by Ian Driscoll
Bolivia has made incredible strides under President Evo Morales, successfully combating illiteracy, child mortality rates, unemployment and poverty. But in the United States, Morales is continually portrayed as a dangerous dictator, bent on subverting the interests of the United States in the region. This article asks two questions: What are the reasons behind this negative portrayal, and what may lie ahead for the South American democracy?
Evo Morales, the first Aymara President of Bolivia, was elected to office in 2006. He handily defeated a 2008 referendum recall with two thirds of the vote, and in 2009 won reelection to the Presidency with 64% of the popular vote, representing a strong mandate from the people.
Born into an impoverished household in 1959, he and his family were subsistence farmers, scratching out a living on a small piece of land and residing in an adobe home with dirt floors and a straw roof. He was one of seven siblings, though only he and two others would survive childhood.
His first taste of political activism came in the early 80s, after joining the coca grower’s union (not to be confused with cocaine, a very different, chemically constituted refinement of specific varieties of the coca plant). He rose through the ranks, and was eventually elected to the position of General Secretary in the early 90s.
He joined the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo or Movement for Socialism) political party in the late 90s, continuing as an advocate for the rights of coca growers and indigenous campesinos. He was elected to Congress in 1997, but kicked out by the majority for supporting armed opposition to the “innumerable amount of abuses and assassinations” committed by government troops under a recently passed coca eradication plan. The plan, widely viewed as initiated by the United States (which, since the early 90s, has funded Bolivian eradication measures to the tune of roughly 150M per year), was intensely unpopular among the farmers which Evo represented. Morales responded to his expulsion by submitting an official complaint to the Bolivian Constitutional Tribunal, and declared:
“I was the congressman with the highest proportion of votes for his area and ‘obeying an order from the US’ they voted to expel me from Congress. It is only recently that the constitutional court finally declared the whole farce illegal, and now they are having to pay compensation for what they did.”
In 2005, Morales was elected to the Presidency with 54% of the popular vote, taking office in 2006. And in 2008 he fared even better, receiving a record majority of 64% of the vote, while his main opponent received an underwhelming 27%.
As a man favored by the people, who has made incredible headway in confronting some of Bolivia’s most systemic problems, and clearly commands the respect of the vast majority of the Bolivian population, why is Morales demonized in the American media?
Some have suggested that it’s his success.
Economic and Social Achievements
Between 2005 and 2010, the percentage of people living in “moderate poverty” declined by almost 12%, decreasing from 60% to 49.6%. The percentage of Bolivians living in extreme poverty also declined, from 38% to 25%. Unemployment fell from 8.4% to 4%, as well, and it’s economy has increased at an average rate of 4.5% every year since Morales took office.
Additionally, internal consumption of “electricity, purified water and domestic gas” has increased by 7% thanks to income redistribution, expanding access to basic services.
Bolivia was declared free of illiteracy under Morales as well. UNESCO standards dictate that a county is free of illiteracy if 96% of its population over the age of 15 can read and write. After taking office in 2006, Morales launched an ambitious, 30 month literacy program that was designed by Cuba (designated illiteracy free in 1961, two years after Castro took office), and paid for by Venezuela (free of illiteracy in 2005, under Hugo Chavez). The United States, on the other hand, may have much lower literacy rates than previously believed. A study released in 2003 entitled the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, suggests that literacy rates in the U.S. range anywhere from 65-85%.
According the UNDP (United Nations Development Program), Bolivia has also used the highest percentage of its GNP of all countries in Latin America for the advancement of the poor, “transferring resources to its most vulnerable population”.
And all of this has been achieved while the western world has suffered through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
So why would any of this make Morales unpopular in North America? Well, the results aren’t the problem, really. It’s the method that worries Uncle Sam.
Bolivia has achieved all of the success noted above by ignoring what’s known as the Washington Consensus, an unwritten list of economic commandments that America has imposed upon its neighbors since the Regan administration. This is known, in other parts of the world, as neoliberalism.
Without embarking on a thorough study of the Washington Consensus (or, neoliberalism), the main tenets of the economic dogma are as follows:
- The rule of the market — freedom for capital, goods and services, where the market is self-regulating allowing the “trickle down” notion of wealth distribution. It also includes the deunionizing of labor forces and removals of any impediments to capital mobility, such as regulations. The freedom is from the state, or government.
- Reducing public expenditure for social services, such as health and education, by the government
- Deregulation, to allow market forces to act as a self-regulating mechanism
- Privatization of public enterprise (things from water to even the internet)
- Changing perceptions of public and community good to individualism and individual responsibility.
Deregulation, the breakdown of labor laws, the focus on the individual rather than the community, all these things are familiar to the American reader, and at least some have argued that they were directly responsible for the world economic collapse which began in late 2007.
For years, Bolivia was pressured by international monetary organizations like the World Bank and the IMF to privatize its natural resources. This culminated in the 2001 sale of the Cochabamba region’s water supply to a private, U.S. corporation called Bechtel, which promptly declared it illegal for the Bolivian poor to collect rain water in buckets on their roofs, claiming ownership of even the water which fell from the sky. Riots ensued, and Bechtel was eventually forced out.
Bolivia under Morales, on the other hand, embarked on a program diametrically opposed to the basic beliefs embodied in the Washington Consensus:
Evo Morales’s government did the opposite of what the Washington Consensus recommends: it nationalised hydrocarbons, electricity, telecommunications and mining; renegotiated the presence of direct foreign investment in the country; implemented an expansive fiscal policy and closed borders to the free importation of economically strategic products. The state took 34% of the economy under its control.
Morales has made clear that he’s interested in creating a new economic system, one based upon community and mutual respect, not just for one’s fellow human beings, but for the planet upon which we all live. Morales has stated:
“We don’t believe in the linear, cumulative conception of progress and of an unlimited development at the cost of other people and of nature. To live well is to think not only in terms of per capita income, but of cultural identity, community, harmony among ourselves and with Mother Earth.”
To that end, he went so far as to pass the world’s first piece of legislation granting nature rights equal to those of human beings. The Law of Mother Earth, as it is called, granted to nature 11 hard and fast rights, including: “the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.” The U.N. General Assembly named Morales “World Hero of Mother Earth” in recognition of the historic law, but the United States and its corporate interests aren’t happy:
…there is a great deal of opposition from powerful sectors, particularly mining and agro-industrial enterprises, to any ecological laws that would threaten profits. The main organization of soya producers, which claimed that the law “will make the productive sector inviable,” is one of many powerful groups who have already come out against the law.
And the threat to profits isn’t all that the U.S. is upset about. The defiance of the Washington Consensus clearly indicates a radical shift away from America dominated domestic policy.
And this isn’t an isolated case. In recent years, there has arisen a wave of leftist leaders openly hostile to the economic demands of Washington D.C. and its international banking arms. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, the Kirchners of Argentina, Lula in Brazil, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, and of course the omnipresent Fidel Castro who is widely recognized as the grandfather of the entire movement. These leaders represent a united front against what they perceive as a kind of economic colonialism advanced by the United States of America for the last 70 years.
But Washington isn’t sitting on its hands. In the last decade, there have been numerous coup and assassination attempts directed at several of the leaders listed above, many of which are directly linked to CIA activity and corporate interests in the region.
The most recent and widely publicized attempt at assassinating Evo Morales came in 2009, when three men were shot dead by Bolivian police at a hotel in Santa Cruz.
Morales, who had gone to Venezuela to meet with President Hugo Chavez, had ordered their arrest prior to departing. The police had entered the hotel at which the men were staying at around 4 in the morning. A firefight ensued, and along with the bodies of the three men in question, a large cache of weapons and high explosive devices were recovered.
President Morales publicly speculated as to whether or not the U.S. Embassy in La Paz may have been behind the assassination plot, calling on President Obama to repudiate the actions of the would-be assassins. Obama, for his part, said that he was “unfamiliar with the incident but assured Morales that his administration was not involved.”
However, facts that emerged in the years following the attempted assassination seem to indicate that the CIA, at the very least, had direct and detailed knowledge of the plot to kill Morales, and may have even been actively working with the plotters.
The three men who were killed during the firefight in April of 2009 were all foreigners, one of them an Irishman named Michael Dwyer with a background in private security, who had traveled to Bolivia under the pretense of a “security training program”.
The other two men were named as Eduardo Rosza Flores (Hungarian-Bolivian head of a paramilitary organization and ringleader of the plot), as well as Magyarosi Arpak (Romanian).
Dwyer worked at a Shell Oil compound in County Mayo, Ireland, and Rosza and Dwyer had a mutual friend (commander of a Romanian paramilitary group, the Szekler Legion) who was still employed by Shell’s security services at the time of the 2009 shooting. Both worked specifically for the IRMS (Integrated Risk Management Service), the internal security component of Shell Oil Company, known for employing violent thugs and criminals to protect Shell’s global interests. IRMS was created by the “US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to protect Queen Beatrix’s holdings in Iraq after her company was given the rights to Iraq’s vast oil and gas fields in what is described as a ‘no bid contract’ by the Bush Administration.”
Additionally, in 2011, a cable made public in a Wikileaks dump and written by John S. Creamer, Charge D’ Affaires at the US Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia revealed that Marcelo Soza, the Bolivian prosecutor in charge of investigating the plot to assassinate Morales, had found evidence of email correspondence between Rosza and a CIA operative who had since died. The body of the cable reads as follows:
Marcelo Soza, the prosecutor in charge of investigating the April 2009 Rozsa case, announced February 5 that a review of Rozsa’s computer hard drive had uncovered evidence of email communication between Rozsa and an alleged ex-CIA employee (a U.S. citizen named Belovays). According to Soza, Belovays had been active in the Balkans wars, where he supposedly met Rozsa and became his mentor. An internet search on Belovays suggested that he has since died, Soza reported (Rozsa and two others were killed in a police raid; another two suspects are in custody). Soza claimed that Rozsa’s computer files show that Rozsa was in constant contact with Belovays — who, Soza said, is assumed to have been in Bolivia at some point — and kept him informed of his group’s activities and plans.
It’s worth noting that in 2008, Morales had expelled the U.S. Ambassador, Philip Goldberg, from Bolivia, accusing him of “conspiring against democracy” and encouraging civil unrest.
Morales had also, upon being inaugurated in 2006, declared that his government would nationalize the oil companies in his country, including Royal Dutch Shell:
Morales ordered the nationalization of Bolivia’s oil and gas industry in a surprise decree on May 1, 2006. After six months of tense negotiations, the foreign companies were allowed to remain in the country but agreed to sell a controlling interest in their Bolivian operations to the state.
The forced government buyout of Shell Oil has led many to speculate that perhaps the IRMS was actively involved in the assassination attempt of 2009, and some have even gone so far as to suggest that Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands was aware of the plot.
Regardless of specifics, the involvement of Shell Oil in some capacity, as well as the CIA, seems beyond doubt. And the use and control of Bolivia’s national resources is sure to take center stage in the years to come.
The Coming War
President Obama just recently filed a trade complaint with the WTO regarding China’s restrictions on exportation of their rare earth minerals. Rare earth minerals (chief amongst which is lithium) are so named because they’re rarely found in pure form within the earth. They’re used to manufacture most of the technological devices we’ve become so reliant upon: “cell phones, solar cells, tablet computers, TVs, hybrid cars and wind turbines”.
China is currently producing about 95% of the world’s rare minerals, though they own only an estimated 30% of the world’s reserves:
China has only about 30 percent of the world’s known rare-earths deposits. But other countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia, stopped mining more than a decade ago, because the price of the Chinese-produced rare earths was cheaper.
This is because the extraction process entails incredibly costly and toxic procedures, which the United States and other western countries prefer to leave to China. However, as China tightens its grip on the market, the western world will be forced to resume mining, preferably externalizing the more detrimental aspects of extraction.
Recently, it was discovered that Afghanistan (which we’re already conveniently occupying), possesses some of the largest rare earth reserves in existence, totaling one million tons of rare earth minerals.
Some have speculated that it may be for this reason rather than any other that we’ve continued to occupy Afghanistan after leaving Iraq, despite the disproportionately small number of al-Qaeda fighters estimated to still exist in the country (about 100 at last estimate). And Christopher Ecclestone, mining strategist at Hallgarten & Company, has stated:
“I think there is a school of thought that if the US can find enough stuff in Afghanistan that we should stay. And frankly there are plenty of rare earths around in the world.”
Enter Bolivia. It is slowly coming to the world’s attention that Bolivia, the small, impoverished country in the middle of South America, possesses over half the world’s lithium reserves in its vast salt flats.
Lithium, one of the most sought after rare earth minerals, is used to power laptop computers, mobile phones, and increasingly, the electric car:
Mitsubishi, which plans to release its own electric car soon, estimates that the demand for lithium will outstrip supply in less than 10 years unless new sources are found.
And they have ended up in Bolivia.
“The demand for lithium won’t double but increase by five times,” according to Eichi Maeyama Mitsubishi’s general manager in La Paz.
“We will need more lithium sources – and 50% of the world’s reserves of lithium exist in Bolivia, in the Salar de Uyuni,” he adds, pointing out that without new production, the price of lithium will rise prohibitively.
Corporations fear that Bolivia will use their highly prized lithium reserves to their own advantage, and under Morales the chances of the country ceding control to U.S. (or any foreign) companies are slim.
Couple that with the fact that Bolivian oil reserves are the second largest on the continent (after Venezuela, proven oil reserves of which are the largest in the world), and there’s more than enough reason for western intervention in Bolivia.
In fact, under President Obama, the Special Operations budget (money funding clandestine military activities the world over) has increased by roughly 4.5B dollars:
Obama just requested an increase of 5.7% for the budget of Special Operations 2011. He asked for $ 6.3 billion, plus U.S. $ 3.5 billion extra for the contingency clandestine operations. For 2011, the total defense budget reaches U.S. $ 872 billion, U.S. with $75 billion to the intelligence community. There is money to spare.
And it’s recently emerged that Obama has deployed Special Forces troops to numerous regions around the world, focusing intently on South America:
The Venezuelan-American journalist, Eva Golinger, points out in a recent article, that the researcher Jeremy Scahill discovered that the administration of Barack Obama has sent teams of elite special forces under the Joint Special Operations Command, to Iran, Georgia, Ukraine, and also to Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Peru…The U.S. plans to destabilize governments that exist in several places. They are already prepared. Washington only waits for the moment to activate them. Golinger’s article refers to a top Pentagon military man who said that Obama is allowing many of the actions, strategies and operations that were not permitted during George W. Bush.
The U.S. history of military intervention in South America has generally favored covert operations to direct war, so it’s disconcerting to note that under the Obama administration, “irregular warfare” has been greatly expanded:
One senior military official told The Washington Post that the Obama administration has given the green light for “things that the previous administration did not.” Special operations commanders, the paper reports, have more direct access to the White House than they did under Bush. “We have a lot more access,” a military official told the paper. “They are talking publicly much less but they are acting more. They are willing to get aggressive much more quickly.”
“…we reserve the right to unilaterally act against al Qaeda and its affiliates anywhere in the world that they operate,” said one special forces source. The current mindset in the White House, he said, is that “the Pentagon is already empowered to do these things, so let JSOC off the leash. And that’s what this White House has done.” He added: “JSOC has been more empowered more under this administration than any other in recent history. No question…The world is the battlefield, we’ve returned to that,” he adds, referring to the Obama administration’s strategy. “We were moving away from it for a little bit, but…[i]t’s embraced by this administration.”
If the United States is successful in its bid for control of oil within the Middle East, one can be certain that the next region of the world scheduled for “clean up” is South America. Venezuela and Bolivia under Chavez and Morales are already being maligned as havens for terrorist groups, presumably as an excuse for military intervention to feed to the American people.
Should the global balance of power not shift prior to end of the inevitable war between Iran and the United States, should the prevailing paradigm remain one of “might means right”, then South America, and Bolivia specifically, will violently collide with American imperialism once again, as it did throughout the 20th century.