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After Violence, US Role in Bolivia Questioned

Haider Rizvi

Supporters of Bolivia's President Evo Morales march through the streets to demand prison sentence for opposition Pando province governor Leopoldo Fernandez, in La Paz September 22, 2008. Fernandez is being investigated on accusations of genocide in the case of 15 pro-Morales peasants who were killed. (REUTERS/Gaston Brito - BOLIVIA)

NEW YORK - As tensions remain high between government and opposition in Bolivia, where more than 30 people have been killed in politically motivated attacks in recent days, a group of Latin America experts are calling for Washington to clarify its engagement in the internal affairs of Bolivia.

The U.S. government needs to "turn a new page" in its relations with Latin America, says an open letter addressed to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain, as well as other top U.S. officials.

Nearly 100 leading academics and foreign policy experts signed the letter last Friday, voicing their "deep concern" over the recent events in Bolivia that left dozens dead and cost millions of dollars in lost revenue to the developing nation.

The letter's signers, who represent dozens of top U.S. schools -- including New York University, the University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University -- as well as Latin America think tanks and journalists, said they were especially concerned about Washington's support for groups and individuals in Bolivia who are using violent means to oppose -- and potentially overthrow -- the popularly elected government of President Evo Morales.

Morales, the first-ever indigenous president of Bolivia, wants to implement his agenda on economic and social development, which many believe would help improve the lives of indigenous people, who make up the country's majority yet have suffered from extreme poverty for a long time.

Violence Targets Morales' Supporters

Last week, vigilantes carried out several armed attacks in provinces -- called "departments" in Bolivia -- whose local governments have resisted many of Morales' proposed reforms, killing and wounding dozens of Morales supporters, most of whom were poor farmers.

The letter cites numerous incidents of violence over the past several months organized by the opposition in five of the country's departments run by more economically conservative governors -- known as "prefects" -- who are fiercely opposed to Morales' plan to introduce economic reforms.

In one incident in May, opposition extremists in Sucre forcibly paraded indigenous farmers naked in front of crowds in the center of the town.

"They stripped them of clothing, and forced them to chant anti-Morales slogans while berating them with racist taunts," the letter said about the incident, which was strongly condemned by the well-respected Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The opposition-led areas hold a disproportionate share of Bolivia's natural gas resources. Morales' government argues that it has the right to share the profits of those sources among the country's various regions and ethnic groups, while local officials would like to maintain financial control.

The opposition stopped its attacks on farmers after receiving a strong snub from South American leaders who met in Chile last week to discuss the Bolivian situation. In a statement, they deplored the opposition's behavior and urged talks between the two sides.

Talks began last Thursday, but reports from the region suggest the situation remains tense in the opposition-dominated areas.

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Prior to the talks, Morales declared the U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg 'persona non grata' and asked him to leave the country within three days. Morales said Goldberg was aiding the Bolivian opposition groups, a charge the U.S. State Department denied.

Critics say Washington's claim cannot be fully accepted unless it agrees to disclose key details of funding sent to Bolivia though the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other entities.

In their letter, experts note that since the election of Morales in December 2005, the United States has sent millions of dollars in aid to departmental and municipal governments in Bolivia, but some agencies have failed to disclose who they provided money to, and for what purposes.

USAID opened an "Office of Transition Initiatives" (OTI) in Bolivia in 2004, which provided some $11 million in funds to "build on its activities designed to enhance the capacity of departmental governments."

In its 2006 report, the OTI said it sought to "[build] the capacity of prefect-led departmental governments to help them better respond to the constituencies they govern," and even brought departmental prefects to the United States to meet with state governors.

In their letter, the signers claim that some of the same departmental governments later launched organized campaigns to push for "autonomy" and to oppose through violent and undemocratic means the Morales government and its political platform.

The OTI says that it ceased its operations in Bolivia about a year ago; however some of its activities were then taken up by USAID, which refuses to disclose some of its recipients and programs.

USAID spent $89 million in Bolivia last year. This is a "significant" amount relative to the size of Bolivia's economy, say the Latin America experts, noting that in the U.S. economy it would be equivalent to about $100 billion.

"U.S. taxpayers, as well as the Bolivian government and people, have a right to know what U.S. funds are supporting in Bolivia," they said in the letter, while citing numerous incidents of opposition violence, following the results of August's recall referendum.

The U.S. scholars deplored the killings of indigenous farmers and described the recent violence aimed at Morales supporters as reflective of the "racist nature" of the opposition groups. They said the opposition used violence as a means to win what it failed to gain "at the ballot box."

Morales won renewed nationwide support earlier this year through an Aug. 10 referendum where more than 67 percent of the nation's people supported the continuation of his term in office.

The letter urged Washington to "cease any and all support -- financial or otherwise -- to any group or person in Bolivia and other Latin American countries that engages in violent, destructive, terrorist, or anti-democratic activities such as we have witnessed with great shock and sadness in the past weeks in Bolivia."


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