January 25, 2006
Caution: President Morales Abroad
Taking his oath of
office in La Paz, the flamboyant new president of Bolivia, Evo
Morales, railed against the exploiters of his country. In his
fiery campaign he had said that the government had done nothing
for Bolivia "in the last 50 years." The country itself
is 500 years old, and "we are here to change history."
At one point in the
late '50s, Bolivia registered its 48th coup d'etat since World
War II. As a magazine editor, I proposed to my colleagues that
we counsel the new government to set a date to celebrate the 50th
coup d'etat. But the following coup had a long life under a military
government, and the return to democracy didn't happen until 1982.
The Morales administration
is deadly serious about a very different future for Bolivia. Evo
(as in "Evo, Evo, Evo!" -- the cry that greeted him
from fellow parliamentarians when he took office) heads up a party
called Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). He himself received 54
percent of the vote in December's election, and his party won
the lower house of parliament outright and effective control of
the upper house. This gives Morales, he believes, the power to
change history by rejecting "neoliberalism" and "imperialism"
The idea, in A.D.
2006, of aiming at reform by movement toward socialism is at best
quaint. Evo's new best friends are Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez
of Venezuela, who has promised to swap Venezuelan oil for Bolivian
soya, and to throw in a $30 million gift. It isn't obvious what's
to be done to eliminate colonialism, inasmuch as foreign aid accounts
for 10 percent of Bolivia's GDP. Achieving socialism takes time,
and a great deal of aid from non-socialists.
is committed to nationalizing the oil and gas industry and to
ending graft. Brazil and Spain are the sources of most of the
investment in Bolivian oil and gas exploration, and this is a
problem that seems to be slowing down the Morales agenda. Brazil's
leader is a socialist, as is Spain's, but that doesn't mean that
Brazilian and Spanish capital will flow into Bolivia to help it
along in its movement toward socialism.
But Mr. Morales makes
an arresting point on the matter of coca. The coca growers of
Bolivia, who backed MAS in the election, deeply resent U.S. policy
calling for the eradication of coca. This resentment Bolivia shares
with Afghanistan, where there is a quiet return to the rewarding
production of heroin and opium.
Morales shapes his
complaint in language similar to that which has been used by the
father of the movement against socialism, Milton Friedman -- the
language of free trade. Whose problem is it that many Americans
use cocaine? And that they desire it intensely enough to give
it a street price sufficient to support Bolivian producers at
every level -- the agricultural workers, the refiners and the
The point is in part
cynical, because Morales knows perfectly well that human weakness
will always produce a demand for toxic substances, if they provide
intense pleasures en route to devastation. But he is shrewd enough
to pick up on the point of free trade -- even though it is a part
of the neoliberalism he has otherwise denounced. What right does
the U.S. government have to convert its concern for weak-minded
Americans into a veto power on Bolivian agriculture?
Those who say that
drug regulation is in the national interest, and therefore it
is the responsibility of government to exclude substances that
damage and even kill their users, can easily cope with conventional
arguments against government intervention. But one country's right
to protect its own citizens against another country's products
does not automatically grant the right to forbid that country
the freedom to produce them.
We have recognized
the problem in various ways. One is by forthright subsidies: grants
made, e.g., to Colombia to be used to compensate farmers whose
lands are confiscated or sprayed with crop-destroying chemicals.
But of course such programs depend on cooperation by the foreign
government in question. A foreign government can attempt to have
it both ways: accept U.S. compensation money, yet decline to oversee
agricultural production vigilantly enough to stamp out the targeted
Mr. Morales is going
one step further, threatening to revise policy on libertarian
grounds. Let the United States meet its own problems in any way
it chooses. But do not let it rely on a venerable, 500-year-old
nation to undertake its dirty work.
The way problems of
this kind get sorted out is by material bidding. There may come
a point at which good socialist Evo will acquiesce in arrangements
desired by the United States. If every coca grower in Bolivia
were given a house in the south of France, that would appease
them. But Morales has made his point, and we will have to straighten
up our disorderly theoretical house and admit that we have to
pay for what we want from Bolivians for the protection of Americans.
2006 Universal Press Syndicate