Johann Hari: Is the US about to treat the rest of the world better? Maybe...

American foreign policy is subject to structural pressure that has not dissolved

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The tears are finally drying – the tears of the Bush years, and the tears of awe at the sight of a black President of the United States. So what now? The cliché of the day is that Barack Obama will inevitably disappoint the hopes of a watching world, but the truth is more subtle than that. If we want to see how Obama will affect us all – for good or bad – we need to trace the deep structural factors that underlie United States foreign policy. A useful case study of these pressures is about to flicker on to our news pages for a moment – from the top of the world.

Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America, and its lofty slums 13,000 feet above sea level seem a world away from the high theatre of the inauguration. But if we look at this country closely, we can explain one of the great paradoxes of the United States – that it has incubated a triumphant civil rights movement at home, yet thwarted civil rights movements abroad. Bolivia shows us in stark detail the contradictions facing a black President of the American empire.

The President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has a story strikingly similar to Obama's. In 2006, he became the first indigenous president of his country – and a symbol of the potential of democracy. When the Spanish arrived in Bolivia in the 16th century, they enslaved the indigenous people and worked millions to death. As recently as the 1950s, an indigenous person wasn't even allowed to walk through the centre of La Paz, where the presidential palace and city cathedral stand. They were (and are) routinely compared to monkeys and apes.

Morales was born to a poor potato-farmer in the mountains, and grew up scavenging for discarded orange peel or banana skins to eat. Of his seven siblings, four died in infancy. Throughout his adult life, it was taken for granted that the country would be ruled by the white minority; the "Indians" were too "child-like" to manage a country.

Given that the US is constitutionally a democracy and its presidents say they are committed to spreading democracy across the world, you would expect them to welcome the democratic rise of Morales. But wait. Bolivia has massive reserves of natural gas – a geo-strategic asset, and one that rakes in billions for American corporations. Here is where the complications set in.

Before Morales, the white elite was happy to allow American companies to simply take the gas and leave the Bolivian people with short change: just 18 per cent of the royalties. Indeed, they handed almost the entire country to US interests, while skimming a small percentage for themselves. In 1999, an American company, Bechtel, was handed the water supply – and water rates for the poor majority doubled.

Morales ran for election against this agenda. He said that Bolivia's resources should be used for the benefit of millions of bitterly poor Bolivians, not a tiny number of super-rich Americans. He kept his promise. Now Bolivia keeps 82 per cent of the vast gas royalties – and he has used the money to increase health spending by 300 per cent, and to build the country's first pension system. He is one of the most popular leaders in the democratic world. I have seen this pink tide rising through the barrios and favelas across South America. Millions of people are seeing doctors and schools for the first time in their lives.

I suspect that a majority of the American people – who are good and decent – would be pleased and support this process if they were told about it honestly. But how did the US government (and much of the media) react? George Bush fulminated that "democracy is being eroded in Bolivia", and a recent US ambassador to the country compared Morales to Osama bin Laden. Why? To them, you are a democrat if you give your resources to US corporations, and you are a dictator if you give them to your own people. The will of the Bolivian people is irrelevant.

For these reasons, the US has been moving to trash Morales. By an odd quirk of fate, almost all of Bolivia's gas supplies are in the east of the country – where the richest, whitest part of the population lives. So the US government has been funding and fuelling the hard-right separatist movements that want these regions to break away. Then the whites would happily hand the gas to US companies like in the good ol' days – and Morales would be left without resources. The interference became so severe that last September Morales had to expel the US ambassador for "conspiring against democracy". This weekend, Morales is holding a referendum on a new constitution for the country which will entrench the rights of indigenous people.

Enter Obama – and his paradoxes. He is obviously a person of good will and good sense, but he is operating in a system subject to many undemocratic pressures. Bolivia illustrates the tension. The rise of Morales reminds us of the America the world loves: its yes-we-can openness and civil rights movements. Yet the presence of gas reminds us of the America the world hates: the desire to establish "full spectrum dominance" over the world's resources, whatever the pesky natives think.

Which America will Obama embody? The answer is both – at first. Morales has welcomed him as "a brother", and Obama has made it clear he wants a dialogue, rather than the abuse of the Bush years. Yet who is Obama's Bolivia adviser? A lawyer called Greg Craig, who represents Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada – the hard-right former president of Bolivia who imposed some of the most extreme privatisations of the 1980s, and is now wanted on charges of genocide. Craig's legal team says Morales is (yes) leading "an offensive against democracy".

The structural pressures within the US system that drove hostility to a democratic civil rights leader like Morales have not dissolved in the cold Washington air. The US is still dependent on foreign fossil fuels to keep its lights on, and US corporations still buy senators from both parties. Obama will still be swayed by those factors.

But while this is a reason to be frustrated, it isn't a reason to be cynical. Why? Because while he will be swayed by those factors, he will also subtly erode them over time. Obama has made energy independence – a massive transition away from foreign oil and gas, and towards the wind, sun and waves – the centre of his governing programme. If the US is no longer addicted to Bolivian gas, then its governments will be much less inclined to topple anybody else who wants to control it. (If they're off oil, they'll be much less invested in the Saudi tyranny and petro-wars in the Middle East too.)

Obama also says he wants to peel back the distorting effect of corporate money on the US political system. He is already less slathered in corporate cash than any president since the 1920s. The further he pushes it back, the more breathing space democratic movements like Morales's have to control their own resources.

But we will see. If you want to know if Obama is really altering the tectonic forces that drive American power, keep an eye on the rooftop of the world.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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