Bolivia: Democracy, the U.S. and Coca, an update from Milan Vaishnav

July 19, 2006

Milan Vaishnav, a former CGD research assistant and current Columbia PhD candidate, has sent the following intriguing observations from Bolivia, where he is conducting research for CGD's Engaging Fragile States initiative:Although I am a little less than halfway finished with my visit here, in almost every meeting I have had with Bolivians, Americans, and members of the international donor community here in La Paz, I have heard three central messages concerning democracy, continued Bolivian interest in the role of the US, and a somewhat diminished US focus on coca eradication.

  • Democracy is alive and well in Bolivia. Despite considerable political turmoil in this Andean nation in recent years (historically speaking, Bolivia holds the world record for greatest number of coups anywhere in the world), ever since the return to democracy in 1982, Bolivian politics has managed to consistently stay within the accepted guidelines of democratic rule. While the democratically-elected president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was forced to step down in 2003 due to growing opposition to his administration´s neo-liberal economic policies, the transfer of power to his vice-president Carlos Mesa took place peacefully, And despite elite opposition (including within some elements of the Bolivian armed forces) to newly elected left-wing president Evo Morales, that opposition has taken place through dialogue and non-violent protests. In fact, the non-violent protest culture here in Bolivia is thriving—I have witnessed no fewer than five protests this week alone. While protests have often resulted in the shut-down of La Paz and have brought business to a halt, they are also a sign of democratic vibrancy and popular participation.
  • The role of the US remains front and center. Since Morales´ election in December 2005, local and international news media have trumpeted the growing influence of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Bolivia. Both have signed "peoples´ trade agreements" with Bolivia, and the former´s investments and influence in Bolivia´s hydrocarbons industry is undeniable. Yet, the role of the US in Bolivia is an issue that most Bolivians in and out of government constantly fret over. In fact, two of the hottest topics on the development agenda here are: Bolivia´s pending Millennium Challenge Account compact proposal (see Bolivian Pickle) and the extension of unilateral trade preferences under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), which expires at the end of the year.
  • Coca remains important for the US, but is no longer seen by the Americans as the only game in town. For more than 20 years, counter-narcotics policies have been the overriding priority for the US Embassy in La Paz. They have been so dominant that many Bolivians had no idea that the US government did anything else in Bolivia besides support the eradication of coca. Since the arrival of US Ambassador David Greenlee in 2003, this has changed. One of the ambassador´s first acts was to subordinate coca eradication to support for democracy and economic development among the embassy´s priorities. While the US dedication to countering illicit coca growing and trafficking has not abated, the emphasis on other reforms has taken center stage. US programs to reform the justice sector, provide technical assistance to newly elected department prefects (state governors), and encourage rural road building have broadened the US portfolio, most importantly in the public eye.
In a follow up post (or posts), I will offer my initial impressions on the future of US-Bolivian relations—specifically the importance of three factors: personalities, bilateral flexibility, and perception of long-term interests.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.