Warnings from Bolivia

The recent turmoil in Bolivia– in which the elected president was forced to resign and flee the country– should be setting off more alarms in Washington than it probably is.

Writing in the Washington Post, economist Jeffrey Sachs says US policy toward impoverished Latin American countries like Bolivia– which are struggling to establish stable democracies– is “simplistic and prone to failure.”

In the case of Bolivia, Sachs notes, US policy seems to be a combination of wiping out the coca crop without offering growers any serious alternatives and urging the government to seek assistance (in exchange for economic austerity) from the International Monetary Fund. Sachs writes:

Late last year, [Bolivian president Gonzalo] Sanchez de Lozada visited Washington to warn President Bush about Bolivia’s growing instability. He appealed for $150 million in emergency assistance, a pittance for the United States — less than one day of troop costs in Iraq — to maintain urgent social services and rudimentary public investments in the face of massive poverty and growing unrest. He warned Bush that without emergency help, he would most likely be back within a year . . . seeking asylum. Nevertheless, Bush sent him away empty-handed. Worse, he sent him down Pennsylvania Avenue to the IMF for some economic austerity measures. Only after a police mutiny and two dozen deaths in February did Washington give $10 million. In the end, of course, Sanchez de Lozada’s warnings were all too accurate.

And Sachs notes the huge disparity in US assistance to Iraq compared to the rest of the world: President Bush’s request for $20 billion for Iraq is twice the foreign aid budget for every other country in the world.

To the extent that Bush recognizes that the spread of democracy is a weapon in the war against terrorism, he deserves credit. But in the world’s poorest countries, democratic structures and elections aren’t enough. People need a sense of hope for better lives, and that requires (among other things) money. Insisting that people with no more notches on their belts give them yet another tug for the sake of some promised future prosperity is a sure way to weaken their faith in the idea of representative self-government.