Orchestrating a Civic Coup in
How Bush Tried to Bring Down Evo
by Roger Burbach, Counterpunch
November 20, 2008
Evo Morales is the latest democratically
elected Latin American president to be the target of a U.S. plot
to destabilize and overthrow his government. On Sept. 10, 2008,
Morales expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, declaring that
"he is conspiring against democracy and seeking the division
Observers of U.S.-Latin American policy
tend to view the crisis in U.S.-Bolivian relations as due to a
policy of neglect and ineptness toward Latin America because of
U.S. involvement in the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.
In fact, the Bolivia coup attempt was a conscious policy rooted
in U.S. hostility toward Morales, his political party the Movement
Towards Socialism (MAS) and the social movements that are aligned
"The U.S. embassy is historically
used to calling the shots in Bolivia, violating our sovereignty,
treating us like a banana republic," says Gustavo Guzman,
who was expelled as Bolivian ambassador to Washington following
Goldberg's removal. In 2002, when Morales narrowly lost his first
presidential bid, U.S. ambassador Manuel Rocha openly campaigned
against him, threatening, "If you elect those who want Bolivia
to become a major cocaine exporter again, this will endanger the
future of U.S. assistance to Bolivia."
Because Morales led the Cocaleros Federation
prior to assuming the presidency, the U.S. state department called
him an "illegal coca agitator." Morales advocated, "Coca
Yes, Cocaine No," and called for an end to violent U.S.-sponsored
coca eradication raids and for the right of Bolivian peasants
to grow coca for domestic consumption, medicinal uses and even
for export as an herb in tea and other products.
"When Morales triumphed in the next
presidential election," says Guzman, "it represented
a defeat for the United States." Shortly after his inauguration,
Morales received a call from President George W. Bush, offering
to help "bring a better life to Bolivians." Morales
asked Bush to reduce U.S. trade barriers for Bolivian products,
and suggested that he come for a visit. Bush did not reply. As
Guzman notes, "The United States was trying to woo Morales
with polite and banal comments to keep him from aligning with
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez." David Greenlee,
the U.S. ambassador prior to Goldberg, expressed his "preoccupation"
with Bolivia's foreign alliances, while then-Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld and others at the Pentagon began talking about
"security concerns" in Bolivia.
Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon,
the highest ranking U.S. official to attend Morales' inauguration,
declared a willingness to dialogue with Morales. In fact, what
followed were almost three years of diplomatic wrangling while
the United States provided direct and covert assistance to the
opposition movement centered in the four eastern departments of
Bolivia known as "La Media Luna." Dominated by agro-industrial
interests, the departments began a drive for regional autonomy
soon after Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president, took office.
(About 55 percent of the country's population is Indian.) Headed
by departmental prefects (governors) and large landowners, the
autonomy movement has been determined to stymie Morales' plans
for national agrarian reform, and bent on taking control of the
substantial hydro-carbon resources located in the Media Luna.
The Bush administration has pursued a
two-track policy similar to the strategy the United States employed
to overthrow the democratically
elected government of Salvador Allende
in Chile in 1973. The diplomatic negotiations initiated by Shannon
centered almost exclusively on differences over drug policies,
with the Bush administration continually threatening to cut or
curtail economic assistance and preferential trade if Bolivia
did not abide by the U.S. policy of coca eradication and criminalization.
At the same time, the United States - through its embassy in La
Paz and the Agency for International Development (USAID) - funded
political forces that opposed Morales and MAS. The U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA), with 37 in-country agents, appears to have
acted like the CIA in Bolivia, gathering intelligence and engaging
in clandestine political operations with the opposition.
Intervention is evident from the very
start of the Morales administration, with early USAID activities
through the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI). After Morales
took office, USAID documents state that the OTI set out "to
provide support to fledgling regional governments." Altogether
the OTI funneled 116 grants for $4,451,249 "to help departmental
governments operate more strategically." In an effort to
establish expedient political ties, the OTI also brought departmental
prefects to meet with U.S. governors. The National Endowment for
Democracy (NED), founded as a semi-public institute during the
Reagan years, has been particularly active in Bolivia. It funds
a number of groups and organizations with a clear political bias,
among them the Institute of Pedagogical and Social Investigation.
The Institute opposed Morales in the 2005 elections, declaring
in a project summary report to the U.S. embassy that Morales and
MAS are an "anti-democratic, radical opposition" that
doesn't represent the majority. NED's support of the Institute's
activities continued into 2006, when the Institute filed a report
saying that it intended to "contribute to improved municipal
development through efficient and effective social monitoring."
In the Media Luna, USAID tried to organize
Indians opposed to the Confederation of the Indigenous Peoples
of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB), which is allied with MAS and Morales.
Media Luna leaders were particularly concerned about CIBOD's capacity
to mobilize and move in from the countryside to encircle departmental
capitals when the prefect's leaders orchestrated activities against
the Morales government, particularly in the department of Santa
Cruz. Working out of the U.S. embassy, the Strategy and Operations
Office and the Strategic Team of Integral Development for USAID
set up a meeting between Ambassador Goldberg and Indian groups
in February 2007. Internal emails from USAID officers who helped
organize the event reveal that they only invited Indians opposed
to CIDOB who "lacked experience and were immature politically."
One of the officers recommended that these Indians be given field
radios "to facilitate communications."
In late 2007, the U.S. embassy began moving
openly to meet with the right-wing opposition in Media Luna. Ambassador
Goldberg was photographed in Santa Cruz with a leading business
magnate who backs the autonomy movement, and a well-known Colombian
narco-trafficker who had been detained by the local police. Morales,
in revealing the photo, said the trafficker was linked to right-wing
paramilitary organizations in Colombia. In response, the U.S.
embassy asserted that it couldn't vet everyone who appeared in
a photo with the ambassador.
Then in January 2008, the embassy was
caught giving aid to a special intelligence unit of the Bolivian
police force. The embassy rationalized its assistance by saying,
"The U.S. government has a long history of helping the National
Police of Bolivia in diverse programs." U.S.-Bolivian relations
were next roiled in February, when it was revealed that Peace
Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar had been pressured by
an embassy official to keep tabs on Venezuelans and Cubans in
the country (Burbach, U.S. Maneuvers to Carve up Bolivia with
Autonomy Vote, http://globalalternatives.org/node/86). This violated
the founding statutes of the Peace Corps, which prohibit any intelligence
activities by volunteers.
During 2007, political tensions in Bolivia
had centered on the Constituent Assembly meeting in Sucre, which
had been mandated by a national referendum to draw up a new constitution
to transform the country's institutions. When the Assembly began
voting on the final draft in December 2007, the opposition violently
took over the streets and all of the major public buildings in
Sucre, using dynamite and Molotov cocktails, and demanding the
resignation of "the shitty Indian Morales." Parts of
the city were in flames, and members of the assembly, including
its president, Silvia Lazarte, were assaulted in the streets.
Then the political leaders and business
organizations in Santa Cruz and other cities in the Media Luna
began to openly call for autonomy and secession from the central
Bolivian government. Branko Marinkovic, the leading business magnate
and largest landowner in the Media Luna, led the opposition as
head of the Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee, declaring, "The
fight has begun for our autonomy and liberty." Along with
Santa Cruz, civic committees in the other major cities of Media
Luna joined the call and began meeting together along with the
Simultaneously, the Bush administration
"first brandished the aid weapon to show its support of the
civic committees opposed to the government," says Guzman.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), set up in 2004 as
a U.S. government agency "to work with some of the poorest
countries in the world," had been on the brink of approving
$584 million to fund the construction of a major highway linking
northern Bolivia to the rest of the country, as well as to make
investments in agricultural projects.
Yet in a letter to Morales in December
2007, the MCC stated that while it "recognizes your country's
performance on our 17 indicatorsthe current state of the U.S.-Bolivian
relationship is not consistent with such a working partnership."
A separate report by the MCC was even more blunt: The project
"was postponed because of adverse conditions, including unrest
surrounding the Constitution Assembly process."
When the Constituent Assembly approved
the final draft of the new constitution in December 2007, the
Bolivian Congress needed to approve it with a national referendum.
Knowing that he did not have the votes, Morales declared, "Dead
or alive, I will have a new constitution for the country,"
and called for public pressure on Congress. Asserting that he
was acting as a "dictator," the civic committees and
the departmental prefects of Media Luna, along with their political
allies in the Bolivian Senate, refused to schedule the referendum.
They instead organized departmental referendums for autonomy,
which they overwhelmingly won in May. The referendums were ruled
unconstitutional by the National Electoral Council, and the voting
conditions were less than auspicious, with no official electoral
monitors and pro-autonomy forces intimidating and physically assaulting
those who opposed the vote.
Choosing the democratic road rather than
force to annul the departmental referendums, Morales then put
his presidency on the line with a recall referendum in which his
mandate, as well as those of the prefects seeking autonomy, could
be revoked. On Aug. 10, 2008, voters gave Morales a resounding
two-thirds of the national vote, with even the Media Luna department
of Pando giving him just over 50 percent. However, the insurgent
prefects also had their mandates renewed. Basing their actions
on the illegal May plebiscites, the prefects then decided to strike
for autonomy, moving first to take control of Santa Cruz, the
richest of the four departments. The Cruceno Youth Union (UJC),
shock troops allied with the Civic Committee, roamed the streets
of the departmental capital and surrounding towns, attacking and
repressing any opposition by local social movements and MAS-allied
organizations, and sacking government buildings, including the
agrarian reform office.
Simultaneously, the Civic Committees began
sewing economic instability, seeking to weaken the Morales government
much like the CIA-backed opposition did against Chilean President
Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. As in Chile, the business
elites and allied truckers engaged in "strikes," withholding
or refusing to ship produce to urban markets in the western Andes
(where the Indian population is concentrated), while selling commodities
on the black market at high prices. The Confederation of Private
Businesses of Bolivia called for a national producers' shutdown
if the government refused "to change its economic policies."
This became known as an attempt at a "civic
coup." The strategy of the autonomy movement was to take
complete control of the Media Luna, provoke a national crisis
to destabilize the government, and convince the army to remain
neutral or move against Morales. The major of Santa Cruz, Percy
Fernandez, had already called on the military to overthrow Morales'
"useless government" just before the August referendum.
The United States was openly involved
in orchestrating this rebellion. Ambassador Goldberg flew to Santa
Cruz on Aug. 25 to meet with Ruben Costas, Morales' main antagonist
and the prefect of Santa Cruz, who became the de facto leader
of the rebellious prefects and the autonomy movement in general.
After Goldberg left, Costas declared himself "governor"
of the autonomous department of Santa Cruz, and ordered the take-over
of national government offices, including those collecting tax
revenues. It was this visit with Costas that Morales cited as
the reason for declaring Ambassador Goldberg "persona non
grata" on Sept. 10. "After his expulsion, the rebellion
began to unravel," notes Guzman.
On Sept. 11, in the department of Pando,
a paramilitary militia with machine guns attacked pro-Morales
Indians near the capital of El Cobija, resulting in at least 13
deaths. In a separate action, three policemen were kidnapped.
The next day Morales declared a state of siege in Pando and dispatched
the army to move on Cobija in order to retake its airport, which
had been occupied by right-wing bands. Army units were also sent
to guard the natural gas oleoducts, one of which had been seized
by the autonomy movement, cutting the flow of gas to neighboring
Brazil and Argentina.
The violent attacks in Pando precipitated
a national mobilization of indigenous peoples and social movements,
as well as a sense of outrage in neighboring countries. On Sept.
15, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called an emergency meeting
in Santiago of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to
discuss the Bolivian crisis. The resulting "Declaration of
La Moneda," signed by the twelve UNASUR governments, expressed
their "full and decided support for the constitutional government
of President Evo Morales," and warned that their respective
governments "will not recognize any situation that entails
an attempt for a civil coup that ruptures the institutional order,
or that compromises the territorial integrity of the Republic
of Bolivia." Morales, who participated in the meeting, thanked
UNASUR for its support, declaring: "For the first time in
South American's history, the countries of our region are deciding
how to resolve our problems without the presence of the United
Paying no attention to the declaration
of support by UNASUR, President Bush upped the ante the following
week by suspending the Andean Trade
Preference Act, asserting, "Bolivia
has failed to cooperate with the United States on important efforts
to fight drug trafficking." The trade act, dating from 1991,
eliminates tariffs on imports of textiles, jewelry, wood and other
products from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, in exchange
for cooperation with the U.S. war on drugs. It is estimated that
20,000 to 30,000 workers will lose their jobs, and more than $70
million in exports will be priced out of the U.S. market.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proclaimed
that there was "no ideological test for cooperation and friendship
with the United States" that led to the trade cutoff with
Bolivia. This statement was a diplomatic lie: For 2006, Morales'
first year in office, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control
Policy reported that coca cultivation was "statistically
unchanged as compared to the 2005 estimate." For 2007 the
United Nations reported an increase of just 5 percent in the study
"Coca Cultivation in the Andean Region: A Survey of Bolivia,
Colombia and Peru." This data, however, stood in sharp contrast
to Colombia, which registered a 27 percent increase in coca cultivation,
despite the Colombian government's strong alliance with the United
States on coca eradication efforts.
The UNASUR declaration, along with the
state of siege in Pando and the nationwide repudiation of the
massacre of Indians, compelled the prefects of Media Luna to call
off their rebellion. They agreed to a "dialogue" with
Morales over the new constitution and the issue of autonomy. But
the discussions in late September went nowhere, even though the
Morales' government agreed to incorporate some limited amendments
concerning departmental autonomy into the new constitution. The
department prefects also demanded that the agrarian reform clauses
in the new constitution be eliminated, but on this point Morales,
backed by MAS and the social movements, refused to back down.
On Oct. 5, the negotiations collapsed.
Morales then announced that he would ask
Congress to set the date for the public referendum on the new
constitution. The social movements mobilized from around the country,
and over 50,000 demonstrators descended on La Paz, surrounding
Congress as it was meeting. The right wing fragmented, and on
Oct. 20, Congress approved the referendum on the new constitution,
which is scheduled for Jan. 25, 2009.
Then on Nov. 1, Morales released a bombshell
by announcing the indefinite suspension of the activities of the
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Bolivia, and the expulsion
of the 37 DEA agents from the country. "Agents of the DEA
carried out political espionage, including the financing of delinquent
groups," Morales declared. He pointed to a key U.S. operative
involved in these activities: "Steven Faucette, the regional
agent of the DEA in Santa Cruz, who on a diplomatic mission of
the U.S. embassy made trips to Trinidad and Riberalta [cities
in the Media Luna provinces of Beni and Pando, respectively] with
the objective of financing the Civics who were committed to carrying
out a civic coup."
Morales went on to disclose that a plane
with North American registry called Super King had flown to airports
in the Media Luna without registering flight plans or providing
notification of "the cargo it transferred to pick up vehicles
when it landed on the runway, in clear violation of our national
sovereignty." Bolivian intelligence also discovered seven
security houses run by the United States "that carried out
political espionage," including telephone surveillance of
political, police and military authorities.
The DEA and its 37 agents were expelled
from the country. The Bolivian government appropriated what amounted
to a DEA military arsenal, including airplanes, boats, ground
transport vehicles, communications equipment and one thousand
M-16 machine guns.
The civic coup has failed. No longer able
to turn to the U.S. embassy, the opposition is in disarray, with
the leading right-wing party split into four factions. The referendum
on the constitution will likely be approved by a wide margin.
Evo Morales has rallied the social movements and the country to
break U.S. historic domination of Bolivia. With his trip to Washington,
D.C., Morales is hoping to open up a dialogue with the incoming
administration of President-elect Barack Obama that will lead
to a restoration of full trade relations, a recognition of Bolivia's
right to determine its own policies on drugs, agrarian reform
and gas nationalization, and mutual respect between the two nations.
Roger Burbach is Director of the Center for the Study of the Americas
(CENSA) based in Berkeley, CA. He has written extensively on Latin
America and is the author of "The Pinochet Affair: State
Terrorism and Global Justice."