Why Obama Should Meet With Morales

The ratification by popular referendum of Bolivia’s constitution has given President Barack Obama an opportunity to rebuild frayed relations with a nation that perceives itself to be a long-suffering victim of U.S. policies.

Even with a broken economy to mend and many other geopolitical priorities, Obama should meet with Bolivian President Evo Morales in his first 100 days in office. Rapprochement with Bolivia based on mutual respect and non-interference would send a signal to Latin America’s many skeptics that the Obama administration intends to break from an inglorious past and forge a more constructive U.S. policy in the region.

In December 2005, Morales became Bolivia’s first indigenous president, after promising to hold a Constituent Assembly that would rewrite the constitution and “refound” the Bolivian state. Bolivia is the Western Hemisphere’s second poorest country and one of the world’s most unequal. Today, approximately 100 families own 12.5 million acres of land, compared with the remaining 2 million Bolivians, who crowd onto 2.5 million acres. Much of this land is concentrated in Santa Cruz, a province with local leadership especially hostile to Morales and the land reforms. The conflict over land — its seizure, ownership, exploitation, and reallocation — has been a key element in many of these dramatic shifts of power.

Land reform is the cornerstone of Bolivia’s new constitution, along with provisions that would finally grant the indigenous majority equal rights. Land reform disputes have the potential to destabilize Bolivia and seriously hinder foreign direct investment. Yet it’s the ethical choice in Bolivia, where the chasm between the haves and the have-nots is so wide. The United States should support land reform bounded by law and insulated from politics while encouraging the Morales government to address many of the structural problems that have impeded previous reform efforts. Weak rule of law, an impotent judiciary, endemic corruption, and social unrest will undermine successful agrarian reform. Bolivia’s Constitutional Tribunal — the highest constitutional authority in the land, akin to the U.S. Supreme Court — has been suspended, leading to a dangerous vacuum of legal authority. In its absence, the state could in essence redefine the limits of its own power to justify questionable land seizures. The plight of Bolivia’s landless might be improved, but at the cost of the rule of law.

Dismal Relations

Unfortunately, the United States has no means to influence this process and help guide Bolivia toward equity and prosperity. Diplomatic relations are at an all-time low. Morales set the tone for political polarization in his inaugural speech, where he promised Bolivia’s indigenous majority that, “we will take power for 500 years.” Populist majoritarianism reigns supreme, while the executive seldom takes responsibility for policy failures, choosing to blame foreign conspiracies for economic woes. In this politically sensitive climate, there is a risk that Bolivia will be drawn into the war of words between the United States and Venezuela, which in its latest manifestation had Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez accusing Obama of having the “same stench” as former President George W. Bush following Obama’s criticism of Chavez during a Univision interview.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia has shown more interest in counseling regional leaders and business elites who have been threatening to secede than serving as a good faith mediator between the parties in conflict. After a series of blunders, including an embassy official’s exhortations to Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar to keep an eye out for Cubans and Venezuelans, both the U.S. Ambassador and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency were thrown out of the country last year, while the U.S. Agency for International Development was expelled from the coca-producing Chapare region. Morales recently encouraged his fellow Latin American leaders to follow suit.

With so much bad blood, some commentators claim that the United States has “lost” Bolivia. When the head of state routinely leads cheers of “Death to the Yankees” before crowds of thousands, is there any common ground to stand on? The answer is yes, but a new approach is needed. At a recent visit to New York’s Columbia University, Morales expressed hope that relations with the United States would improve with Obama’s election and emphasized their analogous rise to power from historically marginalized communities. The symbolism of the first indigenous Bolivian President and the first African-American U.S. President shaking hands would not be lost on the millions of young people across Latin America who are losing their faith in American-style democracy.

Equal Partner

However, deep divides remain. Morales has spoken much more forcefully and in much more detail about the new powers that the state will gain through the new constitution than the limitations to those new powers. Obama should publicly acknowledge that the United States supports Bolivia’s historic constitutional process, but be firm in privately insisting that Morales should immediately reactivate the constitutional tribunal and pledge himself to abstain from political interference in their interpretation of the law.

Bolivia is on the frontlines of the war on drugs. Yet heavy-handed U.S. policies have alienated successive Bolivian governments, who must reconcile 5,000-year-old traditional coca use and the 21st-century scourge of narcotics. Although Morales has insisted he will never allow the Drug Enforcement Agency back into Bolivia, he has indicated that the Organization of American States could be empowered to certify

Bolivian compliance in counternarcotics efforts. Starting from this common ground, Obama should explore new policy options that treat Bolivia as a trusted and equal partner. In drug policy, as in all diplomacy, humility is key. To demonstrate that the United States will be a good-faith partner, Obama should reverse Bush’s decision to remove Bolivia as a beneficiary country under the Andean Trade Preference Act and the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act.

Today, the U.S. is rudderless in Bolivia, but not without options. A revitalized U.S. policy that helps Bolivia realize its potential will set the stage for the resurrection of U.S. prestige in a region where it’s deeply unpopular.

Joshua Gross, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is earning a Master’s degree at the Fletcher School in Law and Diplomacy.