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Bolivia's uncertain future: Ambassador Jaime Aparicio
The Washington Diplomat / February 2006

By Larry Luxner

By the time you read this, Jaime Aparicio may no longer be Bolivia's ambassador to the United States.

A shakeup at all levels of government seems inevitable, following the overwhelming election victory of radical leader Evo Morales, who was inaugurated president Jan. 22.

Morales, an Aymara Indian who rose from lowly coca farmer to the country's most popular politician, took 54% of the votes in the December contest. His closest rival, former President Jorge Quiroga, got only 26%, while a third candidate, cement magnate Samuel Doria Medina, picked up the remaining 20%.

Even more surprising, Morales won the support of Bolivia's small middle class, and almost every other segment of society as well.

"Evo Morales ran a very good campaign. He got the feeling of the people," Aparicio told the Washington Diplomat last month. "He's an indigenous leader, he's been in politics for the last 20 years, and he represents an immense change in the country. This is the first time in South America that a truly indigenous leader is elected president."

Despite the nice words, Morales is clearly not one of Aparicio's favorite people.

Just two years ago, the 50-year-old ambassador — in an interview with the Diplomat — accused Morales of spreading a vicious disinformation campaign in an attempt to derail Bolivian natural gas exports via Chile to the United States and Mexico.

That gas plan, proposed by then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, could have made billions for Bolivia, but Morales and his followers portrayed it as a sellout of Bolivia's 53 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves to U.S. energy conglomerates.

Morales — who had nearly defeated Sánchez for the presidency in 2003 — led thousands of protestors in a violent uprising, blocking the streets and highways of La Paz, Bolivia's capital city, and demanding the president's resignation. Sánchez did resign, but not before riot police had killed over 80 demonstrators.

The clash made Evo Morales, head of the left-wing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) a household name throughout Latin America and set the stage for his eventual election victory, helped along by admirers such as Brazil's Luis Inazio "Lula" da Silva, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Cuba's Fidel Castro.

In fact, shortly after trouncing Quiroga at the polls, Morales flew off to Havana where he was given red-carpet treatment by Castro and proclaimed a "hero of the people." He then flew to Beijing and declared Communist China to be a true ideological partner of Bolivia, offering Chinese entities the chance to invest in Bolivia's gas fields.

By contrast, Morales — who doesn't speak English — has never been to the United States and has rarely, if ever, said anything good about this country.

Flush with victory, the radical leader is begining to look, talk and act a lot like Chávez, who also achieved power democratically after having led a violent, though unsuccessful coup following a failed violent uprising supported by the country's masses.

Like Chávez, Morales is admired by indigenous people throughout the continent but despised by Bolivia's business class for his ranting against the United States, capitalism, globalization and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.

"Fundamentally, we will recover our natural resources," Morales recently told Latin Finance, a Miami-based business magazine. "We will end the privatizing state that sold off our natural resources and we will deprivatize public utilities. If transnationals haven't complied with Bolivian regulations, then their contracts have to be nullified without compensation ... The information we have is that most companies don't pay taxes and are involved in contraband, and we cannot allow that."

Such leftist rhetoric resonates in Bolivia, where campesino anger against the United States is fueled by various U.S.-backed programs over the years to eradicate the country's coca crop. Except for 12,000 hectares in the department of Yungas (for local use only), the cultivation of coca leaves — the main ingredient in cocaine — is illegal. Most of Bolivia's coca leaves come from the department of Chapare, where 90% of the crop was destroyed under the Sánchez administration.

"His election is a call to action," says former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana, now Bogotá's ambassador in Washington. "It shows that democracy is back in the region. It also shows that for many years, the same political parties were in charge, and people are tired of it."

Pastrana, whose country is also fighting a long-running war against drug traffickers, told the Diplomat that "Morales has a big opportunity, and he can take advantage of the fact that all of us want to help Bolivia get out of this crisis, even the United States."

With 8.5 million people, Bolivia covers an area the size of Texas and California combined, but it is landlocked, the result of a devastating war with Chile 130 years ago that cost Bolivia its Pacific coast. Despite vast natural resources such as gold, silver, tin, zinc and natural gas, Bolivia's annual per-capita income is the lowest in South America, and has actually dropped from $1,000 a decade ago to around $700 today — even though the economy has grown an average of 3.2% a year over the past 10 years.

"Bolivia is a very poor country, and the great majority of people don't benefit from the political system," he said. "The biggest inequality comes from the lack of opportunities, and we still have problems with our judicial system. People perceive that the political parties are totally corrupt. That's not the case, but it's true that people don't trust the government. We can't even collect taxes."

A big part of the problem is that Bolivia's history is largely one of Spanish conquistadores and their white descendants exploiting the indigenous majority. For centuries, San Luís Potosí — one of the world's largest silver mines — enriched Spain but impoverished the locals, and today Potosí is a ghost town.

"The mentality of the Bolivian people is this tragedy of all this national wealth leaving the country — first the silver, then the tin, the tungsten and the rubber. All these booms did nothing for the people," said Aparicio, a lawyer and career diplomat who has spent 24 years in his nation's foreign service, including stints as Bolivia's envoy to France and Venezuela. "They sense there's no future, and when you have frustration and so many years of deterioration, obviously that's the best scenario for radicalism to grow."

Aparicio concedes that even while "Bolivia has done everything right in terms of reforms" — slashing inflation from 27,000% to single digits and privatizing mismanaged state companies — "these reforms and sacrifices didn't translate into better living conditions."

In such conditions, he said, it's no surprise that Morales won.

"Political parties were not very popular, and the political system had no credibility anymore, so the people wanted a totally different, new approach. That's why they gave Morales a chance to change the system," he said.

But if Aparicio harbors any ill will towards his country's new president, the diplomat is diplomatically keeping those opinions to himself.

"I've met Morales a couple of times. He's a smart politician, and I think he has an amazing opportunity," he told us. "Economically, Bolivia is doing well in terms of exports, reserve, low inflation and probably no deficit this year. And for the first time in this new wave of democracy, the president has a clear majority in Congress. The previous presidents were elected by Congress, and they had to build coalitions. So he can do his job in a much more benevolent environment."

Asked if he's upset about the results, he replied: "Absolutely not. I was aware this was going to happen. This was the moment for him to win. The mood of the country was that the people didn't want more of the same, for good or for bad.

"Of course, many people are concerned about their jobs. At the moment, I'm optimistic, but I'm also concerned because peoples' expectations are too high," Aparicio continued. "If you have a good economic environment, it's much easier to do the right thing than when you receive a country in shambles. But once the campaign has passed and all the ideological issues and the rhetoric are finished, the president — like in any other country — has to start solving problems."

One of those problems is the widespread feeling of exclusion from the political system suffered by indigenous people, who make up 60% of Bolivia's population. Another is the corruption that permeates all levels of Bolivian bureaucracy.

"You have to realize that he was voted into office by the Bolivian people. They elected him and I think most people expect government to solve their problems," he explained. "We'd been saying for many years that you can't have a society in which a large percentage of the people have nothing to lose — no jobs, no hope, no expectations. That's what happened in Bolivia. The biggest problem was unemployment. It reached a boiling point, and finally the people decided to give Morales an opportunity."

Things could become unglued, however, if the new president's rhetoric scares away foreign investment, which is crucial to Bolivia's recovery. In mid-January, shortly before the inauguration, Vice President García Linera met with top officials at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz to discuss drug enforcement, trade and other issues of bilateral importance.

"The big question is, once he's inaugurated, how those relations will be," said Aparicio. "I think it would be a mistake to isolate President Morales immediately, as I think it would be a mistake on Bolivia's part to start attacking the United States."

Aparicio said the Bush administration could help Bolivia by concluding a permanent trade agreement to replace the Andean Trade Preference Act -Drug Eradication Act (ATPA-DEA) by this December, when the current arrangement expires. Bolivia's 3.7% growth in 2004 was largely thanks to export sectors favored by APTA-DEA, such as textiles, leather goods, wood products and jewelry.

"Our largest markets for soy products are Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. And if they open their market to U.S. imports, that'll harm the Bolivian economy. So what we're proposing is to have a gradual opening of these markets over a 10-year period," he said.

Yet free trade is not a priority for Morales and his MAS party, which leads one to wonder whether Washington will take Bolivia's new head of state seriously.

"You never know what he's going to do once he's president," Aparico observed. "There are very good examples in many countries that have had transitions. Nelson Mandela brought peace to South Africa by forgiving people and opening his country to the world. On the other side, you have people like [Zimbabwe's Robert] Mugabe who destroyed his country. At this point, it's very difficult to say, but I hope Morales understands that when you're in government, you have to answer to the people."

Regarding his own future, Aparicio plans to go back into the private sector as soon as possible. As of this writing, the veteran diplomat has no idea who might replace him in Washington.

"I was in public service for too long, and I think it's time for a break," said the ambassador, suggesting that he'd like to do some legal work on Latin American issues, dividing his time between Washington and La Paz. "My great hope is that U.S.-Bolivian relations improve. I'm convinced that if relations deterioriate, everybody's going to lose. There's too much at stake. The only thing I have today is hope."

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