Take action against U.S. policies in Bolivia

By Sarah Van Etten

When I arrived in Bolivia nearly two months ago for my semester abroad, I had little idea just how much the politics of its president, Evo Morales, and my own government would affect my visit. Within weeks of my arrival, Morales expelled U.S. Ambassador Phillip Goldberg, the American Department of State issued travel warnings, Peace Corps personnel evacuated, and U.S. officials did not recertify Bolivia in their evaluation of “compliance with anti-drug objectives.” As Bolivian-US relations worsened, I began an internship with a local non-profit organization that relies on aid from American non-governmental organizations.

The Asociación de Artesanos Andinos (AAA) is owned and operated by its members, a group of indigenous weavers from 230 families in the Cochabamba region in the east. These artisans live in their traditional villages where they dye and weave wool from sheep and alpacas by hand, using techniques that date back thousands of years. The finished products are sold at their own store in Cochabamba.

With the creation of this organization six years ago, weaving in these villages went from a hobby of cultural preservation to a means of monetary income that supplements a generally subsistence based existence, improving the weavers’ quality of life and reducing economically-motivated migration of youth from the area. Families are staying together, culture is being preserved, and people are living more comfortably: a true example of a grassroots development project that is working for its own people.

Unfortunately, projects like this can only exist with help from foreign institutions; the U.S. government has had immeasurable impact on Bolivian policy changes in recent decades through stipulations written into aid agreements and requirements attached to World Bank and IMF loans. Additionally, the Bolivian export economy relies heavily on American investors and consumers. Through the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), Andeans from Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia have all been able to export their products to the United States tax-free. While this market is minimal by U.S. standards, but these benefits have enormous impacts on Andean businesses.

Oct. 23, the United States Trade Representative, under instructions from President Bush, will hold a public hearing regarding whether or not to continue to include Bolivia under the ATPDEA. President Bush wants to exclude Bolivia because of its “uncertified” status and presumed ambivalence toward the cocaine trade, although Bolivia likely would have been recertified if not for the expulsion of Ambassador Goldberg.

Now, tens of thousands of lower- to middle-class Bolivians are in danger of losing their jobs because of one action taken by their president. Kicking Bolivia out of the ATPDEA would not affect the Morales administration; it would affect all of the businesses that use this act to serve a broader market and subsequently earn a large enough profit to stay afloat. If the tax incentives are revoked, so do the businesses. According to the Oct. 12 edition of Los Tiempos, Cochabamba’s local newspaper, U.S. suspension of trade preferences given to Andean Bolivians would create a loss exceeding 21,500 jobs in Cochabamba alone. In the words of Jim Schultz of the Democracy Center, “Why is it in U.S. interest to take away people’s jobs in a country that already lacks economic opportunity?”

So what happens to los Artesanos Andinos? Fortunately, AAA can survive on grants from the InterAmerican Foundation and other NGOs. However, the organization will have to abandon plans for opening a foreign market in the United States, which would have made the association self-sustainable within the next couple of years.

In theory, development programs should encourage local people to take ownership and create self-sustaining enterprises, a feat these artisans can only accomplish if their products reach a broader audience. Direct testimonies to this effect, and statistical information on the effects of the ATPDEA can be found at www.democracyctr.org, and further information is available at www.ustr.gov and www.artesanosandinos.com.

Fortunately, there is still time to act to help the artisans, their families and the Andean economy. The Democracy Center plans to have 4,000 people send comments to the U.S. Trade Representative before the Oct. 31 deadline.

I encourage everyone to take a few moments to send your thoughts on this issue to [email protected] When you’re done, ask friends or relatives to do the same. Ten minutes of your time can impact the lives of tens of thousands of Bolivians trying to survive in the formal economy.

Sarah Van Etten ’10 can be reached at [email protected]