Monday, May 15, 2006

Beacon No. 87: Good Deeds Punished


In “U.S. Aid Can't Win Bolivia's Love as New Suitors Emerge,” Juan Forero describes the ascent of Cuban and Venezuelan influence in the landlocked South American state:

For decades, the United States has given hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Bolivia, spending on everything from roads to rural health care. But these days, to Washington's dismay, it is Cuba and Venezuela that Bolivians in places like this small farming community are embracing because of new assistance programs from those countries.

Aid from Havana and Caracas has been flowing into Bolivia since a Socialist union leader, Evo Morales, became president in January, and it signals a deepening partnership with the Bush administration's most prominent regional antagonists.

It also highlights Washington's seeming inability, despite its formidable spending, to win over Bolivians. Many Bolivians have come to associate American aid almost exclusively with a generation-old anti-drug policy to wipe out coca, the raw material for cocaine, which has led to years of political unrest here.

"The United States just subordinates Latin America and Bolivia, and it bothers me, it really bothers me," said Enrique de la Cruz, 25, a medical student who was waiting for a bus in El Palomar, where many people live in simple adobe homes. "The alliances with Venezuela and Cuba are super."

Morales has taken steps to start nationalizing its energy industry, which is dominated by foreign or foreign-partnered companies. This has drawn the special ire of Brazil because Morales’ moves threaten Brazil’s careful campaign to move the country away from petroleum dependence.

If you keep reading, Forero’s story turns into a wonderful dueling-banjos story of feuding foreign-aid providers in one of Latin America’s backwaters:

CUBA: Send doctors.

UNITED STATES: Prop up the national airline.

CUBA/VENEZUELA: Start literacy classes.

VENEZUELA: Help nationalize the energy industry.

UNITED STATES: Build houses for the poor.

VENEZUELA: Build 109 radio stations.

UNITED STATES: Create rural justice centers for legal advice!

VENEZUELA: Fund scholarships for Bolivian health workers!

UNITED STATES: Electrify the budding city of Santa Cruz!!

VENEZUELA: Buy Bolivia’s entire soybean crop!!

UNITED STATES: Finance 27 health clinics!!!

In some ways, the U.S. construction of Bolivian infrastructure has been a bribe to past governments in La Paz to allow Americans to continue coca eradication; but when the crunch comes, it appears that Bolivians don’t value roads and electricity as much as whatever aid Venezuela and Cuba provide—as in the story’s most touching anecdote, concerning a literacy program the two countries are undertaking:

Ms. [Francisca] Tarqui, the 83-year-old woman, was most upbeat about the [Cuban and Venezuelan] help. An Aymara Indian whose Spanish is shaky, she grew up in Bolivia's desolate countryside, far from any school.

"Now I am going to go to school," she said, looking forward to the literacy classes. "I always wanted to learn to read."

President Morales has declared Bolivia and its new allies an “axis of good,” a poke at the miserable monster of El Norte. It wouldn’t be worth the Bush administration’s time to try to paint the three as a new axis of evil; Venezuela is no Germany, Cuba no Japan, and Bolivia no Italy—despite being relatively poor, wavering and vulnerable as Italy was during both world wars.

Perhaps it wouldn’t take that much to nudge Bolivia back toward the U.S. fold, or shake President Morales out of his we-can-live-without-the-U.S. posturing. Consider the situation of South Korea when its new, somewhat anti-U.S. president Roh Moo-hyun started blustering about the presence of U.S. troops along the border with the North. All it took was for Donald Rumsfeld to say, publicly and politely, that perhaps the Korean president was correct and the U.S. should withdraw its troops from the South—and Roh immediately, almost magically, backpedaled.

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