- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

In Bolivia, a president was ousted days ago by popular unrest. In Colombia, 26 candidates for municipal elections have been murdered. In Venezuela, the president has lodged ominous threats against those planning to support a recall referendum. This instability in the Andes region comes at an inopportune time for the Bush administration, which is grappling with military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq and negotiating international cooperation with the global war on terror. The United States hardly wants to have its attention diverted by escalating instability in Latin America, particularly since this could bring threats closer to home. In Bolivia on Friday, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned from the presidency in wake of massive protests. Clashes between the military and protesters left about 70 people dead. Former Vice President Carlos Mesa is now in charge but faces deep discontent. On Monday in Washington, the former Bolivian president sounded an alarm: Bolivia could split in two, with the gas-rich southern region “seeking cover from neighbors” and the remainder becoming a coca-cultivating state. The former president is probably exaggerating the threat, but the anger of many Bolivians remains combustible. In Venezuela, the elections authority said recently that a referendum on a recall of President Hugo Chavez could be held from Nov. 28 to Dec. 1. Mr. Chavez warned those planning to sign: “Their names will be recorded forever.” His Defense Ministry dismissed eight military officers for supporting an earlier referendum attempt, a move which the attorney general overturned this week. In Colombia, candidates in local elections are being gunned down by terrorists and more than 136 candidates have dropped out. Sadly, this assault against democracy is nothing new in Colombia. The United States has few cards to play in Latin America and the foreign policy community is giving few concrete recommendations. The State Department has said it will work with others to assist Bolivia. The Organization of American States said aid organizations should support Bolivia “with the urgency the situation deserves.” The United States should try to spur a global agreement on agricultural subsidies, which must be resolved before serious talks on free trade in the Americas can begin. Also, Washington should supplement its support of coca eradication in Latin America with greater funds for rural development. Coca eradication is leaving poor farmers poorer, and even when farmers are willing to grow crops less profitable than coca, their harvest often spoils before it gets to market, due to poor infrastructure. It is questionable, though, how much the United States can help the Andean region through aid and trade. The brewing discontent results from centuries of corruption and inequality that can’t be quickly eliminated or even ameliorated. Given the limited practical policy options, the troubles in the Andes are likely to worsen with little or no international response.

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