Monday, February 25, 2008

Bolivian Delegation Will Demand Action from U.S. Congress

Feb. 25 - LA PAZ (digitalwarriormedia) A mission from the Bolivian government will travel to Washington D.C. to meet with members of the U.S. Congress and submit evidence that demonstrates the U.S. Embassy in La Paz has interfered in Bolivia’s internal affairs.

The announcement was made by Presidential Minister Juan Ramon Quintana during a press conference held today at the Palacio Quemado.

He said the delegation trip will seek to internationally denounce the "undemocratic" intervention of the U.S. through its use of its foreign aid organization the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Quintana said he will personally head the mission to meet with U.S. Congress members and show documented evidence that intervention by the U.S. is undemocratic and violates the Vienna Convention.

"We have decided to denounce not only nationally but also internationally the interference of the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia through USAID.”

The Bolivian government remains critical of USAID payments to consultant programs through the Strengthening of Democratic Institutions Project (SDI) which is accused of engaging in subversive activities.

There are also examples of USAID funding support for the activities of opposition groups, including the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, which sponsored the Santa Cruz department's Autonomy Statute in defiance of the central government.

Quintana’s statements occurred one day after President Evo Morales accused the U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Phillip Goldberg, of leading a conspiracy against the social changes of the Bolivian government.

On Sunday while speaking with reporters, Morales stated the importance of defending the profound changes taking place in Bolivia, which includes going beyond making “an opposition to the head of the Ambassador of the United States.”

In recent weeks, Ambassador Goldberg was called to give explanations about various episodes and allegations of espionage that caused tension in U.S.-Bolivia relations.

The issue was fueled on February 8, when American Fulbright Scholar John Alexander Van Shaick, revealed that a U.S. Embassy diplomat asked him to spy for the U.S. government by collecting the names and addresses of Venezuelans and Cubans he encountered during his field work in Bolivia.

In a sworn affidavit submitted by Van Schaick, he divulged details of a one-on-one security briefing that occurred in November 2007 with Vincent Cooper, a security adviser to the US embassy in La Paz.

Once it became apparent that Cooper also made similar spying requests of 30 Peace Corps volunteers in July 2007, the Bolivian government filed charges of espionage against the diplomat – the first of their kind in Bolivia-U.S. relations.

The American embassy acknowledged Cooper’s actions and described it as "a mistake". Cooper was immediately recalled to Washington with assurances that he was reprimanded and will not return to Bolivia.

Following a meeting between Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, Minister Quintana and Ambassador Goldberg, Minister Choquehuanca expressed the hope that both countries could move past the issue while investigations into Cooper's requests continued.

An official complaint was filed with Bolivia’s Attorney General and now the Bolivian delegation may provide the best opportunity for the U.S. Congress to open an official investigation into these violations by the U.S. Embassy and USAID.

Allegations of violating the Vienna Convention are quite severe and, if proven true, would indicate a breach of international law by the United States government.

However, if past relations between the Bush administration and the Morales administration are an accurate indicator, this move will be an uphill battle for Bolivia, or worse fall upon deaf ears.

Former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada lives in the U.S., protected from extradiction charges filed by the Bolivian government. And Vincent Cooper will probably never face the espionage charges filed earlier this month.

Meanwhile, President Morales has canceled a scheduled trip to the United States where he planned to visit two states, including the presentation of a lecture at Brown University in Rhode Island. Morales said he needed to focus on those in Bolivia who have been affected by the severe flooding, which have left 61 people dead and 73,000 families homeless.

Interview with John Alexander Van Schaick on Democracy NOW! (in English)

Interview with John Alexander Van Schaick on Telesur (en Español)


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bolivia and World Bank Agree to Funding Package

Washington D.C. - The Bolivian government entered into a $77.5 million loan agreement with the World Bank to fund five major projects in the areas of rural investment, agricultural development, education and natural disaster prevention.

Bolivia’s Ambassador to the United States, Gustavo Guzman, and Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, Director of the World Bank for Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela - signed the loan agreement on Monday at the headquarters of the World Bank in Washington D.C.

Ambassador Guzman noted that this is the first World Bank loan package to Bolivia since Evo Morales assumed the presidency in January 2006.

International financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have drawn considerable public criticism from Morales in the past.

In May 2007, Bolivia became the first country in the world to withdraw from the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). The arbitration court is known for its lack of transparency and bias towards multi-national companies. Morales allowed Bolivia's agreement of understanding with the IMF to expire in March 2006.

To counteract the influence of the World Bank, IMF and Inter-American Development Bank, President Morales and other Latin American leaders have made participation in regional economic integration activities, such as the Bank of the South, a priority.

The IMF and World Bank are considered the primary lending agencies that pressured the Bolivian government to accept neoliberal policies during the presidency of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in the mid-1990s. Privatization of Bolivia’s industries increased unemployment and poverty instead of creating jobs and national prosperity as suggested by policymakers.

A World Bank sponsored project - administered by Bechtel’s Aguas del Tunari - to privatize water in Cochabamba led to the Water Wars of 2000. Mobilization around the right to water eventually led to Aguas del Tunari's removal from Bolivia. It propelled the nation’s indigenous population to consolidate its political power and made Bolivia an international inspiration in the anti-globalization movement.

Despite this history, the Morales government agreed to a five loan package from the World Bank that according to Ambassador Guzman, “is based on a dialogue grounded in the country’s development priorities as defined in the National Development Plan of President Evo Morales’ administration.”

The agreement includes the following low-interest loans: $20 million for the Second Participatory Rural Investment Project; $20 million for the Lake Titicaca Local Sustainable Development Project; $15 million for the Land for Agricultural Development Project; $10 million for the Municipality of La Paz Secondary Education Transformation Project; and $12.5 million for the Prevention and Management of Natural Disasters Project.

Ambassador Guzman emphasized the importance of the loan package to deal with natural disasters.

The project will be used to improve the government’s capacity to prevent and respond to natural disasters, as well as the reconstruction of housing, health facilities and schools. Preventive measures such as irrigation systems and the construction of dykes along riverbanks are also expected to be funded by the project.

On Tuesday, President Morales declared a national state of emergency due to heavy rains that have flooded much of the northeastern lowland regions of the country. Since November, heavy rains have fallen and resulted in the displacement of 43,000 individuals and more than 50 deaths.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

B-U.S.-ted: La política expuestos

An American Fulbright Scholar made headlines last week and put the U.S. Embassy on the defensive after revelations that he and a group of Peace Corps volunteers were asked to spy for the U.S. government.

John Alexander van Schaick told reporters Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and Brian Ross that during a security briefing meeting in November 2007 - held at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz - regional security officer Vincent Cooper requested that Van Schaick report back to the U.S. Embassy with names and addresses of Cuban and Venezuelans met in his field work.

On Monday, President Morales responded by stating that Cooper, “has not only violated the rights of these citizens, but also violated, offended and attacked Bolivia”.

The U.S. denied the latest allegations, as it has done several times in the past when confronted with accusations of interference from the Bolivian government.

It was June 2006 when President Evo Morales first accused the United States of sending spies disguised as students and tourists to Bolivia. At the time, the U.S. Embassy vehemently denied Morales’ statements and asserted that the U.S. government maintained consistent support for Bolivia’s democracy.

However, the facts point to an association of patronage and interference from the U.S. Embassy that may have seen its apex with the administrations of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

Sánchez de Lozada was viewed as such a close ally of the U.S., that he was nicknamed “El Gringo” by the Bolivian people. His frequent association with the U.S. Embassy led many to believe that he was personally backed by the U.S. government.

So intimate was the relationship between the CIA and the Bolivian government that when Morales assumed the presidency in January 2006, the CIA headquarters was housed in the Presidential Palace, according to lawyer and journalist Eva Gollinger.

Historically, the U.S. has meddled in Bolivia’s political affairs through the activities of the U.S. Embassy in La Paz and local activities sponsored by USAID and the CIA-directed War on Drugs.

The brutal tactics used by the Expeditionary Task Force – an armed unit of 1,500 former Bolivian soldiers used for coca eradication in the Chapare region of Bolivia - earned them the nickname “America’s mercenaries”. The group was trained, clothed and fed by the U.S. Embassy in La Paz.

But the U.S. government’s antagonistic relationship with Evo Morales and his party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), dates back to before Morales won the presidential election in 2005.

The U.S. government carefully eyed Morales during the presidential race in 2002. At the time, U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Manuel Rocha, warned voters not to choose Morales in the polls. Ambassador Rocha stated very clearly that electing Morales would endanger funding from the U.S. government.

While a senator in the Bolivian Congress, Morales often charged that the U.S. was interfering in his nation’s politics. In 2003, while on Colombian radio, Morales accused the U.S. of fomenting the political crisis in the country, saying the Bush administration was complicit in the deaths of protesting campesinos during the “Gas Wars” of September-October 2003.

After his election to the Presidency in 2005, the Morales administration regularly made statements condemning interference from the U.S., with the two governments going through varied levels of tense relations.

Last year, Bolivian Presidential Minister Juan Ramon Quintana criticized the USAID foreign aid program, and suggested that the U.S. government should stop its interference or USAID should leave Bolivia. According to Minister Quintana, the USAID funded programs prove that the U.S. administration does not recognize the current Bolivian government as a democracy.

The USAID development process has long been identified as ineffective and in many cases downright subversive. Eva Gollinger, a Venezuelan-American lawyer, is one of the most vocal critics of USAID activities in Latin America. She has alleged that USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, which is responsible for "democracy promotion," has been funding organizations and programs working against the Morales government.

Although not a part of USAID, the Peace Corps and Fulbright Program are de facto extensions of U.S. international influence.

Perhaps the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia was expecting to regain some of its carte blanche activities that had been recently eclipsed by the Morales administration. Although Van Schaick would be an odd choice as a potential "spy".

While in the U.S., Van Schaick worked as a union organizer and as an anti-war activist. He is also a former editorial assistant with the New York City based North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), an organization that has written extensively on U.S./Latin American relations since 1966. Van Schaick, arrived in Bolivia last October, on a Fulbright grant to study land use issues among largely indigenous farmers in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands.

While maintaining that the Fulbright program is free from the policies of the U.S. government, the program is actively sponsored and administered by the U.S. State Department in conjunction with the Public Affairs Sections of U.S. Embassies abroad. The Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board is composed of educational and public leaders that are directly appointed by the President of the United States.

The head of the Fulbright Board, Shirley Moore Green, was appointed to the board by President Bush in 2003. Ms. Green previously served under George H. Bush while he was Vice President, and also served as the Special Assistant for Presidential Messages after he was elected to the Presidency.

In the current U.S. political climate which is prone to violating international laws, corrupting justice and classifying nations as evil, any statements made by the U.S. State Department - at home or abroad - is suspect to scrutiny.

Cooper had been implicated in a previous incident with Peace Corps volunteers in July 2007 and was supposedly reported to his superiors by the director of Peace Corps in Bolivia. Yet four months later, Cooper offered similar instructions.

President Morales has said Bolivia seeks “partners not owners” as well as national sovereignty and dignity. By its actions, the U.S. has demonstrated quite clearly that its policies are incapable of respecting the sovereignty of the democratically elected government of Evo Morales. Instead the U.S. government has chosen to support those individuals, organizations and activities that directly undermine the political and economic stability of Bolivia.

This latest incident demonstrated by the U.S. Embassy is just another example of a pattern of unapologetic interference.


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Undermining Bolivia

By Benjamin Dangl
(originally published in The Progressive February 2008 issue)

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 Latin America.

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 documents reveal.

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 documents state.

“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 events.” 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 neoliberal policies.”

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 councils.

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 beat us.”


Monday, February 04, 2008

Bolivia Fights Poverty by Launching Pension Benefit

(digitalwarriormedia) On Friday, the Bolivian government kicked off the Renta Dignidad - a national program that will help lift thousands of Bolivians out of poverty by taking government revenue and putting it back into the hands of elderly citizens.

Speaking in the Cochabamba department, President Morales and his administrators initiated Renta Dignidad (Dignity Income) payments at a public event attended by elderly Bolivians and representatives from the social sectors.

Similar events were carried out in cities and towns throughout the country by ministers, deputy ministers, parliament members, and other governmental representatives.

Vice President, Alvaro Garcia Linera, launched the program at an air base in Santa Cruz, while Foreign Minister, David Choquehuanca, handed out money to the elderly in El Alto.

Morales declared the pension part of the “revolution and democratic social change” taking place in Bolivia. The measure is described by various social sectors as historic – demonstrating solidarity for members of society that had previously been excluded.

The Dignity pension will provide more than 676,000 elderly Bolivians with a monthly payment of 200 bolivianos or about $26. The benefit is divided into two different groups of elderly Bolivians who are no longer working.

Elderly citizens with no income will receive 2400 bolivianos ($325) annually, while those retirees who have some other form of pension will receive 1800 bolivianos ($242) per year. Those over 60 years of age who are working and receive a salary are ineligible.

The expanded pension program replaces the Bonosol (Solidarity Bonus) that provided a monthly income to Bolivians over the age of 65. The new program will benefit 226,000 more men and women than the previously administered Bonosol pension.

More than 530 institutions throughout the country will distribute the monthly sums. In remote locations, the government plans to use the Armed Forces to administer the pension program from their barracks or use mobile units to travel to the remotest communities.

According to government data, the program’s cost will be approximately 1.68 billion bolivianos ($219 million), with the majority of the Dignity Income being funded collectively through departmental revenue of about 890 million bolivianos ($116 million) - made possible by the Direct Hydrocarbon Tax (IDH).

The Treasurer’s Office and the Indigenous Fund will provide the remainder of the program’s funding.

As promised, the government began payments on February 1st despite protests by political opponents. President Morales received criticism for moving forward with the Dignity Income even with ongoing negotiations between departmental governors; in particular the five governors from Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Tarija, Beni and Pando that vehemently protest the amount of their contributions.

Regional governmental prefects have demanded a return of the 30 percent IDH revenue taken from their departmental budgets in order to help sustain the social program.

On January 7, negotiations about financing the program began and continued throughout last month, but the efforts failed to reach any resolution between the central government in La Paz and the regional departments.

On January 25, in an effort to reach an agreement, the Bolivian government put forth a proposal to increase the central government’s funding of the Renta Dignidad, but the proposal still remains unanswered by the opposition.

While speaking during a televised speech on Friday, Morales dismissed his critics saying, "These economic resources, whether from our natural resources or the direct tax on hydrocarbons, don't belong to the president or the mayors or the governors. This money belongs to the Bolivian people and must return to the Bolivian people."

Supporters of the program view the Dignity Income as a means to redress the historical injustices that many sectors of workers (such as maids, taxi drivers, housewives, miners, artisans, farmers, and even professionals) had been subjected.

It represents a way of paying society’s debt to elderly Bolivians who laid the foundation for the economic and social changes taking place in the country.

In addition, the Dignity Income attempts to meet governmental objectives of confronting and reducing the incidence of poverty in the poorest nation in South America.

Since nationalizing the nation’s oil and gas sectors in May 2006, the nation has been flush with new cash flows, as government coffers benefit from record high energy prices. The Morales administration has directed some of the increased revenue towards social programs in health, education and now the pension initiative.

Inflation of 12% and the falling U.S. dollar have both put pressure on Bolivia’s economy by increasing consumer prices. More than 60 percent of Bolivia’s entire population lives in poverty, with many unable to afford basic needs, let alone higher inflation rates.

As the funfolding mortgage crisis, historical deficits and the costs of an unending war take a toll on the American economy, as well as economies around the world, the U.S. government is contemplating a national stimulus package.

Some economists and policy experts support a federal tax credit proposal that would put money into the hands of taxpayers, thereby infusing the economy through consumer spending. One of the largest and most effective anti-poverty tools in the U.S. is the Earned Income Tax Credit - a tax rebate program that serves as a wage subsidy to low-income taxpayers.

In many ways Bolivia is merely using public policy to implement an economic stimulus model by redistributing government funds to members of society that will spend the newfound subsidies on basic consumer goods.

Unlike subsidies to the wealthy, who can horde their income or divert funds to international financial institutions, the money designated for the pension will be spent within the country on goods and services that will not only help keep elderly Bolivians out of poverty, but may potentially play a healthy role in the entire Bolivian economy.

Photos: ABI