NEW YORK AND WASHINGTON — With presidential elections in Bolivia on Sunday, Washington is buzzing with talk that another Latin American country may be "lost."
Evo Morales, a former president of Bolivia's coca-growers' union and the leader of the Movement Toward Socialism party, is the current front-runner, according to the latest polls. If he wins the election, Mr. Morales will be the latest head of state to join the ranks of the region's burgeoning New Left, already comprised of Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. For the Bush administration and conservative pundits, this would qualify as an unmitigated catastrophe.
Bolivia, however, is far from lost. By proposing a new path to development, a Morales administration would offer genuine hope of alleviating endemic hardship and inequality in South America's poorest country. And if spreading democracy is truly the goal of US foreign policy, the United States should welcome such new approaches rather than demanding that other nations elect officials subservient to the views that currently prevail in the White House.
The Bush administration's consistent mistake in dealing with Latin America has been to equate freedom with the pursuit of a rigid program of its preferredeconomic policies. It has valued "free" markets over democratic independence. This stance, not a novel one for US administrations, has repeatedly generated tensions with such progressive leaders as Argentina's Néstor Kirchner, Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and Uruguay's Tabaré Vázquez. The administration's most prominent antagonist in the region, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, needs only to point to the White House's early celebration - if not active support - of an antidemocratic coup against him in 2002 to illustrate the thinness of Bush's prodemocracy rhetoric.
In Bolivia, democracy is now set to collide with the economic policies Washington prefers. American oil and gas companies doing business there reaped substantial profits from privatizing the country's gas industry in the early 1990s, and they had high hopes of being able to increase their windfalls by exporting Bolivia's gas to the energy-hungry US market. Corporate gains did not trickle down to Bolivia's poor, however, and massive protests against privatization have forced the resignation of two presidents in two years. They have also made a political star of Morales, a candidate who promises to redirect gas industry profits toward Bolivia's social needs.
The Bush administration has watched Morales's rise to prominence with a sense of quiet hysteria. Morales has been slandered by conservatives who label him a drug trafficker, a charge that has never been substantiated. He and other coca farmers point out that although coca is used to produce cocaine, the natural plant leaves have ancestral importance for Bolivia's indigenous people. State Department officials regard him as a puppet of Mr. Chávez and Fidel Castro. If their regular stream of insults has been muted of late, it is only because the administration is aware that its past criticism has boosted Morales's popularity in a region where Washington's policies are viewed with skepticism.
There's no reason to fear a Morales victory. While he is committed to pushing for a political program that will benefit Bolivia's poor and indigenous majority, Morales has shown consistent respect for the democratic process.
Since US-sponsored coca eradication efforts in Bolivia and elsewhere have had little to no effect on cocaine use in the US, a Morales victory should be occasion for Washington to reevaluate its failed drug war rather than to propagate alarmist rhetoric.
In terms of economic policy, Latin American leaders have increasingly concluded that the fiscal austerity and market reforms implemented in past decades under direction from the US, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank have only exacerbated inequality. Despite an abundance of natural resources, over two-thirds of Bolivians live in poverty, and nearly half subsist on less than one dollar per day.
According to the World Bank, extreme poverty increased 5.8 percent between 1999 and 2002, and the gap between the rich and poor grew wider. Across the continent, per capita income hardly inched upward during the 1980s and '90s, when policies of corporate globalization held sway, while it had surged in previous decades.
It remains to be seen if Latin America's New Left will be able to reverse this situation by fashioning bold solutions to poverty in Bolivia and beyond. Certainly, it deserves the chance to try. In this context, demonizing Morales will not advance our true national interests of promoting freedom and human development. But cheering an independent and democratic Bolivia just might.
• Mark Engler is an analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus. Nadia Martinez coordinates the Americas program for the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies. Research assistance was provided by Kate Griffiths.