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All Eyes On Bolivia

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Issue: 51 Section: Accounts Geography: USA Bolivia Topics: democracy, social movements, development, foreign policy

February 29, 2008

All Eyes On Bolivia

US espionage and aid

by Angela Day

A mural in La Paz, Bolivia reads, "All of our action is a war cry against imperialism." Photo: Angela Day

Since the election of Evo Morales, an indigenous peasant of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, US involvement in Bolivia’s political sphere has come out of the shadows – if ever there were any idyllic illusions about US intervention in South American politics.

Recent allegations of spies at the American Embassy have the Bolivian media abuzz, and civil society and government alike enraged. Just last week, while strolling with my friend Ramiro in Cochabamba, we ran into an acquaintance of his who took notice of my fair complexion and blue eyes and warned him to be careful around North Americans. Ramiro organizes with Red Tinku, an autonomous group that is heavily involved with grassroots politics.

Ramiro laughed and said I wasn't "one of those gringas," but the woman took a while to be convinced - and rightly so. During the course of her life she has seen perpetual provocation from North American foreign policy that has recently come to a head.

At the end of January, Fulbright scholar Alex van Schaick and Peace Corps volunteers declared publicly that Vincent Cooper, a US diplomat, encouraged them to keep an eye on Cubans and Venezuelans while in Bolivia.

In mid-February, the Bolivian Vice Minister of Government Ruben Gamarra filed criminal charges against Cooper, who has since left Bolivia and may or may not be protected under diplomatic immunity. According to an agreement made February 13 between Philip Goldberg, the US ambassador to Bolivia, and Bolivian Foreign Relations Minister David Choquehuanca, Cooper will not be returning. Investigations against the US will continue, though, and will help determine the next steps to be taken.

On February 15, Alfredo Rada, Interior Minister of the Bolivian government, met with Goldberg to discuss the accusations of espionage. After three-and-a-half hours deemed "difficult" by employees of the government ministry, Rada and Goldberg confirmed the dissolution of the Development of Police Studies (ODEP), formerly known as the Special Operations Command (COPES).

ODEP was an intelligence organization working in parallel with the National Police, and received funding from the US. ODEP received approximately $350,000 per year for ´intelligence´ work. To date, there have been five intelligence organizations ostensibly protecting state security in Bolivia. In light of these allegations their activities will also be scrutinized.

Rada would not speak publicly at the meeting locale, but dramatically rushed journalists in state SUVs with sirens wailing to the now defunct ODEP headquarters, in the wealthy Zona Sur of La Paz.

"After this meeting with Philip Goldberg I am confident that the decision to dissolve COPES is the right one," said Rada once within the walled compound. He added that the dissolution of ODEP had to do with the "structural reorganization of the intelligence section of the National Police.”

"It's the first time as minister I've had to take such a step, and it is to ensure effective work of the National Police concerning crimes, and state security," Rada said.

When pressed for an explanation of how the dissolution of ODEP is related to charges of espionage against the US, Rada said that the matter of espionage is still under investigation and refused to elaborate. He did, however, stress the importance of maintaining good relations with the US, a statement which, in light of such serious allegations, may come as a surprise for MAS supporters who back the government's anti-imperialist agenda

Goldberg was even more reticent than Rada. In Spanish, heavily clad with an American accent, he said slowly and repeatedly, "Neither the embassy nor the United States government is involved with spying […] The majority of our help is against narco-trafficking and terrorism."

Goldberg's statement comes at a time of tense political relations between the US and Bolivia. On the same morning Rada and Goldberg met to discuss accusations of espionage, Morales publicly denounced the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), accusing the agency of supporting Bolivian opposition NGOs.

"The US agency offers money to NGOs on one condition – that they work and mobilize against the Bolivian government," said Morales.

Through both governmental and non-governmental avenues, North American interference in Bolivia is eerily reminiscent of the Cold War era, when the United States sought to undermine Southern governments who rejected the doctrine of free market capitalism.

The Human Rights Foundation, based in New York, recently wrote a letter to the Bolivian government stating that the country's new constitution is contrary to human rights, an accusation the Bolivian government refuted. The HRF website describes the organization's devotion "to defending human rights in the American hemisphere," but focuses almost exclusively on Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba, with brief mention of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

And despite this Fifth Ave, New York City, based organization's statement of commitment to human rights, they make no mention of Guantanamo Bay, of impunity in Guatemala, or of the treatment of indigenous peoples across the Americas.

Contrary to criticisms from the North, Morales did not design the new constitution-- a constitutional assembly comprised of a cross-section of Bolivian society developed it. In addition, two years into his term Morales still has widespread popular support, especially among the poor majority. However, Morales’ "decolonization" project has drawn the attention of US intelligence and aid to right-wing opposition like bees to nectar. As a taxi driver recently told me, "It's like a baby used to getting everything he wants. He is sucking on a candy, and then someone takes it away - of course he is going to kick and scream and cry."

For more information on the US undermining democracy in Bolivia, see Ben Dangl's Undermining Bolivia: A Landscape of Washington Intervention.

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