Socialists around the world have their own traditions for celebrating “International Workers’ Day,” and Evo Morales is no exception. Each year, the Bolivian leader uses May 1 to make a big announcement, typically regarding the military-backed seizure of a given industry or company. In 2006, during his first May Day as president, he nationalized his country’s enormous natural gas reserves. Since then, he has grabbed control oftelecom companies, energy companies, and more. On May 1, 2012, he had Bolivian troops seize an electricity firm (owned by the Spanish multinational REE) that operates most of his nation’s power lines.
This year, Morales took a different approach: Instead of announcing the confiscation of economic assets, he announced the expulsion of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Without citing any evidence, Morales accused the agency of having conspired “against our people and especially the national government.” He also denounced Secretary of State John Kerry for referring to Latin America as “our backyard,” and said that expelling USAID would effectively nationalize “the dignity of the Bolivian people.” A State Department spokesman quickly dismissed his allegations as “baseless and unfounded.”
Of course, Morales has a longstanding habit of making such “baseless and unfounded” charges. In March, for example, when Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez died of cancer after a long struggle, Morales said he was “virtually sure“ that Chávez had been poisoned by the United States. Two years earlier, in July 2011, Morales declared that he was afraid to travel to America for a United Nations meeting because U.S. officials might attempt to plant incriminating evidence on his presidential plane. (“I think they have to be preparing something.”) When he kicked the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) out of Bolivia in 2008, he explainedhis decision by saying, “There were DEA agents who worked to conduct political espionage and to fund criminal groups so they could launch attacks on the lives of authorities, if not the president.” When he expelled U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg that same year, Morales accused him of “conspiring against democracy and seeking the division of Bolivia.”
So it’s not surprising that the Bolivian leader is once again behaving like a thuggish, conspiracy-minded autocrat. Nor is it surprising that he targeted USAID: After all, Bolivia belongs to the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), and in June 2012 ALBA urged all member countries to “immediately expel USAID and its delegates or representatives.” Cuba has been detaining a USAID contractor, Alan Gross, since December 2009 (indeed, the Communist regime has sentenced Gross, who is 64, to 15 years in prison), and Chávez acolyte Rafael Correa has been threatening to expel the agency from Ecuador. (We might also recall that Vladimir Putin booted USAID from Russia last September.)
Morales doesn’t seem to care about alienating the U.S. government. For that matter, he probably considered it a personal victory when, on May 23, State Department official William Brownfield announced that the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs would be closing its Bolivia office. Morales has a long history of working to undermine U.S.-led anti-drug efforts, both before and during his presidency. He became head of the powerful Bolivian coca growers’ union back in 1996, and he was reelected to that position in 2012. His alliance with the cocaleros and his fierce hostility toward the United States have made it significantly harder for Bolivia to curb drug trafficking.
That is bad news for Bolivians, because their country is now facing a surge of drug-related violence, and they have never been more in need of U.S. support.
As I mentioned earlier, Morales expelled the DEA in 2008. Since then, notes a recent State Department report, Bolivia has “‘failed demonstrably’ to make sufficient efforts to meet its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.” According to U.S. figures, cocaine production in the South American country grew by 29 percent between 2010 and 2011. Along with Peru and Colombia, Bolivia is one of the three biggest cocaine producers in the world. It also shares a 2,100-mile border with Brazil, which is the world’s second-largest cocaine consumer.
Back in March, InSight Crime analyst Miriam Wells reported that Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city, was experiencing “a rising crime wave” that had prompted the governor of Santa Cruz department (which includes the city) to declare a state of emergency. A month later, the top U.N. anti-drug official in Bolivia warned that the landlocked nation was at risk of suffering “grave levels of violence linked to narcotrafficking.” Around the same time, Bolivian media outlets broadcast a horrifying security-camera video that showed a man being hunted down and shot to death on a Santa Cruz street in broad daylight.
In a subsequent New York Times article discussing the video and the crime wave, Santa Cruz department interior secretary Vladimir Peña described the full scope of the problem. “Today, what we are seeing is this: organized crime, mafias, drug trafficking, dirty money, weapons, and this undoubtedly is going to rapidly increase the levels of criminality,” Peña told the Times. “We are seeing an increase in the number of homicides on the one hand and, second, what we are seeing is the level of cruelty.”
Solving the problem will be quite difficult. It doesn’t help that Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America, is bitterly divided along political, geographic, ethnic, and racial lines. Santa Cruz lies in the eastern lowlands region, which is the wealthier and more conservative part of the country, and is home to many mixed-race mestizos and white Bolivians. It is the main power center of the anti-Morales opposition. By contrast, the city of La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital, sits 12,000 feet above sea level in the western highlands, where most indigenous Bolivians live. Many Santa Cruz residents feel that their cityand its crime waveis being neglected by Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, who has repeatedly tried to reduce Santa Cruz’s political and economic clout.
Meanwhile, with the aid of his country’s natural-resource wealth, Morales continues to transform Bolivia into a mini-Venezuela. He has trampled checks and balances, persecuted his opponents, encouraged mob violence, and seized private companies. On April 29, the Morales-allied Bolivian constitutional court ruled that he could legally seek a third term in office, even though the national constitution says that presidents cannot serve more than two terms. (The court’s reasoning was that Morales had been elected to his first term under the old constitution. Bolivia enacted a new one in 2009.)
Morales may prefer to govern as an anti-American autocrat. But to prevent drug trafficking and drug-related violence from spiraling out of control, he will need U.S. support.