EL ALTO, Bolivia — A recent U.S. trade decision has left thousands of workers in this dusty, chaotic city of 1 million feeling uncertain about their future.
Here in El Alto — which sits 12,400 feet above sea level and is among Bolivia's poorest cities — roughly 40,000 workers are involved in manufacturing textiles for export to the U.S., worth some $150 million a year.
Until October, the textiles making up half of that amount were exported under a system of trade benefits that the U.S. granted Bolivia.
But since the U.S. State Department took the step of withdrawing those trade benefits in October — in an attempt to penalize the Bolivian government — those 40,000 workers in El Alto have been in economic jeopardy. Thousands of workers are about to lose their jobs, and even export company executives are finding their professional futures uncertain.
This economic reality may produce unwanted political consequences for the United States.
Many of these executives studied at American universities, and they are some of the only allies the U.S. has in Bolivia. In general, public sentiment in Bolivia is trending more towards socialism and away from U.S. economic ideals.
“The veto stamped upon the ATPDEA affects the internal allies of the United States within Bolivia,” said analyst Carlos Cordero.
According to Cordero, "it could be quite important for the U.S. to try to keep some political allies in Bolivia," given the tense relationship between the U.S. and some other South American countries.
Now, people in the Bolivian textile business must seek new markets for their exports, Ribero said. But, he added, finding new markets is time-consuming and difficult.
The trade benefits came about with the 2002 passage of the Andean Trade Preference Act, which was intended to diminish some of the negative side effects of the U.S. war on drugs in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, which is the world's third-largest cocaine producer.
But in October, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suspended the benefits Bolivia received under that act, citing "insufficient efforts" Bolivian President Evo Morales had taken to combat drug trafficking.
In response, Bolivian leaders accused the Bush administration — which went against the U.S. Congress — of suspending the benefits as a way to retaliate for Bolivia's decision to expel the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia. Bolivia expelled the ambassador in September after accusing him of attempting to destabilize Morales' regime. Later, the Bolivian government expelled U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and announced that USAID programs aren't welcome in the country.
Morales — who enjoys high popularity ratings and is expected to win reelection later this year — has repeatedly predicted the end of capitalism and denounced what he describes as U.S. imperialism.
It's unclear whether the new administration in Washington will have any effect on the trade benefits. But in Bolivia, there is skepticism that Barack Obama's election as U.S. president will bring much change to the tense U.S.-Bolivia relations: Many here feel that any U.S. leader will act negatively toward Bolivia.