Diplomatic efforts seek to mend damaged US-Bolivia relationship

Espionage charges remain against US Embassy official

LA PAZ, Bolivia - Three weeks after pro-President Evo Morales leaders in the Cochabamba region officially expelled all personnel connected to the U.S. Agency for International Development for the agency;s role in ''conspiring against the Morales government'' and then announced that all U.S. Embassy staff were also not welcome for the same reasons, U.S. and Bolivian officials met in July to discuss these problems, the extradition of former Bolivian officials wanted there for murder and issues relating to U.S. funding of the war on drugs.

Bolivian authorities had announced in mid-July that they were expecting a visit from ''high-level'' U.S. officials to work on repairing the deteriorating relationship between the two countries - the strain mostly coming from evidence showing strong U.S. financial support of the oppositional ''half-moon region'' and two incidents involving U.S. Embassy personnel in La Paz who attempted to recruit both a visiting Fulbright scholar as well as Peace Corps volunteers to spy on behalf of the United States.

Morales and Foreign Relations Minister David Choquehuanca met with Thomas Shannon, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, early July 23 in the government palace in La Paz. Ambassador Phillip Goldberg had also met with the Bolivian president earlier in July, presumably to discuss Morales' charges that Goldberg has actively worked to undermine his government.

In a press conference before the meeting, Goldberg admitted that ''there are problems'' between the two countries but that the U.S. wanted to ''help Bolivians in their development efforts.'' He also referred to the charges against the U.S. Embassy and USAID as being ''unfounded'' and that ''we have to resolve this and speak seriously and with sincerity.''

At the July 23 gathering with Shannon, Morales reiterated his charges that the United States was conspiring against his government. Choquehuanca, in a brief press conference after the meeting, said that the president asked Shannon to stop the conspiracy and that ''they should conspire together against poverty, social exclusion and inequality.''

In response to the allegations against USAID and Goldberg, Shannon asserted to the press that all U.S. programs would be applied with ''all the necessary transparency'' and that they will set up channels of communication so that Morales' ''concern or accusation'' about conspiracy ''will not appear again in the future.'' He also said that the ''U.S. could not have a better ambassador'' in La Paz than Goldberg and that he is ''a very well-respected diplomat in Washington.''

Goldberg's repeated public declarations and Shannon's denials, however, have not changed the responses from the Morales administration.

While the Aymaran leader stated that he was glad to have discussed the issues, he still accused the USAID of ''investing large sums of money to create problems and divide Bolivia.'' Several independent sources have supported Morales' assertions.

Evidence of the U.S. funding of opposition groups, the attempted recruitment of spies and the U.S. Embassy's role in some of these activities have been presented by both Bolivian and U.S. sources including ABC News and the ''Democracy Now!'' radio/TV news program.

According to official and press sources in 2002, the USAID began funding a ''political party reform project'' that would ''serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS [Morales' party] or its successors.'' One year after Morales won the presidential election, in 2006, the USAID gave approximately $4.5 million to departmental governments to help them move towards autonomy and away from the centralized government of Morales and the MAS Party. The recipients of much of the funding since then, according to a variety of sources, are the states of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija - the half-moon region.

For the last two years, the Morales administration has also been commenting on the presence of what they considered to be spies in all of those regions, but the most compelling evidence of espionage involved testimony by U.S. Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar, who is also a U.S. citizen.

John Alexander van Schaick arrived in Bolivia in October 2007 with the intention of using his Fulbright grant to study land issues involving mostly indigenous farmers in the eastern section of the country. Not long after he started his project, van Schaick was asked to meet with a U.S. Embassy official named Vincent Cooper.

In a series of interviews in February 2008, he said that the beginning of his meeting with Cooper involved standard advice, such as what not to do and how to live in the country. The briefing then took an unexpected turn.

''He [Cooper] told me, 'If you should encounter any Venezuelans or Cubans in the field - doctors, field workers, etc. - the embassy would like you to report their names and something like where they're located to the embassy,''' van Schaick said about his interview with Cooper. ''And then he said, 'We know they're out there, we just want to keep tabs on them.''' (As of late 2007, there were about 2,000 Cuban doctors and some Venezuelan pilots and technicians in Bolivia.)

Van Schaick informed the Bolivian authorities of the incident and then spoke to media from the U.S. and around the world. U.S. authorities then sent Cooper back to Washington, where he was supposedly reprimanded; but as the world would soon learn, Cooper had tried in July 2007 - four months prior to his meeting with van Schaick - to recruit Peace Corps volunteers in Bolivia to do the same thing.

Doreen Salazar, deputy director of the Peace Corps in Bolivia, recounted what had happened in press statements this year.

''Yeah, you know, this embassy official came to see us, and during his security talk he said ... we should report information on our interactions with Cubans, their names, where they lived.

''We were so appalled by it that we not only instructed our volunteers not to follow the embassy instructions, but we complained to the embassy and the State Department and we said, this is not OK.''

While neither Shannon nor Goldberg have admitted that the incidents involving Cooper were espionage, both have said they would advocate to continue funding for the anti-drug efforts of the Morales administration and they would ''revisit'' the idea of extraditing former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and former Defense Minister Carlos Sanchez Beltran back to Bolivia to face charges of murder. Bolivian authorities hold both Lozada and Beltran responsible for the deaths of 60 people at a demonstration in 2003; both men fled the country soon after the incident.