If there's one thing that Evo Morale's recent electoral victory in Bolivia has proved, it's that numbers matter. And not just the number of votes.
Bolivia's recent presidents have done well minding national accounts while U.S. officials fretted over how much coca had been eradicated. But both sides have overlooked important social and political indicators.
More than half of Bolivia's population is indigenous, socially and culturally divorced from both the ruling and middle classes. Poverty is rampant: 60 percent of Bolivians live on less than $2 a day. And political stability is iffy. The country has experienced 200 coups in 180 years of independence.
To their credit, elected leaders and a forward-thinking congress have, since 1985, instituted reforms that ensured regular elections, strengthened local government and empowered indigenous leaders. And privatizating the state oil and gas industry, cutting taxes and lowering trade barriers has led to an average 4 percent economic growth rate, after decades of inflation and near bankruptcy.
A budding U.S.-Bolivia partnership to stamp out some 90 percent of the country's illicit coca crops - above the amount needed to supply the local market for traditional leaf chewing and coca tea - became one of the few success stories of the Washington-backed Andean drug wars.
However, the eradication campaign triggered a temporary slump that affected poor indigenous farmers, while inadequate road networks kept substitute crops from reaching consumers. Bolivia's leaders hoped recent natural gas discoveries might compensate for the loss of income, but they failed to explain how.
Meanwhile, elites neglected to reach out to moderate Indian groups in order to build coalitions around shared interests. Likewise, the U.S. State Department kept pressing its coca eradication policy as if nothing had happened.
A growing backlash fueled the presidential ambitions of leftist Evo Morales, an indigenous activist and coca growers' union leader who came within a whisker of winning elections in 2002. Sensing weakness, radical indigenous leaders kept pressing with street blockades that forced President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada from office in 2003. A repeat performance caused successor Carlos Mesa to resign in June 2005.
On Dec. 18, Bolivian voters went to the polls in droves and gave a first-round victory to Morales, running against a former president and a businessman. An outspoken admirer of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Venezuelan firebrand Hugo Chavez, he identifies with Latin America's lunatic left, as opposed to more moderate socialist democrats governing Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. His first post-election overseas trip stopped first in Havana.
In campaign mode, Morales promised to end restrictions on growing coca, to nationalize Bolivia's oil and gas industry, and to abandon neo-liberal economic policies. After the vote, he claimed he wouldn't allow rampant coca cultivation but would pull the military off eradication efforts and leave drug interdiction to the police.
He also said he would renegotiate contracts with foreign oil and gas firms to make them partners - not owners - in developing resources. Sounds conciliatory, but Brazilian, British, and Spanish firms now operating in Bolivia could end up junior partners to Venezuelan and Chinese state oil companies in a Caracas-based energy alliance.
But Morales may be walking a tightrope. While his power comes from hard-line grassroots groups, he faces a divided congress. The senate belongs to the opposing conservative coalition, while nearly half of Bolivia's new provincial governorships - all in the gas-rich and agricultural east - are held by market-oriented leaders.
To govern, he faces a choice between seeking consensus or sending street mobs to hold opponents hostage. A third option: He has promised a constituent assembly to re-write the constitution to consolidate his power, as Chavez did in Venezuela.
The stakes are high. A radical agenda will scare away private investors and endanger $500 million a year in loans and grants from international donors that the country needs to survive, regardless of a pending U.S. Millennium Challenge Account grant. Even Venezuela's Chavez would be hard pressed to compensate Bolivia for that lost aid.
To safeguard what little leverage it has left in Bolivia, the Bush administration should look at the numbers and tailor policies to appeal to local needs. It could offer to boost employment through continued support for drug-crop substitution and the proposed U.S.-Andean free-trade pact. Washington could pledge help on interdiction if Morales genuinely favors that over coca eradication.
Morales shows every sign of becoming a Castro puppet and plunging Bolivia into a civil conflict. But no one should say the United States pushed him in that direction.
Stephen Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared on FoxNews.com