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Bolivia, bad information and the State Department

Published December 5, 2010 2:10 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The release of thousands of secret documents by WikiLeaks justifiably troubles the U.S. government, but it also provides the rest of us with a window into the information on which American foreign policy is based.

Though the window is broken and dirty, quite a lot can still be seen through it, and those glimpses are useful for evaluating our government and its policies.

Bolivia is one of the countries besides Cuba and Venezuela that troubles the United States in Latin America. Among the documents made public by WikiLeaks is a memorandum from the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia reporting on the buildup to that country's Jan. 25, 2009, referendum on a new constitution. As a scholar who specializes in the study of Bolivia, I find the published memo important. It suggests how the United States filters information about a country in problematic ways that may well become the basis for making important decisions.

For example, while reporting the Bolivian opposition's hand-wringing that it would probably lose the election, the Jan. 23 memo notes that "the forces of inertia seem to be conspiring against [the opposition], particularly in the form of a largely uneducated rural base in the Altiplano," or high plateau.

The memo repeats, as if it were analysis, the idea that Bolivian President Evo Morales' support among rural Bolivians, most of whom are indigenous, is unreflective and a result of a lack of education. It continues to develop the theme of an uninformed mass blindly following the nation's president, who generally has high public approval ratings, although the opposition and the U.S. government find him disturbing.

Unfortunately, the memo's faux analysis is dismissive rather than well-grounded, and it fits a hoary prejudice among Bolivia's old elite that saw rural Indians as ignorant, even when the inhabitants of the Altiplano may represent 40 percent of the national population. Ignorance is an easy accusation. Since the majority of the rural people of the high plateau obviously disagree with the opposition and many of those informants the memo relied upon, their disagreement can only be seen as the result of lack of education. But this does not allow one to pose the issue that their support may be well thought out and have some justification.

Bolivia's rural people have waged a century-long struggle for education. This has led to schools in almost every community and to institutes of higher education, including normal schools and universities that receive rural students. In my experience, the Altiplano has changed enormously over the last 30-odd years. Its people speak the national language, have formal education, and can articulate sharp and well-developed arguments. Furthermore, these often differ from those of the national elites because education has provided the rurals with the means to develop their own perspectives and positions.

The memo relies on the canard of illiteracy, and suggests a Cuban campaign of literacy that the memo appears to argue has failed. However, the vast majority of people younger than 60 are now literate in Spanish due to the success, not of any Cuban literacy campaign, but the efforts of decades of rural school teachers, often of rural origin. Most importantly, literacy came from the heroic efforts of the rural people themselves to obtain education. This is but one section of a long memo, and the memo itself is but one of many that must have passed between La Paz and Washington. Still, the document suggests that American diplomats have a disturbingly limited base of people with whom they consult about the national situation. It also suggests a reliance on unreflective prejudice against a large segment of Bolivia's population that passes for analysis.

This segment of the populace is, as the memo alludes, a major base of support for the Morales government, which the United States finds problematic. It does not bode well for the success of this country's policy if the State Department does not grasp the reasons for the Bolivian people's support of Morales.

One hopes that Hillary Clinton's State Department does a better job of information gathering than did the prior administration.

But this memo offers little hope of that, and instead gives reason for much concern. It suggests a system that has not learned from past failures and insists on repeating them.

David C. Knowlton is a professor of anthropology at Utah Valley University.






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