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Don't Judge Bolivia Through a Leftist Prism

March 11, 2006

With Iraq and other priorities competing for the attention of U.S. policymakers, the question of Bolivia is overlooked. But, situated in the heart of South America, with the second-largest natural- gas reserves in the Western Hemisphere, Bolivia's unsettled course bears close watch.

Evo Morales, who rose to political prominence as leader of the nation's coca growers, won election as president with 54 percent of the vote. He enjoys a strong public mandate and a majority in Congress. Still, winning an election as the head of a large and diverse coalition is quite different than actually governing.

Popular expectations for immediate and dramatic change have increased significantly with candidate Morales' sweeping promises to improve national welfare by rooting out corruption and exerting greater control over international investors. Yet now that he is president, a promised program to nationalize gas and mineral extraction could well wreak havoc on Bolivia's economy, undermining the ability to address its most urgent need: alleviating poverty.

As these decisions are being made, it is important that the United States build a relationship with the new government consistent with our interests and values -- President Bush has already telephoned his new Bolivian counterpart to good effect - to encourage a policy approach that will lead to long-term development and global engagement.

Of primary importance, our policy approach should be based on the recognition that leftist governments are not by definition a threat to U.S. interests as may have been the case when the Soviet Union existed. Latin Americans don't vote for leftist candidates to punish the United States or to challenge us.

They vote as they do because leaders and parties have failed to create jobs or to reduce poverty and inequality. In fact, ''leftist'' governments like those in Brazil and Chile have been among the most orthodox in Latin America in their economic management and have proven to be sound political partners for the United States across a range of issues. As well, policy makers should strive to keep public rhetoric subdued, not reacting to various outrageous statements that may occasionally come out of La Paz. We may not often agree with the new government, though that remains to be seen. But if we find a modus vivendi consistent with the pragmatic pursuit of U.S. interests, we will stand a much better chance of strengthening regional development and democratic institutions, building energy integration and enhancing counternarcotics cooperation.

It is vital, too, that we work with other nations to influence Bolivia's direction, particularly Brazil, Argentina and even Spain, which may have more at stake in Bolivia than we do.

Finally, Bolivia's most significant problems are primarily internal. The international community including the United States, already Bolivia's largest foreign-aid donor, can assist, but we only have limited tools available, one of which is trade expansion. Though not sufficient by itself, expanded trade could prove catalytic in terms of Bolivian development and a check on political excess.

Bolivia should be invited to join trade negotiations with the United States, as have Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Peru, particularly as its preference programs with the United States are set to expire at the end of this year. Despite reports that Brazil's state-run oil company plans investments of more than $5 billion in Bolivia's cash-starved gas sector, a clear focus on improving Bolivia's investment climate to draw significant additional direct, foreign private investment would do more for long-term prospects than any amount of foreign assistance ever would. The United States can help Morales choose engagement with the world. Nonetheless, our ability to affect Bolivia's direction is limited. The question of Bolivia ultimately must be answered by Bolivians themselves.

Eric Farnsworth is vice president of the Council of the Americas and Christopher Sabatini is senior director for the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.