Anti-U.S. Trend Among South American Leaders

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This week's election of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia, as well as other recent elections in South America, suggests a strong anti-American sentiment throughout the region. Madeleine Brand speaks with Julia Sweig, director for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, about the trend toward vocal criticism of U.S. policy among South American leaders.


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In Bolivia, a left-wing candidate is claiming victory in presidential elections held on Sunday. Evo Morales would be the country's first indigenous president. In his campaign, Morales called his socialist agenda a `nightmare for the United States.' The Bush administration has offered a measured response congratulating the winner and the Bolivian electorate for a successful election. Joining me now for analysis is Julia Sweig. She's director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC.

Welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Ms. JULIA SWEIG (Director, Latin American Studies, Council on Foreign Relations): Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: Now tell us a little bit more about Evo Morales. Where did he come from, and what is his political ideology?

Ms. SWEIG: Evo Morales is an Aymara Indian. He is in his mid-40s, and he began his adult life as an organizer of coca growers. He has, ideologically, really been formed, I think, by his experience representing the coca growers and confronting the white-minority elite in the country and, by extension, confronting the American policy priorities of the last 15 years, which have cut directly at the coca growers' fundamental livelihood. America's coca-eradication programs have polarized the country, and Evo Morales is a reflection of that polarization and, also, of the grinding inequality and poverty that the 70 percent of Bolivia's indigenous population has experienced for now hundreds of years.

BRAND: And in his campaign, he promised to legalize coca. This is, as you say, the key ingredient in cocaine. And I imagine that is not a popular stance with the United States. Why is he doing that?

Ms. SWEIG: It's politics. His electoral base has found itself to be deeply affronted and directly affected in a negative way by America's coca-eradication policies. So he is responding to his constituents by taking their indigenous crop, coca, and saying, `We Bolivians are going to take control of this, not for the purpose of producing cocaine or drug trafficking but to wrest control of the fundamental symbol of our ethnic indigenous identity.'

BRAND: But what will be done with this coca, besides making cocaine?

Ms. SWEIG: Well, of course, that's the million-dollar question, and he says things like he'll be exporting coca tea. But, of course, there--coca production in the Chapare region, which had gone down as a result of American-backed eradication programs, is now on the rise. So the speculation that some of the coca will become manufactured into cocaine is probably not without some ground. And so the concern, especially among the congressional drug warriors that have supported drug policy and drug eradication in the Andean region as a while, will be very, very concerned.

BRAND: He's also talked about nationalizing natural gas production.

Ms. SWEIG: I think that nationalization of natural gas production will be harder for him to pull off even than that of coca because in order to exploit the country's natural gas resources--and they are voluminous, the second largest in Latin America, the sixth in the world--he will need significant foreign investment and capital.

BRAND: In the 1970s and '80s the US was worried about the spread of left-wing ideology in Latin America, and Washington used covert measures to try to counter it. Are things different now, or do you see a possibility that Washington might return to those tactics?

Ms. SWEIG: I think that there has been a shift in the way resources are allocated in Washington now, so that supporting opposition movements overtly is now something that is done and done routinely, as we saw and see in the support that the United States gives to the opposition in Venezuela against Hugo Chavez. I think it's doubtful that we'll have major return to that Cold War period of covert operations, but instead the United States will seek to oblige Evo Morales to support and to work with his own opposition and will use a lot of tough talk. But America's leverage is significantly diminished by comparison to the kind of leverage the United States had during the Cold War.

BRAND: Julia Sweig is director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

And, Julia Sweig, thank you for joining us.

Ms. SWEIG: Oh, thank you for having me, Madeleine.

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