Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Visible reforms improves Morales' mandate

Poll results reported in Bolivia’s La Razon reveal that Evo Morales' approval rating has risen five percentage points during his first month in office - climbing from 74 percent before he assumed the Presidency to its current level of 79 percent.

His government came to power on a platform that blasted the “neo-liberal” model of the West, vowed to end corruption, called for the nationalization of Bolivia’s natural resources and offered greater representation to indigenous people. And so far it seems to be working for a man serenaded in the streets of Bolivia with the cries of "EVO".

Initially Morales made some symbolic reforms that reflected a commitment to serve the interests of the country.

Morales cut his salary by half and also reduced the salaries of the vice-president and his cabinet members. Savings will be used for health and education programs. According to some reports those savings could be as high as $27 million. Other economic and political gains may come from fighting government and corporate corruption.

Establishing Greater Accountability

The new president eliminated three government sectors - taxes, customs and roads - that were recognized as corrupt and ineffective. And Morales' fight against corruption has cast a large spotlight on the Spanish-Argentinian oil company Repsol-YPF .

Repsol's problems with the new Bolivian government began earlier this month, when Morales ordered the creation of a special commission to investigate claims that the company seriously damaged the environment surrounding the Margarita gas field in Chaco. The commission will investigate Repsol's actions and determine the amount of compensation owed to indigenous communities in the region.

Additionally Morales called for the arrest of Julio Gavito, the chairman of Repsol’s Bolivian unit Andina SA. The Bolivian government is charging that the company smuggled more than 230,000 barrels of crude oil out of the country between 2004 and 2005, robbing the Bolivian people of $9 million. Repsol calls the incident a "misunderstanding".

Morales' sweep even extends beyond the nation's borders. He asked the United States to extradite former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada so that he can be tried for a massacre of protestors in February 2003 that left more than thirty people dead.

Morales is quoted as saying that Democratic governments have nothing to hide and “neither do they protect criminals”. Sanchez de Lozada fled to the United States in October 2003 after his presidency was toppled by protests.

Managing Hydrocarbons

Although change may not come fast enough for some vocal critics – namely those who are closely watching Morales’ emerging hydrocarbons policy - his government has made efforts to improve Bolivia’s economic gain from natural gas exports.

On February 21, the government approved a resolution to raise the price of natural gas exported to Brazil and Argentina. Currently Brazil pays Bolivia $3.23 per one million British Thermal Unit (BTU) of natural gas and Argentina pays $3.18 per one million BTU. The market rate is closer to US$10-12 per BTU and new prices have yet to be determined.

If predictions from International Monetary Fund Managing Director, Rodrigo Rato are correct, Morales will be able to ride the development wave of Bolivia’s natural gas resources all the way to the bank. Morales has been quoted as saying that he wants foreign investors to be partners, not owners, in developing the country's gas reserves.

According to Rato, if the Morales government aptly handles the development and expansion of its natural gas industry, Bolivia could see its Gross Domestic Product per capita double during his term in office. A healthy economy may be the only way to pacify those who are destined to lose political power as Morales moves forward on some of his reforms.

Granting Indigenous Rights

Morales’ greatest and most complex political reform is the formation of a Constituent Assembly. The Constituent Assembly will create a new arm of the government, thereby weakening the powers of the Executive and National Congress. It is a major step that Morales and his Movement to Socialism (MAS) party view as a means to grant greater representation to Bolivia's indigenous people.

Yet, the proposal in its present form is being met with substantial resistance. Some critics complain that it did not offer enough influence to each of the broad-range of groups that supported Morales’ presidential campaign. Morales anticipated that his proposal for choosing assembly members would not win enough support to pass through the National Congress in early March, thus jeopardizing the entire assembly process.

So Morales has dropped his current proposal even though it would have granted his MAS supporters an overwhelming majority in a Constituent Assembly. Now his administration must propose a new way to recognize more of his supporters but not undermine their overall goal. If there is one thing Morales has demonstrated thus far in this past month, it is the desire to honor his commitment to fairness and equality.

The poll results demonstrate that Morales' political savvy outweighs his signature fashion sense and fiery campaign speeches. In a country that has gone through five presidents in four years - two of whom were toppled in part by Morales’ demonstrations and leadership - he appears to understand the fragile balance that must be held in his country between political promises and political progress.


Friday, February 24, 2006

-- Selective Diplomacy --

The Bolivian government has expressed concern at the United States' revocation of a travel visa to a popular Bolivian Senator "on suspicion of terrorism". President Evo Morales criticized the United States on Thursday for canceling the visa of one of his closest confidants in the first diplomatic incident with Washington since taking power a month ago.

Senator Leonilda Zurita-Vargas, told local media that U.S. State Department officials had told her she was considered a terrorist, something she has called "an offense against Bolivian women".

In Washington, State Department Deputy Adam Ereli said Zurita's visa was revoked without notification on May 7, 2004, after the U.S. government received "information" about her.

For the Bolivian press, it is the accusation of collusion with Colombian citizen Francisco "Pacho" Cortes (falsely accused of terrorism by the former Bolivian Government) that stripped the Senator of her visa. For others, it is construed as retaliation by the Bush administration against the new government of Bolivia for it's positions on Coca eradication and immunity for US troops guilty of crimes against humanity.

Senator Zurita-Vargas had scheduled a trip that would have included speaking engagements at Stanford University, the University of Vermont, and the University of Florida at Gainesville, culminating in a speech at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Like Morales, Zurita-Vargas' roots can be traced to early advocacy work that she did for coca growers in the Chapare region, and the prominence she gained as a leader of the anti-coca eradication protests in 2002-2003. In last December's national elections, she joined Morales' MAS party and won election as a Senator from Cochabamba, largely because of her leadership in the social sector.

Zurita-Vargas' has flown to the U.S. four previous times. Her most recent visit was to participate in various events, including an appearance at Harvard University in late February of 2003.

"Defending coca for us is defending our land, it's the same struggle. It's defending our culture, our health," said Leonilda Zurita-Vargas, then a congresswoman & leader of the National Federation of Women Campensinos in Bolivia. "We are fighting against the eradication of our culture", speaking in Spanish with an English translator at the Center for International Development.

Taking the coca leaf off the United Nations' Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs list was one of the main planks of Morales' election campaign. His anti-eradication moves as president are being followed closely, not only by his constituency in Bolivia but also in Colombia and Peru, where there are fledgling coca-based legal industries.


Monday, February 20, 2006

Shaping Bolivia's Coca Policy

During this past week President Evo Morales continued to show his support for Bolivia’s cocaleros, yet publicly he also displayed a more centrist tone towards the United States' efforts to limit coca production within this South American nation.

In a move that some called unconstitutional, Morales maintained his close ties to the cocaleros by accepting another term as leader of the country’s main coca-growers union. This will be Morales’ sixth consecutive term at the head of an organization that he has led for the past 18 years. Critics within the country contend that the position represents a conflict of interest with the potential for bias.

Yet Morales’ most recent actions have been disappointing to many of his cocalero supporters as his attitude towards the U.S. has been less harsh than during his days as a presidential candidate.

After meeting with U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee this past weekend, Reuters reported that Morales spoke of reaching "a common ground" with the U.S. in a story that was widely circulated by national media sources.

Bolivia's La Razon noted that Morales and Greenlee met for almost two hours discussing areas of mutual interest such as the defense of the democracy and the fight against drugs, corruption & poverty. Both sources state that neither country reached any agreement on a policy of eradicating excess coca plants - a fact that Morales cited as a potential point of conflict with the United States since it maintains a policy of 'zero coca'.

Since taking office Morales has stated that his policies will reflect "yes to coca, no to cocaine".

The Cocaleros and the U.S.

There is pressure upon Morales to increase the amount of coca that farmers are legally permitted to grow in Bolivia’s Chapare region, located in the cental part of the country. An agreement - unofficially recognized by the U.S.- was signed by former President Carlos Mesa in 2001.

The law permits families in this tropical region to grow no more than a cato of coca - approximately four-tenths of a acre. In the past growers have demanded an increase to the amount of coca that is permitted under Bolivian law.

Morales’ words to a group of cocaleros is Chapare last Saturday demonstrated that he was willing to limit coca production. He called for local farmers to adhere to the law. Morales suggested that obeying the law is the best way to support the government and get “the U.S. to stop talking badly about us.”

Claims issued by the U.S. government and the farmers in the Chapare region have long been contradictory. The U.S. states that most of the coca grown in the Chapare region is used for the illegal drug trade and cocaine production. Meanwhile poor farmers say coca is mostly used for traditional purposes as a natural hunger depressant and treatment against altitude sickness.

Some of these same cocalero voices also called for the deportion of the U.S. drug enforcement agents. However Morales declared that the U.S. can remain in Bolivia as long as the country’s laws and sovereignty were respected.

Bolivian troops assigned to eradicate coca fields halted their operations after Morales’s inauguration on January 22nd. The future role of the U.S. remains to be outlined by the current Bolivian government.

According to Jim Schultz of the Democracy Center, the U.S. views Bolivia as a "poster child” for its war on drugs and the U.S. government is reluctant to risk that progess. It credits eradication efforts undertaken since 1988 for taking Bolivia from the second largest coca producer to a distant third after Columbia and Peru.

Annually the U.S. spends more than $1 billion to fight cocaine in the Andean region. The U.S. State Department’s Andean Counterdrug Initiative includes Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela and Colombia. Yet the U.S. remains the largest market for cocaine use, followed by Brazil.

Using the Coca Leaf

Currently the European Union is funding a study to determine the extent of coca's domestic and international markets. The study is scheduled to be completed in August of this year.

Officials in Morales’ administration believe there is a large Andean market for coca tea, known for its effectiveness against altitude sickness. Government officials are quoted as stating that they are currently looking towards countries like Argentina, India and China as potential consumers of coca products.

Morales announced plans to travel to India next month in order to obtain financial support from New Delhi for a project to make coca-based products and to secure funding for social programs.

Coca can be used in a number of consumer goods such as lotion, face cream, toothpaste, shampoo, soap and even flour. Its effectiveness as a stimulant and appetite suppressant has been known by indigenous people for centuries.

A Harvard study conducted in 1975 confirms that coca has beneficial properties. Researchers found that a 3.5 ounce coca leaf has 1,540 milligrams of calcium. The average glass of milk has 300 milligrams. The study also determined that coca contains protein, iron, phosphorus and vitamins A, B1, B2, E and C.

The findings provide some scientific support for comments made recently by newly appointed Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca. Dismissed by some as lunacy, Choquehuanca was quoted as saying that the “sacred leaf” is nutritious enough to be served in school breakfast.

For now Morales' supporters within the cocalero federation just want to secure the freedom to grow enough coca to provide for their families.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Bolivia's Contraband Petroleum

The Bolivians are now investigating the Spanish-Argentine petroleum company Repsol YPF who has illegally extracted crude oil from Bolivia without authorization. Jorge Alvarado, head of Bolivian state oil company YPFB, has said in an interview published Feb. 8 in Spanish Newspaper El Mundo that Bolivian customs had evidence indicating that Repsol had altered documents in order to take vast amounts of oil out of the country without the government's permission or knowledge.

Andina S.A., a subsidiary of Spanish-Argentine oil company Repsol YPF, has been under investigation for the last several months for overtly and repeatedly smuggling resources out of Bolivia..

According to tracking documentation, the smuggled oil exports were spirited out of country & passed through the Yacuiba pipeline. Andina S.A managers had even requested the Ministry of Hydrocarbons for a "resolution"; by which the export of an additional 150,000 barrels of crude would be authorized to the company.

Repsol spokesman have declined to comment on the the documentation and the pending report that could fine the company for evading tariffs, duties and taxes.

But the Spanish-Argentine Repsol YPF SA have cut its own oil & gas reserves estimates by 25 percent, supposedly due to Bolivian "production prospects" by "political uncertainty". Additionally, the company has decided to freeze $480 million USD it had earmarked for investment in Bolivia's gas production and delivery systems.


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

U.S. Watches Bolivia for Coca, Little Else

If one is not characterizing the new government of Evo Morales as “radical”, punching holes in the support structure of his 12-day old administration or discussing coca production, the United States is showing very little personal interest in Bolivia.

One major indicator of the U.S. attitude towards Morales was President Bush’s belated congratulatory call on February 1st – ten days after Morales’ inauguration on January 22nd and a whole 45 days after he was elected in an overwhelming demonstration of Bolivian democracy.

Speaking at a National Press Club event last week, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated that “elections like Evo Morales in Bolivia take place that clearly are worrisome," as he lamented the left swing of Latin American politics.

More than 85% of eligible Bolivians turned out to vote Morales into office with a 54% majority. By contrast, in the U.S. the most recent 2004 Presidential election had a voter turnout of 60% with Bush losing the popular vote, but winning the election by the electoral college system.

Scanning the stories about Bolivia that are most readily featured in the U.S. media, the American corporate press has chosen to focus on Morales’ developing drug policy. Major media outlets from the Associated Press and CNN to local papers of North Carolina and Utah are highlighting Morales’ cocalero constituency and his appointment of Felipe Caceres, a "radical" and former coca farmer, as the country’s drug czar.

To move beyond Morales’ drug policy, one may need to search European, Latin American and Chinese news sources to find other initiatives that are moving forward in his country.

Bolivia is already working with Cuba to eliminate illiteracy in the country within two years. Venezuela’s Chavez has reached agreements to supply Bolivia with diesel and is offering technicians and scholarships to further Bolivian education. And although Venezuela had provided emergency aid to Bolivia last week, Chavez, who was just granted the UNESCO's 2005 Jose Marti International Prize, chose to donate the $5,000 award for additional relief efforts in Bolivia's flooded regions.

White House Spokesperson Scott McClellan failed to mention that President Bush extended our condolences for the recent loss of life caused by flooding throughout the country when he made that congratulatory call. He also neglected to mention whether the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world offered Bolivia - the poorest country in the Western hemisphere - any emergency aid.

Considering the lack of national or international press highlighting the charitable actions of the Bush administration, those words were probably never spoken.

Even while Bolivia is overcoming this national emergency, the country's aid from the U.S. does not remain secure. According to Bolivia’s La Razon, the Bush budget for 2007 removed another $13 million in aid. This is the second cut in funding Bolivia has received since the 2005 fiscal year. Critics of Morales, both here and abroad, blame Bolivia’s shift in drug policy for the loss of additional U.S. funds for drug enforcement. Some believe this is a tactic to pressure the Morales government into pushing a more American friendly coca policy.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Meeting the Challenges and Promises

Barely ten days into his Presidency and already the domestic and international diplomacy of Bolivia’s Evo Morales has been put to the test. It has been a challenging and ambitious beginning to this historic assumption of power as Morales signed agreements with Cuba and Venezuela as well as satisfied some of the campaign promises laid out by his Movement to Socialism party (MAS).


Unexpected challenges arrived with persistent rains that caused heavy flooding in the regions of Beni, La Paz and Santa Cruz, resulting in thirteen deaths. Over the weekend rivers continued to overflow as thousands of acres in agricultural crops have been devastated.

More than 33,000 Bolivians have been affected as landslides and flood waters have destroyed homes, washed away roads and bridges.

Jose Luis Paredes, governor of the Department of La Paz, reported that $10 million USD would be required to meet disaster needs in his region. About 150,000 acres of soy crops were devastated in the eastern department of Santa Cruz as rivers continued to overflow.

Morales' issuance of Supreme Decree No. 28610 declared a national state of emergency and paved the way for Bolivia to appeal for international aid. Venezuela and Cuba were the first countries to offer assistance in the form of food and medical supplies.

Reports indicate that a Cuban Airlines plane left Havana on Wednesday morning carrying almost 16 tons of medicines, as well as tents.

Venezuela is donating 10 tons of supplies to Bolivia including imperishable goods, tools, drinking water, medicines and blankets, according to El Universal. In addition, the Chavez government has committed to sending doctors, engineers and experts in communications and disasters.

Bolivian news sources report that refugee camps have been set up in parts of the country where Bolivia's Civil Defense and armed forces provide the needy with tents, food and medical attention.

The UN Development Program reported an immediate pledge of $500,000 as well as an additional $2.5 million for reconstruction work after the rainy season ends. Thousands of victims remain in need of immediate assistance.

Despite Bolivia suffering from one of the heaviest rainy seasons, Morales moved forward with ambitious promises made by his MAS party throughout his campaign, including providing greater representation for women & indigenous persons, devoting more money to health & education and moving towards the nationalisation of Bolivia's natural resources.