Goodbye to Bolivia’s unlikely ambassador, former journalist Gustavo GuzmÃ¡n.
Evo Morales and Hugo ChÃ¡vez have just endorsed their candidates for the U.S. elections. Their choice is John McCain and Sarah Palin. They appear to hope not just that McCain wins, but that he puts the Republican Party’s hardest line back in control of U.S. policy toward Latin America.
This may be a counter-intuitive statement, but the reasoning behind it is not. With Bolivia’s and Venezuela’s expulsions of U.S. ambassadors on Wednesday and Thursday, Morales and ChÃ¡vez dealt a major setback to the moderates in the U.S. policy debate.
Who are this week’s losers? They are those who favor continued contact, cooperation and dialogue; those who have sought to maintain bilateral relationships on a serious, adult level; those who have abstained from “taking the bait” and responding to provocative statements. These moderates include:
- The foreign-policy professionals who took over stewardship of the Bush administration’s Latin America policy after the departure of ideological political appointees Otto Reich and Roger Noriega. (Thomas Shannon at State, Stephen Johnson at Defense, and Ambassador Patrick Duddy in Venezuela are pragmatic “grown-ups,” not fire-breathing neocons.)
- Top advisors to the Obama campaign.
- Some congressional committee staff from both parties.
- NGO analysts who support diplomacy over gratuitous confrontation, including CIP. We support dialogue with adversaries, even unpopular scenarios like humanitarian exchange dialogues with the FARC, so of course we oppose a breakoff in bilateral diplomatic contacts with Bolivia and Venezuela.
- Officials we have known at the Bolivian and Venezuelan embassies who have sought to downplay the rhetoric from the top and keep channels of contact open.
- (This list does not include the White House, where Drug Czar John Walters has attacked Venezuela and Bolivia’s drug-interdiction failures while downplaying or ignoring those of friendlier governments in Colombia and Peru, and where President Bush has sought to sell the Colombia Free-Trade Agreement by portraying Venezuela as a national-security threat.)
The above groups have little in common, and often disagree sharply on issues like free trade, military assistance, human rights and the U.S. role in the region as a whole. But they have coincided in their advocacy of an approach to elected “leftist” leaders based on avoidance of unnecessary provocation, proportional responses, dialogue, search for common ground, and insistence on facts instead of rumors or spin. They also have in common that they suffered a blow this week. If you believe that it is rarely a good idea to break off communications channels with adversaries, and worry that a lack of contact often leads to further radicalization and conflict, then you have had a bad week too.
Don’t believe for a moment that either expulsion had anything to do with an imminent danger of aggression from a waning U.S. administration already in way over its head in the Middle East and with Russia. What we have here are two leaders badly in need of an external threat to rally their domestic bases at a volatile political moment. In Bolivia, anti-government and separatist violence in eastern provinces is reaching truly alarming proportions, as supporters of local leaders who won the August recall referendum are illegally trying to make half the country ungovernable for a president who also handily won the August referendum. In Venezuela, municipal and gubernatorial elections are coming up. While supporters of President ChÃ¡vez are likely to make gains, the government remains stung by its unexpected loss in a December 2007 constitutional reform referendum.
This is a moment when both leaders could badly use a strong, radical, angry, irrational U.S. over-reaction to help them rally their bases behind them. They need to sharpen the contradictions. They need Washington to step up and play the role that it so faithfully played for the Castro brothers in Cuba for fifty years: that of an aggressor appearing to be obsessed with their overthrow and constantly plotting to carry it out.
For the most part, those who have run the administration’s policy since 2006 or so have not obliged them. They have refused to play this role. Provocations like meetings with Iran, arms purchases from Russia, kind words for the FARC, or cancellations of USAID programs have met with little more than mild expressions of concern. Which is all they deserve.
That is not good enough, clearly, for these leaders to energize their supporters. So both presidents took it up a notch this week by expelling their U.S. ambassadors.
In the United States, the State Department’s tit-for-tat response was predictable. It is a shame, though, to see the departure of Bolivian Ambassador Gustavo GuzmÃ¡n, a pragmatist who was by no means an attack dog. GuzmÃ¡n seemed to place high value on the relationships he had built with Assistant Secretary Shannon and other officials. He also appeared to support the idea of President Morales visiting Washington, which Morales has not done during his presidency. But GuzmÃ¡n is gone, and a main channel of communication has been cut.
This week’s crisis may help rally both presidents’ bases, for a time at least. But the expulsions’ timing, 54 days before the U.S. elections, is no accident either.
This week’s crisis is an investment in guaranteeing a continued U.S. hard line toward Bolivia and Venezuela. Doing so would require the defeat of Barack Obama, whose promise of a less confrontational, not-taking-the-bait approach is of no use to them. They want McCain and his hard liners to bring U.S. policy back to the open hostility of George W. Bush’s first term. And with this week’s actions, they have given the McCain-Palin campaign more red meat for its “country first” foreign policy rhetoric.
These “leftist” leaders have just contributed their grain of sand to the McCain-Palin campaign’s election effort. And their message to the moderates and pragmatists is clear: get out of the way.