Last month, Bolivia elected leftist Evo Morales as President. The election was a disappointment for Washington, since they clearly didn't favor Morales (a close ally of Hugo Chavez), who had promised that he would only cooperate in the 'war on drugs' if guarantees are offered that Washington is reluctant to offer; Bolivia is a major producer of coca, the main ingredient of cocaine. However, in the past many indigenous farmers, even those growing other crops or producing small amounts of coca for sale in local markets have had their farms wiped out in large scale military operations involving Bolivian military with American support. The small farmers and others living in rural Bolivia in turn provided a large margin for Morales when he took a tough tack on ending these operations, allowing him to win the Presidency.
Of all the countries where someone like Morales could get elected, Bolivia is the one where one problem in particular, that has festered all over Latin America since the days of Bolivar, screams the loudest for attention: military corruption. It is only recently that the 'coup a year' adage was no longer completely true for Bolivia (for years, we were reminded that since gaining independence in 1826, Bolivia averaged 'a coup a year.') Despite the fact that Bolivia has, like the rest of Latin America, made the transition to Democracy, the military in Bolivia still considers itself the most powerful institution in the country, making a coup a distinct possibility at any time. And Morales is well aware of the abortive coup attempt that his mentor, Chavez, faced in 2002 (a coup attempt which the Bush administration initially welcomed, until it became obvious that it would fail.) In his first test of leadership, Morales moved swiftly to address this potential threat.
He appointed a lower tier general, Wilfredo Alfredo Vargas, to head the armed forces. Many of the higher ranking generals were furious at being passed over. Apparently they believe that the old way of doing things in Bolivia should be followed. However, let's note that first, the President has the right to appoint anyone he feels comfortable with to head the armed forces, second, that given the history of coups in Bolivia, it is probably wise of him to pick who he trusts ahead of who is looking to move up, and third, since his stated objective is to get rid of corruption in the military, we may assume that when choosing a leader, he looked at who was honest ahead of who had picked their way up the ladder in the old system. The claims that Vargas is unqualified don't ring true, either. They would if Morales had picked a political hack to head the military, or if he had picked a private, or a sergeant, but a general, even a lower level one, probably knows enough about the military to make intelligent decisions about how to run it.
In fact, Morales had good reason to feel he couldn't trust the existing military establishment.
The decision to send 28 Chinese shoulder-launched missiles to the United States for destruction prompted Morales' predecessor to fire a top army chief, whom Morales replaced in Tuesday's ceremony at the Government Palace...
Morales argued during his campaign that the decision to turn the missiles over to the U.S. was illegal because it was not authorized by Congress.
Now the issue here isn't whether the missiles were obsolete, as the army claimed, nor whether it happened under Morales' predecessor or under Morales. It is that apparently in Bolivia the army still believes that they can make decisions like this in open defiance of the civilian leadership.
He did make one decision I'm not so sure about:
Morales also named new army, navy, air force and police chiefs.
Bolivian navy? Did I miss something?
Morales, whose leftist government took power Sunday on promises to reinvent Bolivia by fighting poverty, discrimination and corruption, said he would investigate the missile case.
"I regret that some of the generals are under scrutiny by the government," he said. "They have to submit themselves for investigation."
"It's important to strengthen our armed forces because a country without a military is not a free and sovereign country."
Now, Morales has not said that he isn't willing to cooperate with Washington on policy issues, including the war on drugs. He has only said that it has to be done on an equal footing, and the rights of farmers and others who are only making a living have to be respected.
He is definitely a leftist:
In addition to supporting small farmers and loading his government with union leaders and other political activists, he appointed a Marxist known for criticizing gas and oil companies to oversee Bolivia's energy policy.
But regardless of his politics, he is clearly an able leader who knows the score, if his first few days in office are any indication. Washington had probably best get used to the idea of dealing with Evo Morales for the next several years.