October 13, 2007

“¡causachun coca, wañuchun yanki!“

MABB © ®

The diplomatic relations between the US and Bolivia is deteriorating to the point that it might be time to change Ambassadors, once again.

As the title of this post demonstrates, it is no secret that the Bolivian President, Evo Morales, is not really interested in maintaining a good relationship with the US government. The title of this post cites Evo Morales' slogan as he spoke it from the coca grower's union leadership, a position he still holds even now. It is in Quechua and means, "viva coca, death to the Yankees".

The latest development in this diplomatic row are Morales' words declaring Phillip Goldberg (the US Ambassador) as an invalid middle-man or representative against the Bolivian government. In fact, short of declaring him persona non grata, he banned him from entering the government building.

These words come against the backdrop of more diplomatic nuances. It started when Morales was arriving to the US to speak in the UN. His plane was diverted to NJ and he and his people had to wait more than an hour before they were even let out of the airplane. Morales then, feeling not welcomed, decided to start a campaign to move the seat of the UN away from the US. Goldberg, when asked about those declarations, replied that it wouldn't surprise him if the Bolivian government would start a campaign to move Disney World.

The reaction of the Bolivian government was harsh against Goldberg. The Bolivian Department of State asked for a formal apology. Goldberg then sent, a few days ago, a letter apologizing for the faux pas. Now it seems as though, the Bolivian President is not happy with it and wants more.

It seems absurd, but it is happening. First, it seems poorly thought out, the fact that in times like these, the American Ambassador would make a joke like this. Granted, it is not a terribly bad joke, but he should have considered the delicate times the US-Bolivia relationship is going through and specifically the nature of the current Bolivian government (touchy, I mean, not afraid to use the race card). It was just not to be expected from a professional diplomat.

Secondly, it is clear the Bolivian government profits more from antagonizing the US and "fighting imperialism" than being best friends. On the one side, it fits well Morales' image of rebel. This image is even liked among some Americans. On the other side, Morales stands to gain more from his friendship with Chavez and Ahmadinejad, that with his friendship with Bush.

Is is time to recall Ambassador Goldberg home? You bet. Even if he is an outstanding diplomat and has achieved much on his career for the US, he is of no use in Bolivia any more. The only thing that would help him is to apologize publically to the Bolivian people and to Morales himself. Now, the US cannot afford to loose any contact with Bolivia, yet another country in its "back yard". As we've seen before, these things tend to have a certain domino motion, and might spread to other countries. Ecuador, perhaps?


Jorge said...

If they are unhappy with Goldberg, they should ask the U.S., discreetly and through diplomatic channels, to recall him. If it doesn't work, then declare him persona non grata to force the issue. But this business of not speaking to him anymore, not allowing him into the Palacio Quemado, asking him to apologize infinitely many times, and so on, is just grotesque. It seems to me that this fits into a pattern: Evo's government has been looking for reasons, no matter how trivial, to antagonize the U.S.

Let's just recall a few recent high-profile incidents: the case of the 500 bullets "smuggled" into the country by a young American woman (it turned out that she broke no Bolivian law); the case of the 30 vintage rifles allegedly being "smuggled" out of the country by some American official (it turned out that he had filed all the paperwork required by Bolivian law); the so far unsubstantiated, but nonetheless aggressively publicized, accusation that USAID is financing the opposition; the diversion of Evo's flight to Newark (which in all likelihood had more to do with traffic congestion at JFK than with a deliberate slight to Evo and his entourage); and now this overreaction to Goldberg's joke. I think the joke may not have been the most tactful, but was rather harmless. I admit I found it actually funny.

In all of these cases, the Bolivian government has reacted disproportionately to the "offense", bypassing the usual diplomatic channels to voice its complaints and hurling personal insults on the public square.

It may be just clumsiness and incompetence (in my opinion Quintana and Choquehuanca should be let go to at once to restore some credibility to Bolivian diplomacy). It may also well be that all of this is deliberate and, as you point out, that Evo has probably more to gain than to loose in internal politics by antagonizing the U.S. But, on the other hand, the image that Bolivia is projecting internationally is that of an immature, touchy, insecure and unpredictable country, and that's something we should be worrying about.

GS said...

Well said, Jorge.

Unfortunately, I think Miguel is right in that the US has painted itself in a corner with Bolivia. It really is in a no-win situation. I think, though, that recalling the ambassador would be a mistake. There is absolutely nothing the US can do to repair relations with Bolivia because no matter what it tries to do, Evo will see to it that it fails. It is against Evo's interests to have good relations with the US. Recalling the ambassador will only encourage Evo. It will be another feather in his cap.

The US and its ambassador should continue with the discreet mea culpas and it should engage with Linares to try to unruffle feathers. Eventually this will die down and once it does Evo will create another reason to flair things up again. So it goes. US-Bolivian relations are going to be in this roller coaster for a long, long, long time. The State Departmet will run out of ambassadors if it is to recall them every time Evo's panties are in a bunch.

miguel (mabb) said...

I agree, but I think the US could do something more. For one, the government could send a replacement who thinks out of the box. With this, perhaps the approach would tend to change as well. The old approach of offering a carrot and a stick does not work anymore.

The top diplomat in Bolivia needs to understand Bolivian politics, its actors and the context. To some extent challenge that State Department's premise of not to get too involved with the country. He or she also would need to be sensible, in the sense that he or she knows it is being dealt with a group of people who will not think twice when playing the race card.

Also, the approach would have to be revised. Carrot and stick does not work anymore. I think the countries expect something more from the US. Also, the US must be aware that today's world has become increasingly interdependent.

This is a complicated issue. Far from having a solution, I am just throwing out some thoughts.

miguel (mabb) said...

I forgot. Here is one specific example of what the US could do to better the relationship with Bolivia and to better its image. I just read in La Razón, that Goldberg signed an agreement with the ministers of Public Works, Gabriel Loza and the Viceminister of Coca, Jeronimo Meneses, to fund the growing of organic products in Coroico (the Yungas region where Coca is also cultivated). This project is expected to create 3000 jobs.

Now, it is just not enough to fund this project to get people to switch from Coca to other products. What the US could do is guarantee the access of these products into the US market. That way results could be observed over time. Because, that is what has been lacking in any effort, (observable) RESULTS!

Just a thought.

mcentellas said...

Yeah, Goldberg should come home. But after that, I don't know. The US should send an ambassador to Bolivia, but perhaps just start ignoring Evo. Condi is starting to do that w/ Chavez, and it might work better.

As for the whole plane to NJ thing: turns out it was a different issue entirely. Evo flew on a Venezuelan plane (which has caused a brief stir in Bolivia). Mid-flight, the plane changed its flight plan, w/o telling the towers. As the traffic control tower tired to communicate w/ the pilots, it became clear that they didn't speak Spanish and couldn't communicate w/ the towers well. In the end, no on at NJ knew that the plane was a diplomatic plane w/ Evo in it, they though it twas just a Venezuelan plane (and one that changed its flight plan midair w/o warning!).

mcentellas said...

Sorry, I meant to write that the pilots didn't speak English.

Jorge said...

The top diplomat in Bolivia needs to understand Bolivian politics, its actors and the context. To some extent challenge that State Department's premise of not to get too involved with the country. He or she also would need to be sensible, in the sense that he or she knows it is being dealt with a group of people who will not think twice when playing the race card.


Yes, but we may be talking about the empty set here. Does the State Department have such people? American ambassadors in Bolivia, (with the notable exception of Goldberg’s predecessor, Greenlee, who is a pretty knowledgeable, smart and decent fellow, I think) have been either bullies or incompetent, or culturally insensitive or all at the same time (actually Evo owes a good part of his political success to a particularly inept American ambassador). It may be that Bolivia is not the first choice of the top class career diplomats and that we are getting the bottom rungs, but American diplomacy worldwide seems to suffering from incompetence and inefficiency, just look at the hopeless guys in Irak; the “Brownie” syndrome seems to be everywhere. Now, I concede that handling guys like Choquehuanca must be particularly challenging.

miguel (mabb) said...

mcentellas: I am not sure ignoring Evo will work. For me for example, it is pretty hard to ignore Chavez. The things he says are so ....... that I am not sure ignoring will bring anything. For example, in the last couple of days he warned the "oligarchs of Bolivia" that the Venezuelan people would not just stand there if anything happened to Evo and his revolution. These statements are pretty hard to ignore. You run the risk that by not reacting the words get validated in public.

I am more for a proactive or engaging straight on approach.

Jorge: I would be pretty disappointed if State did not have competent people. :-) But also, I think that has been one of the problems, the bully approach. With someone competent and a change on that "bully approach" to diplomacy, I think positive changes could be seen over time.

And it's true. Bolivia might not be in the list of people's priorities to go and serve. But, if I understand it right, they don't have a choice. They get their destinations from the top bureaucrats at State.

And, yes, handling guys like Choquehuanca must be a challenge. :-)))))