Bolivia’s current foreign policy: A primer

September 1, 2017 by Gabriela Keseberg Dávalos 

published in: The Global Americans

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Bolivia’s current foreign policy stands out, characterized by a fierce loyalty to Cuba and Venezuela and a recent friendship with countries like Russia, Iran and China.

Since President Evo Morales assumed office in 2006, Bolivia has embarked on a new foreign policy path, often times resulting in confrontation. Although decisions are argued on the basis of standing against imperialism, Bolivia’s position quite often leaves the country isolated and in a difficult spot diplomatically.

In 2013, Evo Morales’ presidential airplane was barred from entering airspace of three European countries, something unheard of with a democratically elected president. The reason: Edward Snowden was thought to be on board from Russia where he had sought asylum after leaking U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) documents. Days earlier, Morales had said that he was willing to consider offering the former NSA contractor safe passage and asylum in Bolivia.  As a result, the presidential plane was forced to land in Austria under the suspicion that he was smuggling the man wanted by the United States out of Russia. In the end, the episode was nothing but embarrassing for all parties involved. (And no, Snowden was not on the plane). But it demonstrated a lack of diplomatic finesse regarding a highly sensitive subject.

Bolivia’s allegiance to some non-democratic governments has extended beyond diplomatic rhetoric. This last April, Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations (UN), a current member of the Security Council, strongly condemned the U.S. missile attack on Syria. Together with Russia, he voted against a thorough and independent investigation of the alleged chemical attack against the Syrian population. The subsequent impression was that Bolivia was defending, if not even covering up for, the Syrian regime and its illegal use of chemical weapons against its own people.

During the MERCOSUR meeting in Argentina in July 2017, Bolivia refused to sign the joint letter condemning violence in Venezuela. Considering that Bolivia is a candidate to MERCOSUR and could benefit strongly from the trade bloc, allying itself with the other members of MERCOSUR could have come in handy. But ideological sympathies trumped national economic interest.

Bolivia’s foreign policy shifts during the past decade can best be illustrated by the country’s relation with four countries.

The three amigos: Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia

Bolivia’s loyalty to Venezuela is striking. Bolivia is the only country in South America that remains a strong ally and defender of president Nicolás Maduro.  Since elected, Morales has been closely tied to the Chavista project in Venezuela.  In fact, on his first world tour, he went straight from La Paz to Havana and to Caracas. From 2006 to 2010, Venezuela donated approximately $290 million for Morales’ state program titled “Bolivia cambia, Evo cumple”(“Bolivia changes, Evo delivers”). Bolivia agreed to export soy worth $13 millionper month to its petro-rich ally. In return, Venezuela exported 200,000 barrels of diesel to Bolivia.  (As a result of this exchange, Bolivia owed Venezuela $146 million for the purchase of diesel by 2013.)

The story hasn’t changed much with Nicolás Maduro in power. Morales has not only defended his Venezuelan counterpart on several occasions, but even declared Bolivia’s “unconditional support” for the regime. He recently went as far as saying that “to defend Venezuela is to defend Latin America’s sovereignty”.

And more recently in April 2017, only minutes after taking over the presidency of the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Permanent Council, Bolivia isolated itself within the organization. Twenty member states had requested an urgent meeting on Venezuela to debate on a possible use of the democratic charter. Bolivia cancelled the meeting without further explanation or consultation, putting itself in a tough position for a presidency that had just started. Eventually, the meeting took place without Bolivian participation.

Bolivia’s relationship with Cuba is also extremely tight. In the words of Cuba’s deputy minister for external relations during his 2016 visit to Bolivia, bilateral relations are “excellent.”  Morales’ first stop as a president was to Cuba.

Both countries deepened their friendship after 2006, when Morales took power. In the following decade, Cuban doctors performed $63 million in medical care treatments for Bolivian patients while more than 5,000 Bolivian doctors were being trained in Cuba. Although no exact data are available, Bolivia spends an average of a thousand dollars per month per Cuban doctor (figures from Brazil and Venezuela vary between three and nine thousand per month). The estimated gain for Cuba in 2014 accounted for approximately $7 billion from medical international exchange.  And it was in Havana that Morales got a benign tumor extracted in 2017.

The status of the relationship is best shown by the exchange of diplomats.  Appointed this past May, the new Bolivian ambassador to Cuba is not just anyone. Ramón Quintana is a former federal minister,  a veteran—trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA)—and a close confidant of the president.  Quintana assured that during this mission he will “strengthen the relationship between both countries and seek support among Caribbean nations in favor of Bolivia’s maritime demand against Chile” (that of obtaining a gateway to the Pacific Ocean).

Cuba and Venezuela both support Bolivia’s maritime demand in all international forums. As a token of appreciation, Bolivia always votes in sync with these two countries in international and multilateral forums such as the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Chile and the U.S.

Bolivia’s relationship with Chile is eternally tense.  The central issue is the loss of Bolivia’s access to the coast since the Pacific War with Chile in 1879.  As a result of these tensions, the two neighboring countries cut diplomatic ties in 1978. Despite the official animosity, personal exchanges remain rich and deep.  Many Bolivians study in Chilean universities or seek medical assistance that can’t be found in Bolivia.

Despite the fact that Chilean President Michelle Bachelet kicked off relations with Bolivia on good terms, the dispute over the coast has made it all the way to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Two former Bolivian presidents from the opposition are behind the trial and serve as speakers for the case, demonstrating the non-partisan nature of Bolivia’s demand. The maritime claim is the one topic all Bolivians agree on.

In his Independence Day speech this year (August 6th), Morales seemed to reach out to Chile, declaring the following: “Brothers, we are convinced to establish dialogue, direct dialogue, or with mediation via The Hague. There should not be any losers or winners.” Following this statement, the two countries have found themselves cooperating, specifically in the fight against smuggling and drug trafficking at the joint border.  How the relation will continue to evolve depends much on the outcome of the Chilean presidential election later this year.

Bolivia’s relationship with the United States has traditionally been very close. Some might say too close.

But since Morales took power it has turned sour. Relations became openly hostile shortly after Morales’ election, in parallel with the troubled U.S.-Venezuelan relations. Since 2008, the U.S. and Bolivia have not had ambassadorial relations.  Bolivia also expelled the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and US Agency for International Development (USAID) from the country, and the war on drugs remains a main point of disagreement.

And although many in Bolivia saluted cutting relations, it hurt the country’s economy. The textile-manufacturing sector, which benefitted from tariff preferences with the U.S. under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), practically went broke after relations cooled. It lost important clients, among them big brands like Polo Ralph Lauren, Polo Kids, Polo Jeans and Express. One company AMETEX, continued exports to the U.S. for a value of $30 to $40 million per year.

Indeed, the country was too dependent on the United States, financially and politically speaking.  In the 1990’s a common joke among Bolivians was that the U.S. ambassador ran the country.  The deterioration of relations with the U.S. forced Bolivia to seek other markets, unfortunately with little success. And even though Venezuela and other countries started buying the leftover textiles, it was not enough to save the sector, demonstrating that ideological affinities and alliances are not sufficient to sustain balanced trade relations. At ATPDEA’s highest point, around 120 thousand people worked in the sector. Little by little, thousands lost their jobs or had to switch fields.

This year, the U.S. and Bolivia agreed on a framework to restore their ambassador posts.  But, almost in parallel, high officials on the Bolivian side accused the U.S. of political meddling and even of attempts of destabilizing the government. Given the long history of U.S. interfering in Latin American politics, accusations of that kind fall on fertile ground among the local population. So for now, plans of rekindling the relation remain on hold.

Who benefits?

Bolivia’s current foreign policy can be seen as consistent, but not necessarily pragmatic or beneficial for anyone outside the government party. Just as President Trump is constantly addressing his voter base and not the entire country, Morales focuses on what works well with his trusted audience and not necessarily what is best for Bolivia as a whole. (The only exception being the frosty relation with Chile uniting popular opinion in Bolivia.)

Diplomacy is not taken too seriously either. Out of 33 ambassadors, only five are career diplomats (posted in Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Great Britain and Uruguay). And out of 37 consul generals, 24 are former partisans of the administration. After an eight-day crash course, they are sent out into the world to represent Bolivia.

Bolivia often imitates Iran and Venezuela’s “noisy diplomacy,” replicating a defying discourse toward the U.S. and its allies, and through a voting pattern in international forums often favoring Venezuela. Many of these actions have hurt Bolivia’s image in the world. Recall the Syria chemical weapons attack episode, where Bolivia’s lack of condemnation put the country on the wrong side of history.

The result of this behavior is often economic isolation. Bolivia is as attractive a recipient of foreign investment, and its international contracts often lack transparency. A simple look at the Cuban doctors example proves the point.  There are still no official numbers available on on how much Bolivia is spending for Cuba’s health care.   Another example is Bolivia’s state contracts with China. In 2016 the Chinese engineering company CAMC was awarded six out of seven state contracts without any formal bidding process. (Almost $500 million was spent without much paperwork required.)

Bolivian Congress, La Paz

A flip in history?

Recently, Bolivian foreign minister Fernando Huancanuni announced that as part of the government’s “Plan 2025” Bolivia aims to establish diplomatic relations with all countries—an ambitious but beneficial goal if it comes through. To achieve it, however, Morales’ government will need to reduce confrontation and adopt a more pragmatic strategy focusing on Bolivia’s own interests. But above all, he will need more than just relying on a few unpopular and controversial allies, both domestically and at international fora.   Doing so would benefit not only Morales’ country and its national interests but also its citizens.