Tag Archives: Andes

White House decertifies Bolivia for the 6th time: An exit strategy for an internationally-overstretched Obama administration?

2 Dec

I wrote this note in late October, on commission from the Bolivia Information Forum, before getting sucked into other work that meant it got put to one side. Some weeks after, Evo Morales surprised us by publishing a long-awaited government report on the extent of coca production in Bolivia needed to sustain traditional uses, among other useful bits of information that observers had waited some years for. I have not incorporated that here because my piece intends to put forward an idea: that is, that decertification by the US of Bolivia is not a simple case of the Western aggressor versus the poor little Indian boy. I propose here that persistently decertifying Bolivia’s anti-narco efforts is part of a larger effort in the States to diverge from activities that, on a cost-benefit analysis, make less and less sense to be involved in – such as its ‘war against drugs’ in Bolivia. Have a read.

White House decertifies Bolivia for the 6th time: An exit strategy for an internationally-overstretched Obama administration?

On 13 September, the White House ‘decertified’ Bolivia for the sixth year running, in its annual round of such actions. To decertify a country means it is not deemed adequately compliant to United States and international counter-narcotics strategies. Significantly, the US can then decide as a result of decertification to withdraw a range of its aid packages (excluding counter-narcotic and humanitarian aid), impose trade sanctions or even fines on the offending government.

Few may be surprised at the US’ apparently heavy-handed policy approach to Bolivia and its counter-narcotics performance, given the extremely fractious relationship between the two nations. But the repeated decision to decertify Bolivia since 2008 does not chime with the country’s performance in reducing coca grown for non-traditional purposes, cracking down on cocaine production, and on narco-trafficking. By its own estimation, the US says that Bolivia’s pure potential cocaine production fell by 12 percent in the year while hectares of land given to coca production fell by 2 percent. But it accuses Bolivia of failing to control the diversion of licit coca into the illicit cocaine production chain, and says that it has not developed or executed a national drug control policy. It does not mention Bolivia’s Strategy to Fight Drug Trafficking and Reduce Surplus Coca Leaf Cultivation 2011-2015.

Further, it appears Bolivia is treated differently by the White House to the other two major Latin American cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru – the former being the top producer by considerable margin, while Bolivia is the smallest. Yet neither Colombia nor Peru are decertified by the Obama administration. Colombia’s government, a long-time US ally, appears at pains to comply with US counter-narcotics policies; meanwhile, though, its cocaine production of cocaine has grown, and modern Colombian methods of production allow it to produce more, faster.

So why does the White House continue to decertify Bolivia?

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A very typical store in Bolivia, containing a variety of foodstuffs and drinks, home essentials, and green bags of coca leaf. These are used in tea, or to chew – as has been done for thousands of years in the Andes. Photo: Meredith Kohut – http://meridithkohut.photoshelter.com/gallery/Bolivian-Coca/G0000QNl9Qt1qSwo


The tone of Bolivia-US relations in the six years that Bolivia has been decertified cannot be ignored. Evo Morales’ decision in 2009 to expel the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) caused much consternation for the Obama administration, significantly reducing its ability to directly influence the country’s own policies and practices, and, it has said, reducing Bolivia’s transparency. Far from noting any numbers showing that Bolivia has slipped in its counter-narcotics performance, in its Memorandum of Justification for the 2013 decertification, the US put the DEA expulsion at the top of its list of reasons.

The DEA expulsion was topped and tailed this year. In February, Bolivia re-adhered to the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs with a new reservation allowing for traditional uses of coca, staunchly objected to by the US; in May, Morales expelled USAID from Bolivia. In July, the Bolivian presidential plane became the subject of international outrage when it was denied entry into French, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian airspace, seemingly under behind-the-scenes pressure from the US which apparently believed whistle-blower Edward Snowden to be aboard with Morales (see BIF’s Special Briefing, 10 July 2013).

The justification offered by the White House in its repeated decertifications of Bolivia focus on its alleged “demonstrable failure to make substantial efforts to adhere to its obligations under international counter-narcotics agreements and take certain counter-narcotics measures”.

Is Bolivia, while a perpetual irritant to the US in rhetoric and ideology, slipping down the list of strategic priorities? Is it possible that decertifying – more than a political stick with which to beat Bolivia as punishment for the DEA expulsion – is a useful way for the US to gracefully reverse out of its self-imposed policy and aid responsibilities in the country at a time when the White House’s focus has dramatically shifted to the Middle East?

To repeatedly decertify the country builds the sense that Bolivia may never measure up to US or international counter-narcotics expectations, with the implication that Bolivia has no intention of co-operating nor a genuine desire to exit the cocaine trade. So far, though the White House has said it could withdraw various kinds of aid, or impose fines or sanctions on decertified countries, it has typically applied a ‘waiver’ so that this has not occurred. Removing this waiver, having built sufficient justification over many years of decertifications, would provide the US its reason to stop spending money on a country of diminishing importance, money whose influence on the Morales government and policies is questionable, and that is much needed elsewhere. Despite criticising Bolivia for a lack of transparency and co-operation on counter-narcotics efforts, which it says was seriously exacerbated by the DEA expulsion, in the 2013 Memorandum of Justification the US said it would close its La Paz-based International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs section by the end of this year. This move is at odds with its protestations for more co-operation and transparency, but will save the US money and effort.

A gentlemanly exit from its Bolivian funding exploits would be in keeping with a broader US shift away from worrying about its “backyard”, despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s blunder in calling the region that (used by Morales to justify the USAID expulsion). In April this year Kerry announced a 14 percent cut in State Department spending in Central and South America .Other forms of US-Bolivia co-operation are strained and some may come to an end anyway. The US is one of Bolivia’s most important trade partners, but the key 2001 US-Bolivia bi-lateral investment treaty was terminated by Morales in June 2012, though it remains in force for another ten years.

The DEA, alongside USAID, was arguably the US’s most significant and important aid and intelligence tool in Bolivia, and the expulsion of both agencies hurt its legitimate involvement and influence there. But Bolivia is a distraction from Obama’s efforts to manage the US out of budget-busting exploits in Afghanistan, Iraq and the region at large. Yet to simply back out of US counter-narcotics commitments or aid in Bolivia may jeopardise other more fruitful, but relatively fragile regional relationships at a time when these neighbours are making fresh co-operation efforts with one another via trade blocs such as UNASUR. However, by repeatedly decertifying Bolivia’s efforts, it may be signalling a dwindling interest inside the internationally-overstretched Obama administration in an expensive and combative relationship that brings little benefit at home or abroad.

The notion that the US sees decertification as an exit strategy would make more sense than the US’ current justification for this repeated action, which does not tally with Bolivia’s numbers regards counter-narcotic achievements over the period in question. The closure of the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs section may be the first sign affirming this. When, in 1996 and 1997, Colombia was decertified and faced sanctions, the US faced minimal retaliation risk because then-president Ernesto Samper was deemed in the pay of drug traffickers, and Colombia therefore deemed a weak state. Though Colombia was a US ally, “for most US officials it lacked strategic significance in areas beyond drug enforcement,” according to Coletta Youngers at the Washington Office on Latin America. Similarly, Bolivia may increasingly be seen as less strategically significant to the US now, and decertification may be a symptom of this new reality. What this may mean for Morales, converse to any sense that it may be a wholesale victory to see a US withdrawal from Bolivia, remains to be seen.

The White House’s decertification process is itself rather muddled. While it states that a country’s presence on the list of decertified countries “is not a reflection of its government’s counter-narcotics efforts or level of co-operation with the United States”, it adds in the same stroke that: “one of the reasons major drug transit or illicit drug producing countries are placed on the list is the combination of geographic, commercial, and economic factors that allow drugs to transit or be produced, even if a government has carried out the most assiduous narcotics control law enforcement measures”.

Wanderlust: Five reasons to get friendly with Bolivia

21 May

Earlier this month I managed to squeeze in the first piece of journalism I’ve done since I began my life as a Master’s student in October 2012. I was asked to write a blog for Wanderlust, a monthly, British travel magazine – one of the finest – about my experience travelling in Bolivia. The published piece is below – have a glance. I am going back to Bolivia in June for my fieldwork – studying the consumption of second-hand clothing in La Paz and Cochabamba – very exciting times! I only passed through La Paz on my last trip, so this time I’ll have a fortnight to see what it’s all about (and I’m particularly excited to visit the National Museum of Art, which seems to contain a boatload of old religious art, one of my favourite things).

Cochabamba's La Cancha market

Cochabamba’s La Cancha market


The World Economic Forum says Bolivia is the world’s unfriendliest country. Melanie Stern shares her five reasons why the intrepid should ignore and get there pronto

The World Economic Forum’s 2013 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report put Bolivia first in a list of ten countries it deemed the least friendly for visitors. In the category “attitude of population towards visitors” Bolivia ranked top of the least friendliest nations after Venezuela, Russia, Iran and Pakistan, among others.

I’m sure intrepid travellers thought two things in response: that sounds odd, and why don’t I see for myself? Bolivian people are definitely friendly – they are curious about visitors, eager to help you get the best out of their country and they want you to leave happy.

Bolivia is emerging strongly from a long history of post-colonialism and neo-liberal economics, and its infrastructure is adequate for the needs of keen travellers. Part of the fun of experiencing a nation in Bolivia’s phase of development is negotiating a new culture and can be readily navigated by anyone with common sense.

Most people who spend time in Bolivia don’t forget it in a hurry, and they come away with new friends and an enriched view of the world. Follow the bumpy roads, the frigid plains, eat where the locals eat, and you’ll be duly rewarded.

Here are five reasons why you should get to Bolivia now.

1. Experience first-class trains at third-class prices

Any UK resident who commutes to work by train can forget the gnawing rage of exorbitant prices for late, cancelled, dirty and overcrowded trains. Bolivia’s train network is tiny – most of the network has fallen into disuse because the bus network is so vast and convenient – dirt cheap, squeaky clean and takes you through two completely different, dramatic landscapes. The seats are well padded, recline a little, the toilet is clean and stocked with paper (more than can often be said for the UK’s local trains).

One trip visitors should enjoy: going north from Tupiza (the stopping off point to horse-ride in the lonely, ferrous quebrada where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are said to have made their last stand), take the train to Uyuni, the town where tours across the famous salt plains begin. The train leaves around 6.30pm arriving in Uyuni around midnight. The benefit of an evening train in is that, amid the endless lunar-like, uninhabited landscape, the unimpeachable darkness draws your eyes upward. You’re rewarded with an incredible soot-and-diamonds skyscape.

Bring a blanket for the ride (buy a good fleece in the market at Tupiza, and treat yourself to a polar jacket while you’re at it; they’re dirt cheap and very useful in high-altitude Bolivia). Then cosy up and keep taking in the big chunk of star-gazing that this train trip affords you.

2. Unmissable markets and unique food

If you’ve heard anything about Bolivia, you’ve heard that it’s poor. You equate poor with lack of food, or decent food. But that’s not true in Bolivia where market food stalls are an unmissable part of a visitor’s experience. Take the salteña, Bolivia’s answer to the pasty (and incomparably tastier). It’s a palm-sized, American football-shaped baked pastry shell consisting of boiled egg, perhaps some chicken or beef, chillies, maybe an olive or two, garlic, onion, sugar and spices,and parsley. Grab a handful of serviettes with your purchase; part of the experience is that the juice inside the shell runs down your hand as you munch. After a few goes, you’ll master it.

La Cancha market in Cochabamba, a city that marches on its stomach, is good for a tasting trip. Try silpancho, meat schnitzel with rice, fried plantain, onion and beet salad and a lively picante sauce. Wander through the vegetable market taking in all the colours and varieties of the freshest produce that you just don’t find in even the biggest supermarkets.

If you’re up for a beer made from corn fermented by human chewing, get your hands on some chicha – it’s a traditional beer but has an acquired taste!

3. Volunteer somewhere really different

Travelling to a poor country, you might be inclined to get your good on. There are many volunteering and gap-year companies operating in Bolivia, as well as lots of NGOs. These are a good way into volunteering in Bolivia: and you’ll come away with new skills and a wealth of experiences.

Want to build an eco-farm for local Chapare residents as an alternative to the cocaine trade? Want to see inside Bolivia’s health system and lend your expertise? Want to work with animals that only exist in this part of the world? Bolivia does it.

While you’re volunteering, you’ll work with local people, and regardless of your level of Spanish, you’ll be taken under-wing. You’ll eat together, party together, hear about real life there for better or worse, learn how to swear in perhaps several indigenous languages, and get golden tips on travelling onwards to places the usual tourists will miss.

Bolivians are well aware that their world and your world are very different; ask them the questions about Bolivian life and politics, and get under the skin of society. If you choose to live with a local family (which many volunteering companies organise), double all of that and throw in a lifelong friendship. Bolivian families are protective. If you’re young and female, do all the things you want to do, but phone your host and let them know you’re going to be out late. Even if you’re in your 30s. They’ll sit home worrying otherwise, because while you’re with them, you’re part of the family. You’re no hostel guest – they want to spend time with you.

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4. View Bolivia’s best landscapes

So many tourists only pass through Bolivia for a couple of days, on their way to Peru or elsewhere. The intrepid should extend their stay and jump on a bus to see a bit more. Most Bolivians use the bus network to travel the country and the wider Latin American region. With such incredible biodiversity, and such diverse ways of living (houses on sticks in the rainforest, self-built apartments on the city limits, crumbling colonial outposts in the ancient cities and in the Eastern missions area, gated and guarded villa-style mansions for the few wealthy), bussing it doubles up the travel-learning experience.

Each city has a big bus terminal with all the bus companies selling tickets from little offices next to one another: visit a few to ask how much they charge (ida is one way,ida y vuelta is a return), and ask to see the bus if you want to know what you’re getting into.

Trips may be several hours or they may be overnight, or all day. On smaller routes going through villages and isolated areas, you can expect to travel alongsidecampesina (indigenous) women in pollera and pigails, transporting anything from chickens to potatoes or clothes for sale in the markets, other foreigners, and locals of all persuasions. The ladies selling snacks will be there if your bus is an overnight one.

Enjoy the scenery, the hairpin bends and the craggy mountain passes, or the steamy cloud forest climbs, as well as long tracts of Inca road or Spanish colonial pebble dash that make the bus rumble. Take your polar coat, a big bottle of water, some biscuits, your iPod, a little torch and some toilet roll (toilet stops on the way won’t stock it).

Any bus traveller coming into La Paz at first light will be open-mouthed at the sight, as the bus begins to descend from the mountains into the valley of El Alto, the sheer scale and steepness hits you in the face, millions of tiny houses battling gravity to cling to the mountainside, and a million lights blinking with promise.

More locally, Bolivian city transport relies on colectivos (shared taxis) and micros(minibuses) – always have a few Bolivianos in change handy to pay, and have your camera ready to take snaps of the carnival-styled micros that look more like they’re ready to cart diablada dancers. The designated stops micros have are known to locals but not marked on the road; to ask a driver to stop you need to holler ‘en la esquina, por favor!‘ (the corner, please!) to them in enough time for them to stop. It’s not always a corner they’re stopping at, but that’s a catch-all term for a stop. Be loud or be unheard.

5. Colonial culture

The city of Potosi in Bolivia’s south (the world’s highest city at 4,000 metres above sea level) might at first seem quite depressing, but it’s a must-do if you want to understand more about Bolivia’s people and history. A roughshod, down-at-heel little town at first sight, Potosi was the centre of the Spanish empire for 500 years because a little mountain there, cerro rico, continuously produced enough silver to bankroll the expansion of Spanish power across the continent and to Asia.

Today, old churches are the lone representatives of the grandiosity and wealth that characterised the colonial city. You can enter the mines in cerro rico (still in operation) with a guide who is a former miner and a local, who can bring to life the story of the mine and the ruinous legacy for the Bolivian and indigenous people making up the mining community – as well as for the Bolivian national personality. In the centre of town is the Casa de La Moneda, the site of the old colonial mint, now a museum for the mint’s original technologies and for an incredible collection of colonial religious art which, interpreted by a guide, complements your understanding of how silver and Catholicism refashioned Bolivian society.

The main market in Potosi might freak you out: butcher women hang man-sized slabs of meat over flaking, high beams of wood, no sanitation equipment to be seen. But don’t miss a chance to have lunch in the market – try the broth, a sort of minestrone with jumbo-sized pasta or loaded up with quinoa. Bolivians may lack the finer things, but they know how to use spices and flavour to perk up any food, and they’re always pleased to see visitors are willing to judge them not by home standards, but by their own unique riches.

Melanie Stern is a business journalist and is currently completing a Master’s degree in Latin American studies at University College London, focused on Bolivia. You can read more of her reporting on Bolivia at her blog, melstern.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter @melvstern.