The United States: Orchestrating a Civic Coup in Bolivia

New America Media, News Report, Roger Burbach Posted: Nov 20, 2008

Editor's note: Bolivian President Evo Morales visited the United Nations and the Organization of American States this week to report on U.S. intervention in his country. He planned to meet with members of Congress to deal with "the worst diplomatic crisis" in the history of the two countries, and hopes to open a dialogue to normalize relations once President-elect Barack Obama takes office. Below is the story of U.S. efforts over the past three years to topple Morales. It originally was published on the website of Global Alternatives, a project of the Center for the Study of the Americas. The link to the original article with source materials is: http://globalalternatives.org/node/95.


Evo Morales is the latest democratically elected Latin American president to be the target of a U.S. plot to destabilize and overthrow his government. On Sept. 10, 2008, Morales expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, declaring that "he is conspiring against democracy and seeking the division of Bolivia."

Observers of U.S.-Latin American policy tend to view the crisis in U.S.-Bolivian relations as due to a policy of neglect and ineptness toward Latin America because of U.S. involvement in the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. In fact, the Bolivia coup attempt was a conscious policy rooted in U.S. hostility toward Morales, his political party the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and the social movements that are aligned with him.

"The U.S. embassy is historically used to calling the shots in Bolivia, violating our sovereignty, treating us like a banana republic," says Gustavo Guzman, who was expelled as Bolivian ambassador to Washington following Goldberg's removal. In 2002, when Morales narrowly lost his first presidential bid, U.S. ambassador Manuel Rocha openly campaigned against him, threatening, "If you elect those who want Bolivia to become a major cocaine exporter again, this will endanger the future of U.S. assistance to Bolivia."

Because Morales led the Cocaleros Federation prior to assuming the presidency, the U.S. state department called him an "illegal coca agitator." Morales advocated, "Coca Yes, Cocaine No," and called for an end to violent U.S.-sponsored coca eradication raids and for the right of Bolivian peasants to grow coca for domestic consumption, medicinal uses and even for export as an herb in tea and other products.

"When Morales triumphed in the next presidential election," says Guzman, "it represented a defeat for the United States." Shortly after his inauguration, Morales received a call from President George W. Bush, offering to help "bring a better life to Bolivians." Morales asked Bush to reduce U.S. trade barriers for Bolivian products, and suggested that he come for a visit. Bush did not reply. As Guzman notes, "The United States was trying to woo Morales with polite and banal comments to keep him from aligning with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez." David Greenlee, the U.S. ambassador prior to Goldberg, expressed his "preoccupation" with Bolivia's foreign alliances, while then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others at the Pentagon began talking about "security concerns" in Bolivia.

Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, the highest ranking U.S. official to attend Morales' inauguration, declared a willingness to dialogue with Morales. In fact, what followed were almost three years of diplomatic wrangling while the United States provided direct and covert assistance to the opposition movement centered in the four eastern departments of Bolivia known as "La Media Luna." Dominated by agro-industrial interests, the departments began a drive for regional autonomy soon after Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president, took office. (About 55 percent of the country's population is Indian.) Headed by departmental prefects (governors) and large landowners, the autonomy movement has been determined to stymie Morales' plans for national agrarian reform, and bent on taking control of the substantial hydro-carbon resources located in the Media Luna.

The Bush administration has pursued a two-track policy similar to the strategy the United States employed to overthrow the democratically

elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. The diplomatic negotiations initiated by Shannon centered almost exclusively on differences over drug policies, with the Bush administration continually threatening to cut or curtail economic assistance and preferential trade if Bolivia did not abide by the U.S. policy of coca eradication and criminalization. At the same time, the United States – through its embassy in La Paz and the Agency for International Development (USAID) – funded political forces that opposed Morales and MAS. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), with 37 in-country agents, appears to have acted like the CIA in Bolivia, gathering intelligence and engaging in clandestine political operations with the opposition.

Intervention is evident from the very start of the Morales administration, with early USAID activities through the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI). After Morales took office, USAID documents state that the OTI set out "to provide support to fledgling regional governments." Altogether the OTI funneled 116 grants for $4,451,249 "to help departmental governments operate more strategically." In an effort to establish expedient political ties, the OTI also brought departmental prefects to meet with U.S. governors. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), founded as a semi-public institute during the Reagan years, has been particularly active in Bolivia. It funds a number of groups and organizations with a clear political bias, among them the Institute of Pedagogical and Social Investigation. The Institute opposed Morales in the 2005 elections, declaring in a project summary report to the U.S. embassy that Morales and MAS are an "anti-democratic, radical opposition" that doesn't represent the majority. NED’s support of the Institute's activities continued into 2006, when the Institute filed a report saying that it intended to "contribute to improved municipal development through efficient and effective social monitoring."

In the Media Luna, USAID tried to organize Indians opposed to the Confederation of the Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB), which is allied with MAS and Morales. Media Luna leaders were particularly concerned about CIBOD's capacity to mobilize and move in from the countryside to encircle departmental capitals when the prefect's leaders orchestrated activities against the Morales government, particularly in the department of Santa Cruz. Working out of the U.S. embassy, the Strategy and Operations Office and the Strategic Team of Integral Development for USAID set up a meeting between Ambassador Goldberg and Indian groups in February 2007. Internal emails from USAID officers who helped organize the event reveal that they only invited Indians opposed to CIDOB who "lacked experience and were immature politically." One of the officers recommended that these Indians be given field radios "to facilitate communications."

In late 2007, the U.S. embassy began moving openly to meet with the right-wing opposition in Media Luna. Ambassador Goldberg was photographed in Santa Cruz with a leading business magnate who backs the autonomy movement, and a well-known Colombian narco-trafficker who had been detained by the local police. Morales, in revealing the photo, said the trafficker was linked to right-wing paramilitary organizations in Colombia. In response, the U.S. embassy asserted that it couldn't vet everyone who appeared in a photo with the ambassador.

Then in January 2008, the embassy was caught giving aid to a special intelligence unit of the Bolivian police force. The embassy rationalized its assistance by saying, "The U.S. government has a long history of helping the National Police of Bolivia in diverse programs." U.S.-Bolivian relations were next roiled in February, when it was revealed that Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar had been pressured by an embassy official to keep tabs on Venezuelans and Cubans in the country (Burbach, U.S. Maneuvers to Carve up Bolivia with Autonomy Vote, http://globalalternatives.org/node/86). This violated the founding statutes of the Peace Corps, which prohibit any intelligence activities by volunteers.

During 2007, political tensions in Bolivia had centered on the Constituent Assembly meeting in Sucre, which had been mandated by a national referendum to draw up a new constitution to transform the country's institutions. When the Assembly began voting on the final draft in December 2007, the opposition violently took over the streets and all of the major public buildings in Sucre, using dynamite and Molotov cocktails, and demanding the resignation of "the shitty Indian Morales." Parts of the city were in flames, and members of the assembly, including its president, Silvia Lazarte, were assaulted in the streets.

Then the political leaders and business organizations in Santa Cruz and other cities in the Media Luna began to openly call for autonomy and secession from the central Bolivian government. Branko Marinkovic, the leading business magnate and largest landowner in the Media Luna, led the opposition as head of the Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee, declaring, "The fight has begun for our autonomy and liberty." Along with Santa Cruz, civic committees in the other major cities of Media Luna joined the call and began meeting together along with the prefects.

Simultaneously, the Bush administration "first brandished the aid weapon to show its support of the civic committees opposed to the government," says Guzman. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), set up in 2004 as a U.S. government agency "to work with some of the poorest countries in the world," had been on the brink of approving $584 million to fund the construction of a major highway linking northern Bolivia to the rest of the country, as well as to make investments in agricultural projects.

Yet in a letter to Morales in December 2007, the MCC stated that while it "recognizes your country's performance on our 17 indicators…the current state of the U.S.-Bolivian relationship is not consistent with such a working partnership." A separate report by the MCC was even more blunt: The project "was postponed because of adverse conditions, including unrest surrounding the Constitution Assembly process."

When the Constituent Assembly approved the final draft of the new constitution in December 2007, the Bolivian Congress needed to approve it with a national referendum. Knowing that he did not have the votes, Morales declared, "Dead or alive, I will have a new constitution for the country," and called for public pressure on Congress. Asserting that he was acting as a "dictator," the civic committees and the departmental prefects of Media Luna, along with their political allies in the Bolivian Senate, refused to schedule the referendum. They instead organized departmental referendums for autonomy, which they overwhelmingly won in May. The referendums were ruled unconstitutional by the National Electoral Council, and the voting conditions were less than auspicious, with no official electoral monitors and pro-autonomy forces intimidating and physically assaulting those who opposed the vote.

Choosing the democratic road rather than force to annul the departmental referendums, Morales then put his presidency on the line with a recall referendum in which his mandate, as well as those of the prefects seeking autonomy, could be revoked. On Aug. 10, 2008, voters gave Morales a resounding two-thirds of the national vote, with even the Media Luna department of Pando giving him just over 50 percent. However, the insurgent prefects also had their mandates renewed. Basing their actions on the illegal May plebiscites, the prefects then decided to strike for autonomy, moving first to take control of Santa Cruz, the richest of the four departments. The Cruceno Youth Union (UJC), shock troops allied with the Civic Committee, roamed the streets of the departmental capital and surrounding towns, attacking and repressing any opposition by local social movements and MAS-allied organizations, and sacking government buildings, including the agrarian reform office.

Simultaneously, the Civic Committees began sewing economic instability, seeking to weaken the Morales government much like the CIA-backed opposition did against Chilean President Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. As in Chile, the business elites and allied truckers engaged in "strikes," withholding or refusing to ship produce to urban markets in the western Andes (where the Indian population is concentrated), while selling commodities on the black market at high prices. The Confederation of Private Businesses of Bolivia called for a national producers' shutdown if the government refused "to change its economic policies."

This became known as an attempt at a "civic coup." The strategy of the autonomy movement was to take complete control of the Media Luna, provoke a national crisis to destabilize the government, and convince the army to remain neutral or move against Morales. The major of Santa Cruz, Percy Fernandez, had already called on the military to overthrow Morales' "useless government" just before the August referendum.

The United States was openly involved in orchestrating this rebellion. Ambassador Goldberg flew to Santa Cruz on Aug. 25 to meet with Ruben Costas, Morales' main antagonist and the prefect of Santa Cruz, who became the de facto leader of the rebellious prefects and the autonomy movement in general. After Goldberg left, Costas declared himself "governor" of the autonomous department of Santa Cruz, and ordered the take-over of national government offices, including those collecting tax revenues. It was this visit with Costas that Morales cited as the reason for declaring Ambassador Goldberg "persona non grata" on Sept. 10. "After his expulsion, the rebellion began to unravel," notes Guzman.

On Sept. 11, in the department of Pando, a paramilitary militia with machine guns attacked pro-Morales Indians near the capital of El Cobija, resulting in at least 13 deaths. In a separate action, three policemen were kidnapped. The next day Morales declared a state of siege in Pando and dispatched the army to move on Cobija in order to retake its airport, which had been occupied by right-wing bands. Army units were also sent to guard the natural gas oleoducts, one of which had been seized by the autonomy movement, cutting the flow of gas to neighboring Brazil and Argentina.

The violent attacks in Pando precipitated a national mobilization of indigenous peoples and social movements, as well as a sense of outrage in neighboring countries. On Sept. 15, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called an emergency meeting in Santiago of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to discuss the Bolivian crisis. The resulting "Declaration of La Moneda," signed by the twelve UNASUR governments, expressed their "full and decided support for the constitutional government of President Evo Morales," and warned that their respective governments "will not recognize any situation that entails an attempt for a civil coup that ruptures the institutional order, or that compromises the territorial integrity of the Republic of Bolivia." Morales, who participated in the meeting, thanked UNASUR for its support, declaring: "For the first time in South American's history, the countries of our region are deciding how to resolve our problems without the presence of the United States."

Paying no attention to the declaration of support by UNASUR, President Bush upped the ante the following week by suspending the Andean Trade

Preference Act, asserting, "Bolivia has failed to cooperate with the United States on important efforts to fight drug trafficking." The trade act, dating from 1991, eliminates tariffs on imports of textiles, jewelry, wood and other products from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, in exchange for cooperation with the U.S. war on drugs. It is estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 workers will lose their jobs, and more than $70 million in exports will be priced out of the U.S. market.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proclaimed that there was "no ideological test for cooperation and friendship with the United States" that led to the trade cutoff with Bolivia. This statement was a diplomatic lie: For 2006, Morales' first year in office, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy reported that coca cultivation was "statistically unchanged as compared to the 2005 estimate." For 2007 the United Nations reported an increase of just 5 percent in the study "Coca Cultivation in the Andean Region: A Survey of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru." This data, however, stood in sharp contrast to Colombia, which registered a 27 percent increase in coca cultivation, despite the Colombian government's strong alliance with the United States on coca eradication efforts.

The UNASUR declaration, along with the state of siege in Pando and the nationwide repudiation of the massacre of Indians, compelled the prefects of Media Luna to call off their rebellion. They agreed to a "dialogue" with Morales over the new constitution and the issue of autonomy. But the discussions in late September went nowhere, even though the Morales' government agreed to incorporate some limited amendments concerning departmental autonomy into the new constitution. The department prefects also demanded that the agrarian reform clauses in the new constitution be eliminated, but on this point Morales, backed by MAS and the social movements, refused to back down. On Oct. 5, the negotiations collapsed.

Morales then announced that he would ask Congress to set the date for the public referendum on the new constitution. The social movements mobilized from around the country, and over 50,000 demonstrators descended on La Paz, surrounding Congress as it was meeting. The right wing fragmented, and on Oct. 20, Congress approved the referendum on the new constitution, which is scheduled for Jan. 25, 2009.

Then on Nov. 1, Morales released a bombshell by announcing the indefinite suspension of the activities of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Bolivia, and the expulsion of the 37 DEA agents from the country. "Agents of the DEA carried out political espionage, including the financing of delinquent groups," Morales declared. He pointed to a key U.S. operative involved in these activities: "Steven Faucette, the regional agent of the DEA in Santa Cruz, who on a diplomatic mission of the U.S. embassy made trips to Trinidad and Riberalta [cities in the Media Luna provinces of Beni and Pando, respectively] with the objective of financing the Civics who were committed to carrying out a civic coup."

Morales went on to disclose that a plane with North American registry called Super King had flown to airports in the Media Luna without registering flight plans or providing notification of "the cargo it transferred to pick up vehicles when it landed on the runway, in clear violation of our national sovereignty." Bolivian intelligence also discovered seven security houses run by the United States "that carried out political espionage," including telephone surveillance of political, police and military authorities.

The DEA and its 37 agents were expelled from the country. The Bolivian government appropriated what amounted to a DEA military arsenal, including airplanes, boats, ground transport vehicles, communications equipment and one thousand M-16 machine guns.

The civic coup has failed. No longer able to turn to the U.S. embassy, the opposition is in disarray, with the leading right-wing party split into four factions. The referendum on the constitution will likely be approved by a wide margin. Evo Morales has rallied the social movements and the country to break U.S. historic domination of Bolivia. With his trip to

Washington, D.C., Morales is hoping to open up a dialogue with the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama that will lead to a restoration of full trade relations, a recognition of Bolivia's right to determine its own policies on drugs, agrarian reform and gas nationalization, and mutual respect between the two nations.


Will Obama Make the Mistake of Latin American Leaders?

The Battle in Bolivia: 'New Left' President Evo Morales Faces Opposition to New Constitution

The Importance of Being Evo Morales

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User Comments


T on Nov 26, 2008 at 12:02:35 said:

You have to ask your self: What do americans want with Bolivia? Many (perhaps most) Bolivians have no idea what drives the US to do what it does. They have been taught that the US are imperialists bent on extending their control. What they don't understand is that a stable and free democracy that strives for equal representation for all people rich and poor is what is most valuable.

I have sat and listened to college educated Bolivians tell me how the US invasion was immenent (this was in the 90's when Bill Clinton was president). I would ask them what strategic value they thought Bolivia held that would drive the US to such an action and the answer was always silence. Most could not understand that as an american, I was there to provide aid to those in need. Most thought that I was working for the CIA, until they got to know me better. Where did this fear come from?

The reality is that fear of outsiders has been used throughout the past several decades to place blame for unending poverty and failed economic and social policies.

As for the DEA... the truth is that the DEA has been working there for decades to reduce or erradicate coca farms and replacing it with other cash crops like Bananas. Where does the DEA operate? Eastern Bolivian provinces where Coca is primarily grown. Where is the center of opposition to Evo Morales? Same place. So by association to eastern Bolivan provinces, Evo has been able to misdirect attention while he dismantles the Bolivian constitution.

I love the Bolivian people dearly. I am always angered by the mismanagement of the natural resources of past administrations. I agree that a few in the government have lined their pockets with the blood and work of many poor people. It is unfortunate and sad to say the least.

However, the world must see that Evo is only hungry for more power and control and that he is not the answer the Bolivians so dearly need to bring stability and prosperity to their lives. He perpetuates and stokes the fear that Bolivians have for outsiders further alienating Bolivia from the international community. He wants to eliminate the power of the people to choose a new president someday. The path he has chosen has only one end which is more death, violence, and despair.

As I said before, Evo has not brought change to Bolivia. But as long as the democratic process is protected and alive (Chavez destroyed democracy long ago in Venezuela) then there is always hope for real change someday. I just hope enough people are alive to see that day.


james carbone on Nov 21, 2008 at 11:53:17 said:

I have a hard time believing who you say you are. My guess is you are somehow associated with the Morales opposition. Morales has put his life on the line and like Chavez is finally standing up to the West. Please explain to me the DEA and CIA involvement with the MCC. Do you think we are all fools?


T on Nov 20, 2008 at 15:29:11 said:

I'm an american who lived in Bolivia for several years during the 90's. The mistrust that Bolivians have for Americans back then was palpable.

Mistrust of all things foreign is ingrained into Bolivian society. Who can blame them? Every one of their neighbors has taken land from them. Bolivia could not defend the slow parceling out of their land over the past 80 years and consequently they don't trust anyone.

Bolivia's natural resources are lengendary. The amount of silver, gold, tin, and other precious metals as well as natural gas and other hydrocarbons makes them arguably one of the richest (in terms of natural resources) countries in South America. So why is Bolivia the poorest country with most of its citizens carving out a meager life in utter squalor?

The utter failure of the government to spur the economy by setting up "normal" trade relations with its neighbors and other countries around the globe. Instead they have invited other nations to come in and take the natural resources while government officials get their pockets lined. Citizens get a meager job, perhaps mining... but never an opportunity to take a real ownership stake.

All the while past governments have blamed foreign influence for the maintenance of substandard living conditions in the face of what should be significant national wealth.

Evo Morales has done nothing to change this. He has taken the opportunity at every turn to blame everyone but himself for his fractious presidency. The separatist movement was not born out of foreign influence nor was it stoked to any degree. The policies and procedures that Evo has stood behind are downright scary many of them illegal. Why any Bolivian would trust their government to equitably redistribute land resources is beyond understanding. What then? After all that, the economic policies that breed poverty and dispair remain.

Evo has proved so far to just be more of the same. Let's hope he can take responsibility for the results of his actions thus far and change course instead of just blaming Americans and trying to distract Bolivians. This would definitely be a first for Bolivia.

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