Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Deja vu in Quito

I had an invitation to speak at an Ecuadorian studies meeting that took me to Quito for six days at the end of the summer. The papers were the usual mélange of subjects, with highly-varying degrees of experience and expertise, but the theme that ran continuously through the week was how small the world is. I made at least half a dozen unexpected encounters, (almost)all of them pleasant.

The Facultad de Ciencias Sociales was my gracious host, providing airfare and accommodations at Hotel Quito. My wife and I have warm memories of this place from my Fulbright lectureship 1992 when we would take the kids to the hotel’s Sunday brunch and avail ourselves of their facilities. Otherwise I managed only a minimum of nostalgic events between the conference, a visit to Ecuador’s excellent military mapping facility, the new National Museum and the used book shops in the old city.

Before the conference even began, I spoke with Will Waters, one of the organizers, and learned that he had graduated from Cornell in 1981 and worked with the late Fred Buttle whose ex-wife is a friend of my current one. All right, that’s two degrees of separation, but it gets closer. No sooner had Will and I parted than I spotted Nelly Gonzalez, my counterpart at the University of Illinois, who was in Quito buying books. She plans to retire in the fall, so this is her last trip on Illinois’ dime. Nelly offered up memories of her long career over coffee and pastries.

After attending a session on Ecuadorian migration, a phenomenon that experts believe has moved 20% of Ecuadorians overseas in the last ten years, a young woman came up to me and introduced herself as a Cornell graduate in sociology. She went on to reveal that she is the daughter of an Ecuadorian mother and a Peace Corps volunteer and was en route to visit her grandmother in Ambato. In the course of our brief conversation, she told me that she had three children and an engineer for husband. It only later occurred to me that the engineer must be Raul Casas, whom Peggy and I sponsored in the mid 1980s. We went to their wedding in New Jersey.

On the second day I gave my paper and a radio interview. At the talk, I was pleased to notice some familiar faces in the front row, half-a-dozen of my former students from the Fulbright lectures I gave fifteen years ago. We adjourned directly to La Choza, Quito’s canonical Ecuadorian-food restaurant (lapingachos, seco de chivo, locro de papa-- the whole nine yards), where another ten or so alumni joined the group. I was delighted to learn that they have battened. Many head university libraries in the city and one is Ecuador’s Librarian of Congress. I realized a long time ago that the thing I most regret about my career choice is not having the opportunity to contribute substantially to student’s intellectual growth.

And if all this weren’t enough, on my last day in the city I ran into Juan Jauriegui of the University of San Andres in La Paz, Bolivia. Both of us were browsing the shelves of an antiquarian bookstore in the old city. The last time I saw Juan, he had asked me for a reference to FLACSO’s PhD program. He’s now half way through, with the thesis to go.

I ended the trip with an unpleasant encounter, a rendezvous with one of Quito’s many thieves. He managed to make off with my backpack as I insouciantly worked away at an Internet café. The fingersmith (whom I never saw) got neither my passport nor much money-- hope he wasn’t too disappointed.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Meanwhile Back in Bolivia

Evo Morales’ stunningly decisive victory in the 2005 national elections came with a promise to increase the economic and political power of Bolivia’s Native American majority. His triumph reprised that of Hamas on the West Bank in forcing the United States to deal with an unfriendly but democratically-elected regime. The Bush administration has grudgingly conceded Morales’ popularity, but it remains unwilling to recognize his legitimacy. By refusing to appreciate that Morales and his allies represent a profound desire to change the status quo through peaceful means, the United States clings to a policy with little support in Latin America and one that will continue to erode U.S. influence in the region.

Since his election, Morales has been confronted by a loose coalition of national and regional politicians opposed to his platform. Despite ongoing negotiations, intermittently mediated by Catholic prelates and representatives of the Organization of American States, positions have only hardened in the past two years. What began as a legitimate dispute over how Morales and his allies would govern escalated into the pattern of street demonstrations, roadblocks, and building takeovers characteristic of Bolivian politics. In September Morales and his adversaries seemed willing to take the country over one of the Andean nation’s many cliffs. Violence spiked, culminating with the massacre of 18 peasants at Cobija, in the Bolivian Amazon. And, in the midst of the upheaval, Morales declared U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg persona non grata.

Bolivia’s relations with the United States are colored by its traditional reliance on large amounts of economic assistance and our ambassadors’ proclivity for inflammatory remarks made to the local media. Morales has chosen to employ his own brand of verbal pyrotechnics which fires up his base but are often quoted in the North American press as evidence of his instability. The appointment of a career diplomat as ambassador was initially viewed in Bolivia as the beginning of a new relationship with the United States. However, Goldberg quickly proved himself a vociferous advocate for coca eradication and became embroiled in the struggle between Morales and his political opponents. In August of 2007 Bolivian officials accused the United States of channeling money to conservative opponents of the government, and Morales himself later threatened “radical actions” against ambassadors who meddle in his country’s internal affairs. Goldberg’s departure was triggered by his subsequent meeting with prominent members of the opposition, giving the impression of U.S. support.

At the end of October, Bolivia began to walk back from the brink. Violence subsided as did the political impasse. A new constitution, which embodies many of the issues central to Morales and his allies is before the Bolivian legislature. And demands for greater regional autonomy, especially control of petroleum and natural gas revenues, will be decided within the framework of political discourse rather than through street violence. But it was an alliance of South American nations, notably excluding the United States, that defused the crisis.

The Bush administration’s relationship with Bolivia is based almost solely on coca eradication. So when the State Department’s Annual Report on Major Drug Transit or Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries, released on September 15, found that Bolivia “failed demonstrably” to enact counter narcotics strategies in the year 2007, it threatened to suspend several aid programs. Bolivians were quick to disagree with the report, pointing out that the annual increase of coca production in their country was smaller than that of Peru and much smaller than Colombia’s, neither of which was sanctioned. Eleven days later, President Bush requested that Congress suspend Bolivia’s preferential tariffs under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. As the New York Times noted in its editorial of October 6, these decertifications seem more a reaction to the expulsion of Ambassador Goldberg than part of a coherent foreign policy.

While the United States threatened sanctions, a recently-constituted regional organization undertook constructive action. UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, met in emergency session four days after the Cobija massacre. On the same day that the State Department released its Annual Report, seven heads of state and representatives of four other South American nations quickly hammered out a nine-point plan that strongly supports Bolivia’s democratically elected government and urges all parties to enter immediate negotiation. UNASUR’s unequivocal backing of Morales, its refusal to recognize any of his opponents as legitimate representatives of the state, and its insistence on the territorial integrity of Bolivia broke a two-year old stalemate.

While it is still too early to declare the Bolivian political crisis resolved, the quick actions of UNASUR offer Bolivians a chance to resolve their problems through political means. U.S. policy in the region, tying economic aid to drug eradication, is narrow in its approach and punitive in its interpretation. It has failed to offer democratically-elected governments the means to foster domestic peace and stability, outcomes that serve the interests of all concerned. It is time for a new administration in Washington to offer a new approach to Latin America.