UNITED NATIONS - Bolivian President Evo Morales reiterated the charge Tuesday that the U.S. government was plotting to overthrow his government and that Washington had a hand in the recent episodes of violence in which a number of his supporters were killed and wounded by opposition gangs.
"We have the evidence," Morales told a news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York Tuesday, regarding U.S. involvement with the groups and individuals in certain provinces who are refusing to recognise the authority of the federal government in La Paz and are trying to assert their economic and political dominance over indigenous populations by violent means.
The Bolivian president charged that the George W. Bush administration has not only given away a "tremendous amount of money" to the opposition groups through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), but also provided them with ammunition to carry out acts of sabotage and killings of unarmed indigenous people.
Despite its formal denial of these charges, the U.S. government has not issued any statement condemning the killings, looting and acts of sabotage that have cost millions of dollars in losses.
"They are setting fire to gas pipelines, and the U.S. government does not condemn that?" asked Morales. "Of course, they know they [the opposition groups] are their allies. So why then they would denounce them?"
Last week, Bolivia's right-wing vigilantes launched several attacks on indigenous communities that support the government. They killed about 20 Morales supporters, most of whom were poor farmers.
Soon after the attacks, Morales declared the U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg "persona non grata" and asked him to leave the country within three days. He was accused of aiding the Bolivian opposition groups, a charge the U.S. State Department denied.
Explaining the decision to cut diplomatic ties with Washington, the Bolivian president said that the U.S. ambassador was deeply involved in activities aimed at strengthening the opposition and weakening the government.
"[President] Bush sent me a message [saying] if I am not friend, I am an enemy," said Morales, who added, "I'm a friend of the people of the United States. I am in touch with many groups who believe in social justice."
Addressing the morning session of the General Assembly debate, Bush -- who used the terms "terror" and "terrorism" some 30 times in his 15-minute speech -- did not mention Latin America, where many countries are increasingly challenging Washington's influence in the region.
Venezuela also expelled its U.S. envoy earlier this month, claiming that the U.S. was attempting to depose President Hugo Chavez, leading many critics of the Bush administration to question the direction of U.S. policy in Latin America.
They specifically called for Bush to clarify U.S. activities and funding in Bolivia.
On Sep. 19, 90 leading academics and foreign policy experts signed an open letter expressing their "deep concern" over the opposition-led violence in Bolivia.
The U.S. government needs to "turn a new page" in its relations with Latin America, they said in the 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.
The letter's signers, who represent dozens of leading U.S. academic institutions -- including New York University, the University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University -- as well as think tanks, said they were "especially concerned" about the U.S. backing for groups in Bolivia who are using violent means to oppose the popularly elected government.
Morales, the first-ever indigenous president of Bolivia, wants to implement an 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.
During his General Assembly speech, Morales said his people's struggle for "equality and social justice" is meant to retain their dignity. "It's a fight between capitalism and socialism. Capitalism is the worst enemy of humanity," he said.
The letter cites numerous incidents of violence over the past several months organised by the opposition in five of the country's departments (provinces) run by non-native governors who are fiercely opposed to Morales's plan to introduce reforms.
In one incident in May, according to published reports, opposition extremists in Sucre forcibly paraded indigenous mayors and town councillors, partially stripped naked, in front of crowds in the centre 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 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The opposition-led areas hold a disproportionate share of Bolivia's natural gas resources. Morales's government argues that it has the right to share the profits of those resources 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 behaviour and urged talks between the two sides.
Talks began on Sep. 18, but reports from the region suggest the situation remains tense in the opposition-dominated areas.
Since Morales's election in December 2005, Washington 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 dollars in funds to "build on its activities designed to enhance the capacity of departmental governments," the letter said.
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.
Signers claim that some of the same provincial governments later launched organised campaigns to push for "autonomy" and to oppose through violent and undemocratic means the Morales government and its political platform.
According to OTI, 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 the recipients and programmes that benefited from the 89 million dollars the agency spent 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 dollars.
"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.
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.
At the news conference, Morales thanked the regional alliance of South American countries UNASUR for exerting pressure on extremist groups in Bolivia to stop the killings and violence. "It shows that in Latin America, the U.S. policy has been defeated," he said.