Bolivia at the Abyss


At least twenty-five people are dead as the result of political violence. It is unclear if the nation will be able to steer clear of open civil war. The Bolivian and U.S. governments have taken turns kicking one another’s ambassadors out of the country. The Presidents of virtually every nation in South America are convening in an emergency summit in Chile on Monday morning, with one of them calling this moment the biggest threat to a democracy on the continent since the bloody coup that installed Augusto Pinochet in power there in 1973.

This is the state of things in Bolivia and in Latin America as I write.

The Road to Confrontation

Bolivia’s steady path to bloody conflict did not begin this week. The nation in the heart of South America bears the distinctions of being both the continent’s most impoverished, as well as the most indigenous country in all of the Americas. Going back to the Spanish conquest, Bolivia’s indigenous majority has always been driven to the political and economic margins, ruled by a whiter and wealthier elite in a political culture not unlike South Africa during apartheid.

That political imbalance began to change dramatically in 2000 with the now-famous Cochabamba Water Revolt. The Revolt, in which citizens took to the streets to take back their public water system from the Bechtel Corporation, signaled a rising up of the nation’s most impoverished against economic policies imposed on the country in the 1990s by an alliance of wealthy leaders and global institutions in Washington, including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

In December 2005 the rise of Bolivia’s impoverished and indigenous led to the landmark election of the country’s first indigenous President, Evo Morales. And in turn Morales’ arrival in power cemented and exploded the deep divisions between the country’s wealthier eastern states and poorer western ones. Battles over a proposed new constitution, regional autonomy, land reform, and the division of new gas and oil revenue blew up into violent conflicts over and over again.

Last May, Morales, accepted a challenge from some of his opponents to put his political mandate, and theirs, to the test with an August 10th recall vote. Morales won that ballot with a huge 67% of the vote. That result and Morales’ declaration that he would seek a national vote on his proposed constitution further radicalized his opposition in the eastern states.

On Tuesday, mobs of youths egged on by the region’s political leaders ransacked and burned key offices of the national government in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s wealthiest department. On Wednesday the violence spread to the state of Tarija where mobs of Morales opponents invaded and destroyed the office of a local indigenous organization, leaving at least 80 people wounded.

Then on Thursday came the massacre in Pando, one of the country’s smallest states but one controlled by the most violent opponents of the government. A group of indigenous campesinos, backers of Morales, headed to the local capital for a meeting, were ambushed by armed backers of the local Governor. The current body count from that attack is now 25 and climbing as more corpses are discovered in the surrounding fields. The Bolivian press has reported that machine guns were among the weapons used.

The Role of the U.S.

On Tuesday, following the violence in Santa Cruz, President Morales formally commanded the U.S. Ambassador, Phillip Goldberg, to leave the country. In retaliation the Bush Administration did the same, ordering the departure of Bolivia’s ambassador to Washington. Morales cited Goldberg’s suspicious meetings with two of the opposition governors on the eve of the attacks and declared, "We do not want people here who conspire against democracy."

Soon afterwards Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez jumped on the oust-the ambassador bandwagon, ordering that U.S. Ambassador out of the country as well. Then Washington ordered Venezuela’s ambassador home. "The charges against our ambassadors are false and the Presidents of Bolivia and Venezuela know that," declared State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

The U.S. has a long history of intervention in Latin America, and Bolivia has not been spared. For nearly two decades Bolivian governments been pressured by Washington to wage a "War on Drugs" in Bolivia, with serious collateral damage to human rights. Until Morales suspended the practice last year, the U.S. Embassy paid Bolivian anti-drug prosecutors a special salary bonus aimed at increasing the number of jailings each year. The bonus program produced impressive statistics for the Embassy to send to Washington, but at the cost of thousands of innocent people thrown in jail to boost the numbers.

Goldberg himself, who took over as Ambassador shortly after Morales’ 2006 inauguration, has proved to be an inept diplomat over and over again. In June 2007 the military attaché at the Embassy in La Paz, a U.S. Army Colonel, decided to have a relative carry down 500 rounds of 45-caliber ammunition packed in her suitcase. The event spiked Bolivian fears of U.S. intervention and Goldberg made the public uproar even worse by going against the advice of senior aides, trying to downplay the incident as a minor mistake.

Last February, a young U.S. Fulbright Scholar revealed to ABC News that an Embassy official had asked him to gather intelligence on Cubans and Venezuelans in Bolivia. It also turned out that the Embassy was systematically asking U.S. Peace Corps volunteers to do the same – a direct violation of the laws governing both programs. Again Goldberg tried to downplay the incident as an innocent error. The Morales administration threatened to prosecute the official involved and he left the country.

I have seen Mr. Goldberg’s diplomatic ineptness up close. Last year before an audience of 100 Americans in Cochabamba he made a joke about the lynching of a Bolivian woman, and dripped with condescension at the Bolivian government.

For its part, the Morales government has often used flimsy evidence to back its claims of a Goldberg conspiracy. This includes charges last year that the Ambassador carried out secret meetings with an alleged Colombian paramilitary operative, based on the two of them posing for a photo together at a crowded Santa Cruz fair. It seems unlikely that even an inept diplomat would hold a clandestine meeting amidst several thousand onlookers. Yet Morales waved the photo as evidence at a Latin American Presidents’ summit.

Nevertheless, Goldberg was clearly back in the ineptness business a week ago when, in the face of new attacks on Morales by the rebel Governors, Goldberg decided to travel off and have cordial visits with two of them. Did the U.S. Ambassador pass along secret orders to launch last week’s violence? No one but the participants knows what advice Washington’s man offered behind closed doors, but I seriously doubt it was to unleash Bolivian Armageddon.

Morales’ opponents, many driven by fierce racism, hardly needed a push from the U.S. Nor did a movement fueled by wealthy landowners need secret U.S. cash. Nevertheless, Goldberg’s visits were one more demonstration of his chronic diplomatic tone deafness, this time setting off a major crisis in Washington’s relations in Latin America.

The incident also cost both the U.S. and Bolivia one of the most competent Ambassadors either of them had, the Bolivian envoy to Washington, Gustavo Guzman. A respected former journalist, Guzman had established good ties with an administration in Washington that has very few of them to Latin America. Guzman noted, "We had achieved a channel of dialog [in Washington] that today, regrettably, has been lost."

What Next?

At this writing, the Morales government is in negotiations with one of the opposition governors, with each side looking for a peaceful way out of the crisis – maybe. There are forces competing between negotiations and battle on both sides. In response to Thursday’s massacre Morales has also sent troops into the embattled Pando region and declared a State of Emergency there, which includes a curfew and a ban on political meetings. Road blockades have left parts of the country without fuel and with potential food shortages.

Politicians in the U.S., stuck in dueling tough-guy mode, have ignored the racist attacks and focused on the sideshow of Goldberg’s ousting. GOP Presidential nominee John McCain warned, "…Bolivia’s expulsion of the American ambassador there, reminds us anew of the dangerous trends in our own hemisphere." Democratic nominee Barak Obama issued a similar declaration through a campaign spokeswoman. "Obama is encouraging President Morales to reconsider his current path for the good of Bolivia, its people, and its future relationship with the United States." Two key members of Congress have called for an end to a Bolivian trade agreement over the Goldberg matter.

Latin American leaders, on the other hand, focused on the central issue at hand – the violence aimed at Morales supporters and the threat to Bolivian democracy. On Monday the Presidents of Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Venezuela (and likely Peru and Uruguay as well) will join Morales at an emergency summit in Chile to offer him their strong backing. Even staunch Bush ally, Colombian President Uribe, has rallied to Morales’ side.

The meeting was called by Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernandez. A Buenos Aires daily quoted her linking the attacks against Morales with one of the bloodiest memories in the region’s recent history.

"If we don’t act now, in thirty years we may be watching documentaries [about Bolivia] like those we see today about Salvador Allende [the democratically-elected President of Chile ousted by Pinochet in 1973].

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