January 26, 2009

Bolivia Approves New Constitution; How Will the Obama Administration Respond?

For Immediate Release: January 26, 2009
Contact: Dan Beeton, 202-239-1460

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Obama administration’s response to Bolivia’s referendum on a new constitution may be key to improved relations between the two countries, according to Mark Weisbrot, co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“If President Obama issues a clear statement indicating support for the constitutional process – as governments in the region undoubtedly will – this will send a message that Washington no longer supports extra-legal or anti-democratic actions against the Bolivian government,” said Weisbrot.

“If not, opposition governors and groups who have vowed to defy the new constitution will likely read Washington’s silence as continued support for their cause,” he said.

Bolivians voted by a margin of 59 to 41 percent according to an unofficial count to approve a new constitution for the country. However, a number of opposition leaders in the provinces where the opposition has a majority have said that they will not accept the national vote as binding on their governments.

Bolivia expelled U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg on September 10, 2008 on the grounds that he, as well as the U.S. government, was supporting the opposition. At the time, opposition groups were engaged in violent protests against the government. Ambassador Goldberg was regarded with suspicion because of his meetings with militant opposition leaders, and because of U.S. funding for opposition groups in Bolivia.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which is part of the U.S. State Department, provided $89 million in funds in Bolivia in 2007.  Despite numerous requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act, the U.S. has not turned over all the names of recipient organizations of USAID funds.

Bolivia’s South American neighbors, grouped together under the regional body UNASUR, have consistently stood by Morales’ government and condemned the violent actions carried out by some in the opposition. In contrast, the Bush administration did not condemn the violence and sabotage by rightwing extremist groups in September – which included a massacre of at least 20 people – nor did it congratulate Morales when he won a recall referendum in August with 67 percent of the vote, an unprecedented show of support for a Bolivian president.

Relations were also strained when it was revealed the U.S. Embassy had more than once asking U.S. citizens – including Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar - to spy inside Bolivia.

Weisbrot noted that the decision on how to respond to the referendum will undoubtedly be made at the highest level of the Obama administration.

“This decision will be noticed throughout Latin America as an indicator of whether the new U.S. administration plans to break with the policies that left its predecessor isolated and mistrusted in the region,” he said.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research is an independent, nonpartisan think tank that was established to promote democratic debate on the most important economic and social issues that affect people's lives. CEPR's Advisory Board of Economists includes Nobel Laureate economists Robert Solow and Joseph Stiglitz; Janet Gornick, Professor at the CUNY Graduate School and Director of the Luxembourg Income Study; Richard Freeman, Professor of Economics at Harvard University; and Eileen Appelbaum, Professor and Director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University.