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Bolivia, U.S. Restore Ties
Diplomatic Pouch / December 1, 2011

By Larry Luxner

Two ex-presidents of Bolivia praised a recent agreement between their country and the United States to re-establish full diplomatic ties. Yet bilateral relations are not going to be easy going forward, they warned.

The comments from Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, who led Bolivia from August 2001 to August 2002, and Carlos Mesa, who was president from October 2003 to June 2005, came in response to a question from The Washington Diplomat during a Nov. 10 event sponsored by Duane Morris LLP.

The summit, titled “Investing in Latin America: The Opportunity, The Challenge, The Road Ahead,” also featured the former presidents of Peru and Guatemala, Alejandro Toledo and Vinicio Cerezo, as well as several top U.S. trade officials.

“It’s very good news that after three years, both the United States and Bolivia have decided to put their ambassadors back in each others’ capitals. But President [Evo] Morales said this does not mean things are going to run smoothly henceforth,” said Mesa, 58, who was a radio, TV and newspaper journalist before entering politics.

“The reality is that things have changed. There’s now a third player in the game: Brazil,” he explained. “Brazil today is, if not the second-largest consumer of drugs in the world, then it’s the first. The overwhelming part of Bolivian drug production today goes to Brazil, not the United States. As a consequence, Brazil has a very important role to play with regards to Bolivian drug production and trafficking.

“Given the Bolivian president’s desire to uphold a measure of dignity vis-à-vis the United States in a topic as sensitive as this, it’ll be imperative that Brazil, Bolivia and the U.S. work in concert. Remember that in addition to being president of Bolivia, Morales is also secretary-general of the union of coca producers.”

On Nov. 8, two days before the Duane Morris event, the State Department announced that the Washington and La Paz had decided to restore full diplomatic ties following an accord “which establishes a framework by which the two governments will pursue relations on the basis of mutual respect and shared responsibility.”

The statement, signed by Bolivian Deputy Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Alurralde and U.S. Undersecretary for Global Affairs Maria Otero, comes three years after Morales kicked out then-U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg amid charges Goldberg had been egging on the pro-autonomy efforts of opposition leaders in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands.

A few months later, Morales expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, claiming that DEA agents were involving themselves in local politics. In response, the Obama administration declared Bolivia’s ambassador here at the time, Mario Gustavo Guzmán Saldaña, persona non grata,and gave him 72 hours to leave the country.

For the moment, Bolivia’s embassy fronting Massachusetts Avenue is being run by chargé d’affaires Freddy Bersatti Tudela.

The Nov. 8 deal sees “the swift return of ambassadors to Washington and La Paz. Its objectives “include strengthening and deepening bilateral relations [and] supporting efficient cooperation against the production and trafficking of illegal drugs.” But it doesn’t say whether DEA agents will be allowed back into Bolivia, the world’s third-largest cocaine producer.

“On the plus side, it’s better to have ambassadors than to not have them. On the flip side, it gives you a chance to kick somebody out again,” said Quiroga, 51, a graduate of Texas A&M University who became president when his predecessor, Hugo Banzer, resigned due to health problems.

Quiroga said that the explosion in drug trafficking is not specifically a U.S. problem but a regional one that should worry every single country in Latin America.

“For a long time, the perspective was that drugs was an issue that affected Bolivia and the U.S., Colombia and the U.S., Peru and the U.S. A long time ago, I went to an Andean summit at which Mexico was there as an observer because they said it was not their problem. How the world changes,” he mused. “This is a hemispheric problem which needs hemispheric approaches and solutions. We in Latin America are very good at kicking the cactus with somebody else’s foot. We say, ‘get the U.S. to legalize drugs and control the sale of guns.’ But I’m not one of those people. I know the reality. The drug issue has always been a permutation of drugs, gangs and violence from our side.”

In fact, between 60 and 80 percent of the cocaine processed in Bolivia is now destined for Brazil, where the number of consumers has skyrocketed thanks to the economic prosperity of recent years.

“In the last 10 years, Brazil has moved from being a transit country to being a consumption country” for cocaine, said Murilo Vieira, an official at the Brazilian Embassy in La Paz. Vieira said his country is suffering “the collateral effects” of having lifted 30 million people out of poverty over the last decade.

“The so-called new middle class acquired access to cocaine and to a relatively cheap drug, crack,” he said, noting that as a consequence, Colombian, Mexican, Peruvian and Brazilian mafias have begun to establish themselves in Bolivia in order to export those drugs.

Added Quiroga: “It’s a strategic mistake to think that if the U.S. talks to Bolivia, all our problems will be solved. Most of our drugs go to Brazil, so this needs an integrated effort,” he said. “We need to sit down calmly and find integrated solutions. We’re not going to legalize cocaine, but is marijuana on the table? Should we decriminalize some drugs? This is not going to be fixed by the U.S. having a DEA office in Bolivia. Drugs have no limits, and they recognize no borders.”

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