Taking his oath of office in La Paz, the flamboyant new president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, railed against the exploiters of his country. In his fiery campaign he had said that the government had done nothing for Bolivia "in the last 50 years." The country itself is 500 years old, and "we are here to change history."
At one point in the late '50s, Bolivia registered its 48th coup d'etat since World War II. As a magazine editor, I proposed to my colleagues that we counsel the new government to set a date to celebrate the 50th coup d'etat. But the following coup had a long life under a military government, and the return to democracy didn't happen until 1982.
The Morales administration is deadly serious about a very different future for Bolivia. Evo (as in "Evo, Evo, Evo!" -- the cry that greeted him from fellow parliamentarians when he took office) heads up a party called Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). He himself received 54 percent of the vote in December's election, and his party won the lower house of parliament outright and effective control of the upper house. This gives Morales, he believes, the power to change history by rejecting "neoliberalism" and "imperialism" and corruption.
The idea, in A.D. 2006, of aiming at reform by movement toward socialism is at best quaint. Evo's new best friends are Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who has promised to swap Venezuelan oil for Bolivian soya, and to throw in a $30 million gift. It isn't obvious what's to be done to eliminate colonialism, inasmuch as foreign aid accounts for 10 percent of Bolivia's GDP. Achieving socialism takes time, and a great deal of aid from non-socialists.
President Morales is committed to nationalizing the oil and gas industry and to ending graft. Brazil and Spain are the sources of most of the investment in Bolivian oil and gas exploration, and this is a problem that seems to be slowing down the Morales agenda. Brazil's leader is a socialist, as is Spain's, but that doesn't mean that Brazilian and Spanish capital will flow into Bolivia to help it along in its movement toward socialism.
But Mr. Morales makes an arresting point on the matter of coca. The coca growers of Bolivia, who backed MAS in the election, deeply resent U.S. policy calling for the eradication of coca. This resentment Bolivia shares with Afghanistan, where there is a quiet return to the rewarding production of heroin and opium.
Morales shapes his complaint in language similar to that which has been used by the father of the movement against socialism, Milton Friedman -- the language of free trade. Whose problem is it that many Americans use cocaine? And that they desire it intensely enough to give it a street price sufficient to support Bolivian producers at every level -- the agricultural workers, the refiners and the exporters?
The point is in part cynical, because Morales knows perfectly well that human weakness will always produce a demand for toxic substances, if they provide intense pleasures en route to devastation. But he is shrewd enough to pick up on the point of free trade -- even though it is a part of the neoliberalism he has otherwise denounced. What right does the U.S. government have to convert its concern for weak-minded Americans into a veto power on Bolivian agriculture?
Those who say that drug regulation is in the national interest, and therefore it is the responsibility of government to exclude substances that damage and even kill their users, can easily cope with conventional arguments against government intervention. But one country's right to protect its own citizens against another country's products does not automatically grant the right to forbid that country the freedom to produce them.
We have recognized the problem in various ways. One is by forthright subsidies: grants made, e.g., to Colombia to be used to compensate farmers whose lands are confiscated or sprayed with crop-destroying chemicals. But of course such programs depend on cooperation by the foreign government in question. A foreign government can attempt to have it both ways: accept U.S. compensation money, yet decline to oversee agricultural production vigilantly enough to stamp out the targeted product.
Mr. Morales is going one step further, threatening to revise policy on libertarian grounds. Let the United States meet its own problems in any way it chooses. But do not let it rely on a venerable, 500-year-old nation to undertake its dirty work.
The way problems of this kind get sorted out is by material bidding. There may come a point at which good socialist Evo will acquiesce in arrangements desired by the United States. If every coca grower in Bolivia were given a house in the south of France, that would appease them. But Morales has made his point, and we will have to straighten up our disorderly theoretical house and admit that we have to pay for what we want from Bolivians for the protection of Americans.