The U.S. Should Remake Its Relationship with Bolivia

Author: Bo Carlson, Research Intern (Summer 2020), Center for Strategic and International Studies

Last Sunday, Bolivia’s socialist presidential candidate won in a landslide victory. After a tumultuous year in Bolivian politics, involving electoral manipulation, an alleged coup, and an interim president who overstayed her welcome, President-Elect Luís Arce presents the country with a serious chance of stability. By taking a conciliatory approach toward Arce, the U.S. can best pursue its interests in Latin America.

As in other parts of Latin America, the U.S. has historically aligned itself with conservative forces in Bolivia. In the Cold War, American officials propped up anti-communist hardliners, unburdened by electoral accountability. During the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years, the U.S. routinely favored politicians on the right, who were more likely to approve market-based reforms recommended by the IMF and World Bank.

The U.S.’ outspoken preference for conservatives frequently backfired. In 2002, when top American officials threatened to withdraw aid from Bolivia if voters selected left-wing Evo Morales for president, Morales rose from fourth in the polls to a second place finish. Morales later joked that the U.S. ambassador was his best campaign manager, and he went on to win in 2006.

Evo Morales oversaw sustained economic growth and greater inclusion of indigenous groups. At the same time, he sought a constitutionally barred fourth term in 2019, and his management of the election was subject to credible accusations of manipulation. After a military official “suggested” that Morales leave office last November, he and his colleagues resigned in quick succession. The role of the U.S. in what many analysts label a coup remains in doubt, and Trump’s steadfast support of interim president Jeanine Áñez has drawn sharp criticism from advocates of human rights.

After Luís Arce’s victory in last Sunday’s election, a new approach is needed for U.S. diplomacy in Bolivia.

First, the U.S. should use its relationships with conservative leaders in Bolivia to guarantee a peaceful transition of power. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement recognizing the “new, democratically elected government” was a step in the right direction, as was Áñez’s tweet congratulating Arce. However, right-wing politician Luís Fernando Camacho continues to dispute the results, and anti-socialist protests in his home state of Santa Cruz now threaten to turn violent. To the extent that the U.S. diplomats hold sway over Camacho and his supporters, they should urge caution.

Second, American diplomats should encourage the president-elect to preserve Morales’ legacy while avoiding the former president’s excesses. Luís Arce previously served as Morales’ economy minister, simultaneously reducing poverty, curbing inflation, and increasing growth through a mix of market- and state-based policies. His more recent behavior has been encouraging as well. Last Monday, Arce promised a “government of national unity,” and in a subsequent interview, he noted that “If Evo Morales wants to help us, he would be more than welcome; but that doesn’t mean he’ll be part of the government.” By welcoming Arce’s gestures toward the center, the U.S. can preserve political stability in Bolivia while finding agreement on issues of mutual concern.

Third, U.S. policymakers should accept that an Arce government will not agree with their preferences on every issue—particularly in Venezuela. Shortly after his election, Arce noted that he would resume diplomatic relations with the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro. U.S. leaders from both sides of the aisle have recognized National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, and a series of sanctions imposed by the Obama and Trump administrations have sought to isolate Maduro’s government. While Arce’s support for Maduro will be a thorn in the side of U.S. policy toward Venezuela, it is neither vital to the Maduro regime’s survival, nor should it eclipse other concerns in the U.S.-Bolivia relationship.

Maduro has powerful backers in Russia, China, Cuba, Iran, and Turkey. Moscow, Beijing, and Havana’s support, and perhaps that of Tehran and Ankara, matters far more to Maduro than approval from a weak and internally divided Bolivia. When dealing with Bolivia, the U.S. should prioritize areas of cooperation, with Venezuela as one of several topics for discussion.

The United States’ diplomatic history in Bolivia is a fraught one, and the U.S. government’s reputation is now even weaker after last year’s political chaos. Arce’s victory presents an important chance for U.S. diplomats to remake their relationship with Bolivia; they should not pass on the opportunity.

Bo Carlson is a contributor to the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a DC-based think tank. He is a summa cum laude graduate of Duke University, and he previously worked at the Organization of American States.

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