US Ties to Bolivian Opposition 'Shrouded in Secrecy'

A supporter of Bolivia's President Evo Morales holds a sign reading in Spanish 'Solidarity with Bolivia' during a rally in Lima, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008. Leaders in South America gathered in Chile recently to try to find a peaceful solution to a political crisis in Bolivia that has seen more than a dozen people killed in clashes between Morales' supporters and foes. (AP Photo/Karel Navarro)

US Ties to Bolivian Opposition 'Shrouded in Secrecy'

NEW YORK - Who in Bolivia is receiving millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars? That is what many Latin America policy analysts in Washington want to know.

'Washington has decided to keep its ties to Bolivia's opposition shrouded in secrecy,' said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, an independent think tank.

In interviews with IPS, Weisbrot and other critics of U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America and the Andean region voiced deep concern over the George W. Bush administration's reluctance to disclose details regarding the amount of U.S. funding and its recipients in Bolivia.

'The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is doing in Bolivia what it was doing in Venezuela...aiding the opposition,' said independent researcher and writer Jeremy Bigwood, who specialises in Latin American affairs.

For example, a July 2002 declassified message from the U.S. embassy in Bolivia to Washington said, '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 [party of now President Evo Morales] or its successors.'

Bigwood has made several attempts to obtain detailed information about the nature of current U.S. spending in Bolivia, without success. He says he has filed five separate petitions under the Freedom of Information Act since 2005.

However, one FOIA request he filed revealed that the quasi-governmental National Endowment for Democracy had funded programmes that brought 13 young 'emerging leaders' from Bolivia to Washington between 2002 and 2004 to strengthen their right-wing political parties.

'It's not just the USAID but also other U.S. government entities that are putting money into opposition groups in Bolivia,' Bigwood told IPS, charging that a major part of the funding is apparently aimed at 'bribing people' in that country.

The State Department denies these charges. However, last week, President Morales declared the U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg 'persona non grata' and asked him to leave his country within 72 hours. Morales accused Goldberg of aiding right-wing Bolivian opposition groups.

The opposition in five out of Bolivia's nine provinces is up in arms against the first-ever indigenous government's attempt to rewrite the country's constitution and bring about economic and social reforms in favour of the majority native population.

According to published reports, in the so-called 'Media Luna' provinces in the eastern part of the country, which are ruled by right-wing governors, many Morales supporters have been killed and wounded in attacks by armed opposition activists.

The Media Luna areas have a disproportionate share of Bolivia's natural gas resources. The conservative non-indigenous elites want to keep their tight control over resources, which the Socialist government plans to redistribute the profits among the entire population.

The Bolivian federal authorities have arrested the governor of Pando province who is believed to have ordered violent attacks on Morales supporters. Pando's governor Leopoldo Fernandez is accused of hiring the hit men who killed at least 16 farmers.

In response to Morales's request, South American leaders met in Chile Tuesday forcing the Bolivian opposition to resume talks with the government on the issue of a referendum on the new constitution. Reports from Bolivia suggest that pressure from Brazil, Venezuela, and other major players in the regions have helped reduce violence in the troubled provinces and that situation is returning to normalcy.

However, the Bush administration seems to be sticking to its unilateralist stance. On Wednesday, Washington encouraged its citizens currently in Bolivia to leave the country, saying special flights were being made available. The same day, the U.S. government put Bolivia on a 'black list' of countries that failed to meet obligations to limit drug production in the past year, an issue that involves international controversy over its coca plan.

Since coming to power about two years ago, Morales has consistently defended his countrymen's right to produce coca, not just because the crop has a commercial value, but also because it has ceremonial and medical uses by indigenous communities. Coca is used to make cocaine, but many native and non-native people in Bolivia's mountainous areas use the leaves in tea, or chew them to minimise hunger and treat altitude sickness.

To critics, the Bush administration has no justification for its conduct in Bolivia, including the so-called war on drugs, and should explain to the U.S. public the purpose of its aid distribution in that country.

'USAID is not supposed to be a clandestine organisation,' said Weisbrot. 'But by providing clandestine aid to opposition groups, it gives the impression that the U.S. is contributing to efforts to destabilise the Bolivian government.'

Both Weisbrot and Bigwood said they are also concerned about reports that the U.S. Peace Corps volunteers were asked by the U.S. embassy to spy on people inside Bolivia.

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