Washington versus Morales

Monday, September 15, 2008

Yusuf Fernandez

The Bush administration ordered the expulsion of Bolivia's ambassador to the United States only one day after Bolivia expelled his American counterpart. "In response to unwarranted actions and in accordance with the Vienna Convention (on diplomatic protocol), we have officially informed the government of Bolivia of our decision to declare Ambassador Gustavo Guzman persona non grata," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. McCormack had previously called the expulsion of US Ambassador Philip Goldberg a "grave error" and warned that La Paz would face retaliatory action.

Meanwhile, in La Paz, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca told reporters that he had formally requested Goldberg's expulsion but added that he had also written Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Bolivia "wishes to maintain its bilateral relations with the
United States."

In reality, Morales has been under attack since he registered to run for president in 2002, when he came in second place. In the run-up to that election, then-US Ambassador Manuel Rocha said that American aid to the country would be cut if Morales were to win.

In 2006, Morales became the first indigenous leader of Bolivia after winning more than 53% of the votes in the presidential election -a rare absolute majority victory in the country. He has recently won a referendum on his continuity in the presidency with two thirds of the vote.

This comes as the right-wing opposition rejects Morales-proposed reforms, one of which is to put an end to the historic privileges of the four gas-rich eastern provinces and give a part of the energy revenues to the poorer five Western provinces. The poor provinces are mostly inhabited by indigenous people, who have traditionally suffered from discrimination despite constituting the majority of the country's population.

The economy of Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, is heavily dependent on natural gas. On the other hand, Morales also wants to rewrite the constitution and distribute land to the poor. In order to block his reforms, opposition right-wing provincial governors have demanded more autonomy and perhaps even the secession of the eastern provinces.

On June 9, a crowd of 20,000 protesters marched to the gates of the American embassy, denouncing US policies and clashing with the police.

The protesters demanded that the US extradite former defense minister Carlos Sanchez Berzain and ex-president Sanchez de Lozada. Both of them had ordered a military crackdown on anti-government protests in

October 2003, in which 60 people died and hundreds were injured. De Lozada stepped down as president during the political upheaval of 2003, caused by his attempts to sell the country's gas reserves to US corporations, and fled to Miami together with Sanchez Berzain.

The demonstration prompted the State Department to temporarily recall Goldberg in protest. "The government of George W. Bush has decided to give refuge to the butcher Sanchez Berzain, and also I suspect to the genocidal Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada... we cannot tolerate (that)," protest organizer Roberto de la Cruz told a local radio station.

The Bolivian government has also asked officials from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to leave their base camp in the coca-growing region of Chapare due to security problems, according to the State Department. A US statement accused La Paz of disrupting DEA activities in the region "after 25 years of working side by side." Morales defends farmers in planting coca, a traditional plant in the region, but has also been cooperating with US-backed efforts to block trafficking.

On the other hand, La Paz has recently announced that it would no longer send Bolivian military officers for training in the United States. Interior Minister Alfonso Rada said that he had decided to dissolve the Organization for Development of Police Research (ODEP), an intelligence unit funded by the US State Department to fight narcotics trafficking and terrorism. "This unit has already completed its cycle," Rada told reporters. "We do not want the unit to be used for other kind of work."

This statement was in a reference to charges of US espionage made by Bolivian officials and American Fullbright scholar John Alexander van Schaick, who claimed that the head of security at the US embassy in La Paz, Vincent Cooper, had asked him to report back on any suspicious activity by Cuban and Venezuelan officials that he came across during his research into local peasant organizations. Van Schaick then made a legal declaration to a olivian notary, which the Bolivian government has used as part of a judicial investigation. Morales said he would not allow Cooper to return to Bolivia from Washington, where the embassy said he had been to provide information on the incident.

The Bolivian government also claimed that it has evidence that the US, and particularly the USAID agency, has been consorting with opposition leaders - and even funding them to bring about instability. "USAID helps with the process of decentralization," said Jose Carvallo, a press spokesman for the main rightwing opposition political party, Democratic and Social Power. "They help with improving democracy in Bolivia through seminars and courses to discuss issues of autonomy," he said. In 2006, USAID gave almost 4.5 million dollars to help departmental governments "operate more strategically," documents of the organization revealed.

In July 2002, a declassified message from the US embassy to Washington included the following text: "A planned USAID political party reform project aims at implementing an existing Bolivian law that would . . . over the long run, help build moderate, pro-democracy political parties that can serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS or its successors." MAS refers to Morales' party, Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Toward Socialism).

In order to counteract US activities, on October 10, 2007, Bolivia's Supreme Court approved a decree that prohibits international funding of activities in Bolivia without state permission.

On September 5 this year, Goldberg met the rebel governor of Chuquisaca, Sabina Cuellar, and openly stated that Washington should interfere in the country's internal affairs.

In late August, Goldberg also met governor of the state of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, another fierce opponent of President Morales. He openly declared support for such rebel governors and called on Morales to pay attention to the demands of the political opposition. Goldberg was then summoned to the Bolivian Foreign Affairs office, which argued that his statements and support for the right-wing pro-autonomy movement clearly violates Bolivian sovereignty.

Finally, on September 11 Morales ordered Goldberg out, accusing him of conspiring with Bolivia's conservative opposition and instigating protests against his government. "The Ambassador of the United States is conspiring against democracy and wants Bolivia to break apart," Morales said during a speech at the presidential palace in La Paz.

The announcement of Goldberg's expulsion came as Bolivia was obliged to reduce natural gas exports to Brazil because anti-government activists damaged a pipeline, and a day after protesters stormed public buildings in the eastern Santa Cruz city, an opposition stronghold.

Opposition activists also shot dead seven indigenous peasant farmers in the remote Amazon region of Pando. "We are talking about a real massacre and the person responsible is the Pando governor," said Deputy Minister of Social Movements Sacha Llorenti.

Goldberg's remarks about the interference in Bolivia's internal affairs came some days after the visit of Evo Morales to Tehran, where he stated that Iran and Bolivia were two brotherly revolutionary nations. Washington has warned Bolivia against developing ties with Iran, but Morales has responded that no one can damage the relations between La Paz and Tehran. "Iranians and Bolivians would like to see how their leaders defend the interests of their countries and fight Imperialism," Morales said.

Shortly after Morales announced his decision to expel Goldberg, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also ousted the US ambassador to Caracas, whom he accused of conspiring with a group of retired and active generals who had tried to organize a coup d'etat against him.

Chavez, who leads a bloc of progressive presidents in Latin America, has vowed to come to Morales' aid if there is a coup in Bolivia. "If the oligarchy, the Yankee stooges directed (and) financed by the empire (United States), topple any government we would have the green light to initiate whatever operation was needed to restore power to the people in Bolivia," he said. Ecuador and Honduras voiced support for Bolivia and Venezuela's decision to expel US ambassadors in their respective countries on 12 September. This support, along with the recent decision of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to recognize the Russia-supported republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, shows that the United States may now be facing its worst crisis in diplomatic relations with Latin America in the last few decades.


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