By Allan Gillies
The last remaining DEA agents left Bolivia in January 2009, bringing to a close more than three decades of DEA-presence within the country. President Evo Morales had ordered the expulsion of the US agency in response to the harms caused by the ‘war on drugs’ and perceived US-meddling in the internal affairs of Bolivia. As part of the dispute, Morales had also expelled US Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg in September 2008, accusing the US of fomenting civil discord. ‘Without fear of the US empire, I stand before the Bolivian people today and declare United States Ambassador Mr. Goldberg persona non-grata,’ Morales announced, ‘We don't want people here who conspire against our unity. We don't want people who threaten our democracy.’ The period thus marked a nadir in US-Bolivian relations, and a turning-point for the course of counterdrug policy in Bolivia. For better or worse, the Bolivian government would now seek to cut its own path: moving away from the drug war approach of the US. But how did US-Bolivia relations arrive at this point? What were the historical antecedents of this point of fracture? Drawing on 27 oral history accounts with US and Bolivian political actors, the paper considers Bolivia’s post-transition period as a key moment in this history of fractious US-Bolivian relations and the ‘war on drugs’ in the Andes.
Many of the same themes of grievance raised by Morales were apparent during this period. Bolivia transitioned to democracy in 1982 against a background of economic crisis. The imposition of harsh-neoliberal structural reforms would bring stability to the national economy, but at a severe social cost. For large swathes of the population, the coca-cocaine economy provided a vital social-safety net during this period of crisis. Furthermore, narcodollars played a crucial role in helping to stabilise the economy: boosting national reserves and inward investment. Given these socio-economic realities and the relative absence of drug-related violence in Bolivia, there was a level of ambivalence towards the drug trade. Instead, the escalation of the US ‘war on drugs’ was, at-times, viewed to pose the greater risk to Bolivia’s social, political and economic stability. This US drug war approach included the militarisation of counterdrug operations and coca eradication. For many Bolivians, the exercise of US power in advancing its counterdrug goals invoked ‘Yankee Imperialism’ and recent memories of US-Cold War interference in Bolivia. US agencies, for example, operated in Bolivia with little local oversight, while Bolivian politicians from this period believed accusations of drug corruption were used to silence opponents of US policy. Perceptions that US counterdrug policy ran contrary to local interests, and that the US exploited the ‘war on drugs’ to exercise control in Bolivia, created an atmosphere of mistrust between the US Embassy and the Bolivian government. As evidenced by the expulsion of the DEA in 2008 and the breakdown of US-Bolivian relations, such mistrust continues to manifest itself to this day. Speaking in June 2017, Morales stated, ‘I do not regret the decision to expel the DEA. The United States used the “war on drugs” in order to control the country's politics and loot our natural resources’.