Bush Spending U.S. Tax Dollars
to Foment Unrest in Bolivia
Documents show that Washington
is backing Right-wing opposition to Bolivia's democratic reforms.
by Benjamin Dangl, The Progressive
www.alternet.org/, March 10, 2008.
A thick fence, surveillance cameras, and
armed guards protect the U.S. Embassy in La Paz. The embassy is
a tall, white building with narrow slits of windows that make
it look like a military bunker. After passing through a security
checkpoint, I sit down with U.S. Embassy spokesman Eric Watnik
and ask if the embassy is working against the socialist government
of Evo Morales. "Our cooperation in Bolivia is apolitical,
transparent, and given directly to assist in the development of
the country," Watnik tells me. "It is given to benefit
those who need it most."
From the Bush Administration's perspective,
that turns out to mean Morales's opponents. Declassified documents
and interviews on the ground in Bolivia prove that the Bush Administration
is using U.S. taxpayers' money to undermine the Morales government
and coopt the country's dynamic social movements--just as it has
tried to do recently in Venezuela and traditionally throughout
Much of that money is going through the
U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In July 2002,
a declassified message from the U.S. embassy in Bolivia to Washington
included the following message: "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's party, which,
in English, stands for Movement Toward Socialism.
Morales won the presidency in December
2005 with 54 percent of the vote, but five regional governments
went to rightwing politicians. After Morales's victory, USAID,
through its Office of Transition Initiatives, decided "to
provide support to fledgling regional governments," USAID
Throughout 2006, four of these five resource-rich
lowland departments pushed for greater autonomy from the Morales-led
central government, often threatening to secede from the nation.
U.S. funds have emboldened them, with the Office of Transition
Initiatives funneling "116 grants for $4,451,249 to help
departmental governments operate more strategically," the
"USAID helps with the process of
decentralization," says Jose Carvallo, a press spokesperson
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."
"The U.S. Embassy is helping this
opposition," agrees Raul Prada, who works for Morales's party.
Prada is sitting down in a crowded La Paz cafe and eating ice
cream. His upper lip is black and blue from a beating he received
at the hands of Morales's opponents while Prada was working on
the new constitutional assembly. "The ice cream is to lessen
the swelling," he explains. The Morales government organized
this constitutional assembly to redistribute wealth from natural
resources and guarantee broader access to education, land, water,
gas, electricity, and health care for the country's poor majority.
I had seen Prada in the early days of the Morales administration.
He was wearing an indigenous wiphala flag pin and happily chewing
coca leaves in his government office. This time, he wasn't as
hopeful. He took another scoop of ice cream and continued: "USAID
is in Santa Cruz and other departments to help fund and strengthen
the infrastructure of the rightwing governors."
In August 2007, Morales told a diplomatic
gathering in La Paz, "I cannot understand how some ambassadors
dedicate themselves to politics, and not diplomacy, in our country.
. . . That is not called cooperation. That is called conspiracy."
Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said that the U.S.
Embassy was funding the government's political opponents in an
effort to develop "ideological and political resistance."
One example is USAID's financing of Juan Carlos Urenda, an adviser
to the rightwing Civic Committee, and author of the Autonomy Statute,
a plan for Santa Cruz's secession from Bolivia.
"There is absolutely no truth to
any allegation that the U.S. is using its aid funds to try and
influence the political process or in any way undermine the government,"
says State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey. USAID officials
point out that this support has gone to all Bolivian governors,
not just those in the opposition. Despite Casey's assertion, this
funding has been controversial. On October 10, Bolivia's supreme
court approved a decree that prohibits international funding of
activities in Bolivia without state regulation. One article in
the law explains that Bolivia will not accept money with political
or ideological strings attached.
In Bolivia, where much of the political
muscle is in the streets with social organizations and unions,
it's not enough for Washington to work only at levels of high
political power. They have to reach the grassroots as well. One
USAID official told me by e-mail that the Office of Transition
Initiatives "launched its Bolivia program to help reduce
tensions in areas prone to social conflict (in particular El Alto)
and to assist the country in preparing for upcoming electoral
To find out how this played out on the
ground, I meet with El Alto-based journalist Julio Mamani in the
Regional Workers' Center in his city, which neighbors La Paz.
"There was a lot of rebellious ideology
and organizational power in El Alto in 2003," Mamani explains,
referring to the populist uprising that overthrew President Gonzalo
Sánchez de Lozada. "So USAID strengthened its presence
in El Alto, and focused their funding and programs on developing
youth leadership. Their style of leadership was not based on the
radical demands of the city or the horizontal leadership styles
of the unions. They wanted to push these new leaders away from
the city's unions and into hierarchical government positions."
The USAID programs demobilized the youth.
"USAID always took advantage of the poverty of the people,"
Mamani says. "They even put up USAID flags in areas alongside
the Bolivian flag and the wiphala."
It was not hard to find other stories
of what the U.S. government had been doing to influence economics
and politics in Bolivia. Luis Gonzalez, an economics student at
the University of San Simon in Cochabamba, describes a panel he
went to in 2006 that was organized by the Millennium Foundation.
That year, this foundation received $155,738 from the National
Endowment for Democracy (NED) through the Center for International
Private Enterprise, a nonprofit affiliate of the U.S. Chamber
of Commerce. Gonzalez, in glasses and a dark ponytail, described
a panel that focused on criticizing state control of the gas industry
(a major demand of social movements). "The panelists said
that foreign investment and production in Bolivia will diminish
if the gas remains under partial state control," says Gonzalez.
"They advocated privatization, corporate control, and pushed
That same year, the NED funded another
$110,134 to groups in Bolivia through the Center for International
Private Enterprise to, according to NED documents, "provide
information about the effects of proposed economic reforms to
decision-makers involved in the Constituent Assembly." According
to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request
by muckraker Jeremy Bigwood, the NED also funded programs that
brought thirteen young "emerging leaders" from Bolivia
to Washington between 2002 and 2004 to strengthen their rightwing
political parties. The MAS, and other leftist parties, were not
invited to these meetings.
The U.S. Embassy even appears to be using
Fulbright scholars in its effort to undermine the Bolivian government.
One Fulbright scholar in Bolivia, who wished to remain anonymous,
explained that during recent orientation meetings at the embassy
in La Paz, "a member of the U.S. Embassy's security apparatus
requested reports back to the embassy with detailed information
if we should encounter any Venezuelans or Cubans in the field."
Both Venezuela and Cuba provide funding, doctors, and expertise
to support their socialist ally Morales. The student adds that
the embassy's request "contradicts the Fulbright program's
guidelines, which prohibit us from interfering in politics or
doing anything that would offend the host country."
After finding out about the negative work
the U.S. government was doing in Bolivia, I was curious to see
one of the positive projects USAID officials touted so often.
It took more than two weeks for them to get back to me--plenty
of time, I thought, to choose the picture perfect example of their
"apolitical" and development work organized "to
benefit those who need it most."
They put me in touch with Wilma Rocha,
the boss at a clothing factory in El Alto called Club de Madres
Nueva Esperanza (Mothers' Club of New Hope). A USAID consultant
worked in the factory in 2005-2006, offering advice on management
issues and facilitating the export of the business's clothing
to U.S. markets. In a city of well-organized, working class radicals,
Rocha is one of the few rightwingers. She is a fierce critic of
the Morales administration and the El Alto unions and neighborhood
Ten female employees are knitting at a
table in the corner of a vast pink factory room full of dozens
of empty sewing machines. "For three months we've barely
had any work at all," one of the women explains while Rocha
waits at a distance. "When we do get paychecks, the pay is
horrible." I ask for her name, but she says she can't give
it to me. "If the boss finds out we are being critical, she'll