Orchestrating a Civic Coup in Bolivia

Evo Morales is the latest democratically-elected Latin American president to be the target of a US plot to destabilize and overthrow his government. On September 10, 2008 Morales expelled US Ambassador Philip Goldberg because “he is conspiring against democracy and seeking the division of Bolivia.”
Observers of US-Latin American policy tend to view the crisis in US-Bolivian relations as due to a policy of neglect and ineptness towards Latin America because of US involvement in the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. In fact, the Bolivia coup attempt was a conscious policy rooted in US hostility towards Morales, his political party the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and the social movements that are aligned with him.

“The US 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 bid for the presidency, US 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 US assistance to Bolivia.” Because he led the Cocaleros Federation prior to assuming the presidency, the US State Department called Morales an “illegal coca agitator.”Morales advocated “Coca Yes, Cocaine No,” and called which 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 George Bush, offering to help “bring a better life to Bolivians.” Morales asked Bush to reduce US 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 US ambassador prior to Goldberg, expressed his “preoccupation” with Bolivia’s foreign alliances, while 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 US 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 U.S. 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, the first Indian president in Bolivian history took office. (About 55% 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 US 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 US 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 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 US 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 support of the Institute’s activities continued into 2006, when the Institute filed a report saying it intended to “contribute to improved municipal development through efficient and effective social monitoring.” (6)
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 US 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 para-military organizations in Colombia. In response, the US 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. 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 that 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, 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 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 August 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 August 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 September 10. “After his expulsion, the rebellion began to unravel,” notes Guzman.

On September 11, in the department of Pando, a para-military 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 September 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 US 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 US market.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proclaimed 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, “Coca Cultivation in the Andean Region: A Survey of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.” This data, however, stood in sharp contrast to Colombia, which registered an increase of coca cultivation by 27 percent, despite the Colombian government’s strong alliance with the U.S. 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 October 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 November 1, Morales released a bomb shell by announcing the indefinite suspension of the activities of the US 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 toa 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 US “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 US embassy, the opposition is in disarray, with the leading rightwing party split into four factions. The referendum on the constitution will likely be approved by a wide margin. Evo has rallied the social movements and the country to break US 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.

ROGER BURBACH is Director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) based in Berkeley, CA. He has written extensively on Latin America and is the author of “The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice.






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ROGER BURBACH is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and author of The Pinochet Affair.

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