by Ben Dangl, The Progressive
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
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
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
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
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."
Benjamin Dangl is the author of "The
Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia."
He received a 2007 Project Censored Award for his coverage of
U.S. military operations in Paraguay.