Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, the recently-oustered President of Bolivia has an impassioned editorial in the Washington Post asking Bolivians to turn away from the same policies that ruined many other Latin American countries.
Last month, as mob rule overwhelmed respect for Bolivia’s democratic process, I became the latest democratically elected Latin American president to be forced out of office. Now that the riots have abated, Bolivians stand at a crossroads: on the one hand, a path that leads toward democracy, development and peace; on the other, the dead end of populism, protectionism and strife. Which path they choose has profound implications, not only for Bolivia but for all the hemisphere.
The challenges my country confronts are many and complex. Centuries of exploitation and inequality have marginalized indigenous people who constitute most of the population. Our mountainous, landlocked terrain poses obstacles to transport and trade. The toll of poverty is magnified by the gulf between rich and poor. Recently, five years of regional recession have taken unemployment to double digits.
These difficult problems help explain why Bolivia’s poor are angry, and why populists’ easy answers hold appeal. But pandering to people’s fears and frustrations is no substitute for leadership. Bolivians need solutions that will change their lives for the better, based on the realities of interdependence, not romantic visions of national self-sufficiency.
Bolivia faces an important crossroads. The leaders of the anti-democratic junta, Evo Morales and Felipe Quispe represent an ideology that would plunge Bolivia into the chaos that de Lozada rescued the nation from a decade ago. A return to isolationism, protectionism, and xenophobic nationalism would ensure that the Bolivian economy would collapse, violence would increase, and Bolivia would be stuck in a position where another restoration of democracy could take decades. The human toll of such a process could be enormous.
Bolivia must clamp down on the illegal drug trade (which helped finance and support de Lozada’s ouster), embrace free and open trade to offer new opportunities for Bolivians, and continue working to free the natural gas resources that could fuel a new and prosperous Bolivia. De Lozada quite correctly states what the consequences of failure could be:
This dark scenario could get even worse. The eastern states of Bolivia sitting on natural gas wealth may resist being shackled in poverty. We might even see a push for secession and a devastating civil war. Such chaos in the continent’s heart would spread beyond Bolivia’s borders, destabilizing its neighbors and disrupting the region’s economy. Taken to the extreme, Bolivia could become the Afghanistan of the Andes, a failed state that exports drugs and disorder.
The United States can help by expanding NAFTA into a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) that would increase opportunities for all in Southern America by opening new markets for US goods and allowing South American imports to enter the United States. Just as NAFTA helped the United States gain job-creating opportunities, an FTAA would have a similar effect. However, the Bolivians must also decide to support free trade rather than engage in the dead end of isolationism and protectionism.
The stakes are high for the Bolivian people. They must make the right choices rather than embrace the dangerous ideologies of the past that would plunge Bolivia into yet another long national nightmare.