leaders are behind USAID when they have carried out a permanent campaign against Evo, against the government and against change.”
Yesterday, leaders of the coca-growers’ federations in the central region of Chapare – where USAID has spent over US$100 million on alternative-development projects – took Morales’s advice. They announced that they would no longer participate in USAID programs, and set about taking down signs bearing the agency’s logo posted near development projects’ sites. (USAID was already drawing down its projects in the Chapare region anyway, while increasing its alternative-development expenditure in the Yungas coca-growing region, near La Paz.)
The U.S. government has been generally restrained, but still has given the Morales government few incentives to moderate its tone. USAID programs in Bolivia do suffer from a lack of transparency about their final recipients, which has opened them to accusations that may or may not be unfounded. (Are these potable water projects, or “technical assistance” for opposition movements?) The agency’s handling of assistance to municipal governments in the Chapare, whose mayors are members of the ruling MAS party, has been ham-handed: projects begun with the mayors in 2004 had their funding abruptly frozen in 2006. Washington’s granting of asylum to former President Gonzalo SÃ¡nchez de Lozada, who ordered a violent crackdown on protesters in 2003, is a key anti-U.S. rallying point for the Morales government.
Even Condoleezza Rice’s recent words to the Wall Street Journal editorial board – “The Bolivian regime is the problem” – were a gift to the hard-liners in the pro-government ranks. None of this does anything to encourage or embolden moderates in the MAS who would support dialogue and cooperation with the U.S. government. Instead, it isolates them.
From energy policy to Gonzalo SÃ¡nchez de Lozada to the drug war, there will be many issues distancing Washington and La Paz. Even against this contentious backdrop, though, Bolivia’s prioritization of USAID projects is still puzzling.
Seen from Washington, it is an odd choice of target.
If Bolivia wanted to break ties with the U.S. military and stop the flow of military and police aid, it would require a years-long struggle against stiff opposition from the Bolivian security forces and the U.S. defense establishment (among other U.S. agencies that carry out the war on drugs).
By contrast, funding from USAID is far more fragile. With a little pushback, it could be zeroed out in little more than an instant as those monies are reassigned elsewhere in the developing world. Is this truly the outcome that the Bolivian government seeks?