July 08, 2013

The Morales "Incident" and its Implications for Bolivia's Foreign Policy and Relations


A good week has passed from that Tuesday when the Bolivian Presidential plane was forced to land in Vienna because France, Spain, Portugal and Italy did not allow it to enter their air space because they had been informed whistle blower Edward Snowden was on board. That evening and the Wednesday after, Morales received overwhelming support, mainly from his Latin American allies, Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Argentina, Uruguay and more moderate support from the rest of the Latin American nations. On the Thursday after his return, the UNASUR held an emergency meeting. In this meetings were present all the close allies plus the other nations but with lower ranked diplomats. The meeting was surrounded by a climate of indignation and there were many statements made, by the presidents attending, that strongly judged the behavior of the European nations involved as well as of the US.

There is no question that what happened to Morales was a serious violation to international protocol, at least viewed from the Latin American side. To put things in perspective, this would have never (and will never) have happened to Obama, Hollande, Rajoy or any other west European president. Just to have that clear!

The question now is whether or not those harsh words that were spoken by Morales and the people who supported him, that is, those Latin American leaders, will become reality. By that I mean, will these countries take any action against the "aggressors"? I think, in this case the answer is pretty much clear. The answer would be, no! No country will risk losing some or many of the benefits they get by engaging diplomatically with the European and American governments. One prime example is Ecuador. Correa went as far as offering Snowden asylum only to retract himself saying that Ecuador spoke too soon. The main reason was mentioned one day after his first statement: namely that the US said that it was going to "revise" Ecuador status in the ATPDEA scheme, which means they would be excluded from the program. The Ecuadorian press even counted how many jobs that was going to cost. The rest of the countries are pretty much in the same situation, perhaps with the exception of Venezuela. Maduro has some leverage because he is the one who sells something important to the US, and that something is oil.

While it might be more or less clear what will happen at the international level, it is more interesting to turn the attention to Bolivia. It is well known that Morales has a very antagonist attitude against the US. There is even a short history to this. From 2008 on, Morales expelled Ambassador Goldberg from Bolivia, he ordered USAID to leave the Chapare region, he expelled the DEA from Bolivia and more recently he expelled USAID from Bolivia as well. Because of that, he seeks to balance this by, in part, indulging in good relations with other nations, among them, the Europeans. So the question is, will Morales translate his latest words into actions?

But, first of all, what did he say? Morales was very held back while on transit to Bolivia. However, once he stepped on Bolivian soil, his bitterness became very visible and at times, I think, his emotions took over. He basically "trash talked" the governments of Spain, France, Portugal and Italy. Especially upset was Morales about France's last minute closing of its air space and the attitude of Spain's Ambassador in Vienna, who asked to inspect Morales' plane. In specific terms, Morales said he would seek explanation from the governments involved. He said he would call the respective ambassadors, which is a normal procedure in diplomatic terms. Morales even mentioned the possibility to expel the French and the Spanish ambassadors. In the last days, Morales said his hand would not hesitate to close the American Embassy in La Paz and that he offered asylum to Edward Snowden.

Once again, how is all that to translate into Bolivian Foreign Policy and affect its Foreign Relations? The Morales government is surely weighing all the pros and cons of taking such a confrontational stance against the US. After all, the US government has taken its either you are with us or against us stance already. I think, it will all depend on how dependent Bolivia is still from the US. Whereas there is no question that, in political terms, Bolivia has become very much independent from the US government, but not much so in economic terms. The Morales government has always sought and, I think, has to a large extent achieved, independence from the influence of the US. To this day, their diplomatic relations are to the representative level. So, full diplomatic relations are still missing between the two countries. Also, the fact that Morales has expelled the DEA and USAID reduces a lot that political dependence. Now, this happened for two main reasons: a) the deep antipathy Morales feels for the US, and b) the careless attitude of the US towards, not only Bolivia but I would even go as far as saying, of the whole region.

In economic terms, the dependence factor is another thing. While the expulsion of USAID has significantly reduced the economic dependency, there is still the fact that the US is one (if not the one) of the most important commercial partners Bolivia has. Bolivia exports minerals (gold, tin, and silver), Brazilian nuts, Soy, and some textiles. So the more affected sectors of the economy are bound to be the mining sector and part of the agricultural sector. As far as Bolivia's foreign relations with the EU, I think, they will be a bit more difficult to establish more independence. Bolivia has relations with the EU and bilateral relations with the European countries within the EU. In that sense, Bolivia is twice as much dependent from Europe as it is known.

On the one side, the EU holds Bolivia as one of its most important partners for international cooperation and development. The EU finances a significant part of the Bolivian government's programs. According to the EU's own representative, 75% of those funds go to the Bolivian government to support various government's programs. The areas in which those funds are spent are sanitation, irrigation, fight against poverty, promoting small and medium enterprise and fight against drug trafficking. On the other side, and in similar terms, the bilateral cooperation among Bolivia and France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, for example have also become very important for the Morales government. Spain, in particular, finances a significant amount of projects which are aimed at fighting poverty in Bolivia.

One principal reason why these forms of cooperation have become important for the Morales government is because the government has explicitly demanded donor countries to support the "evo cumple, Bolivia cambia" program. This program has been financing the construction of sanitation, infrastructure, health facilities, education facilities, and so on. The role that the international cooperation plays now in this program is very significant. Therefore, if Morales decides to expel the ambassadors of those countries or wants to punish them in some way, the mentioned countries and the rest of the EU will just change their focus of cooperation to other neighboring country.

So in the end, I think, it will be very difficult to translate all that hostile rhetoric against the European countries that forced the President's plane to land in Vienna. What is more, the countries know that and that is why they are choosing to take the pragmatic attitude of focusing on "what is important", when by that is meant the cooperation work among them and Bolivia. Is that not logical?