Bolivia’s Radical Realignment


ith the nationalization of Bolivia’s
natural gas and petroleum resources, President Evo Morales is dramatically
reshaping his country’s destiny. On May 1 he proclaimed “an
historic day has arrived. Now the gas and oil that flows from our
land will no longer belong to foreigners.” This came just after
his return from Havana, Cuba where he signed the People’s Trade
Agreement with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. 

Until these dramatic steps, it was somewhat unclear in what direction
Morales was moving during his first three months in office. He and
his foreign minister held at least four talks with U.S. Ambassador
David Greenlee in which both sides seemingly extended the olive
branch. As Greenlee said in March after one meeting, “We have
a constructive dialogue with the government of Bolivia over a wide
range of themes and mutual interests.” 

Two factors compelled Morales to seize the country’s national
resources and to realign the country internationally: (1) the militancy
of the country’s peasant, worker, and indigenous movements,
and (2) the decision of the U.S. to foist “free trade”
agreements that would damaged Bolivian exports to other Andean nations. 

Morales and his political party, MAS (the Movement for Socialism),
took power in January with a clear popular mandate. Until May 1
some of the country’s popular movements felt that Morales had
reneged on his campaign promises as he did little more than state
that Bolivia already “owned its resources.” His approval
ratings dropped from 80 to 68 percent. But as one observer in La
Paz notes, “Evo is a masterful politician. Morales chose this
moment to act because of the elections for the Constituent Assembly
that are scheduled for July. The assembly will have the power to
redraft the country’s constitution and reshape its political

As Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linares has noted, the goal of MAS
is “to achieve hegemony” and the Constituent Assembly
is central to this process. Bolivia has been unstable for years
because of poverty, military revolts, and the conniving of the country’s
political elites as they loot the public treasury. As in Venezuela,
prior to Hugo Chavez’s election, the traditional parties are
viewed as bankrupt. 

With the government’s expropriation decree, 15 corporations
have been nationalized, along with foreign capital from a wide variety
of nations, including the U.S., Spain, Great Britain, Brazil, France,
and the Netherlands. Seizing control of these enterprises goes hand
in hand with Bolivia’s audacious steps in the trade arena.
MAS and Morales view neo-liberalism, U.S. trade agreements, and
corporate-driven globalization as major obstacles to their country’s
development. This year Colombia signed a so-called “free trade
agreement” with the United States that is particularly harmful
to Bolivia. Sixty percent of Bolivia’s major agricultural export,
soy beans, currently goes to Colombia. The U.S.-Colombian accord
means that subsidized U.S. grains will flood Colombia, driving out
Bolivian soy production. 

Peru has also signed a trade agreement with the U.S. that will have
an adverse impact on Bolivian exports to Peru. These accords have
ruptured the 37-year-old Andean Community of Nations, a trade pact
that included Venezuela and Ecuador, as well as Bolivia. Chavez
announced in April that Venezuela was withdrawing from the pact
because the U.S. had “fatally wounded” the community.
Morales has also stated that Bolivia is reconsidering its membership. 

discontent with the Andean community led to the signing of the People’s
Trade Agreement on April 29. The accord is particularly favorable
to Bolivia as Cuba and Venezuela have agreed to take all of Bolivia’s
soy production, as well as other agricultural commodities, at market
prices or better. Venezuela will also ship oil to Bolivia to meet
domestic shortfalls in production while Cuba will send doctors. 

This trade agreement and the nationalization of Bolivia’s natural
resources mark a dramatic shift in hemispheric affairs. Morales
is serving notice that he is becoming part of a radical bloc of
Latin American nations that are no longer subservient to the United


Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas in
Berkeley. His recent books are

The Pinochet Affair:
State Terrorism and Global Justice

, and

Imperial Overstretch:
George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire,

both from  Zed Books