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Report: U.S. Funding Opposition Groups in Bolivia

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The US embassy in Bolivia has been using American taxpayer money to help fund opposition groups, according to an article in The Progressive magazine. We speak with journalist Benjamin Dangl, who broke the story. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The US government has not denied that these requests were made to spy for the US, of both the Fulbright scholar and the Peace Corps volunteers. They have not denied that a relative of the senior US military adviser at the embassy was detained at La Paz Airport bringing in 500 rounds of 45-caliber ammunition for an embassy official.

But they do deny that the Bush administration has been using USAID funding and other financing to back Morales opponents, which brings us to Benjamin Dangl, an independent journalist who has worked throughout Latin America for the past seven years. He has just published a book with AK Press called The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia. He’s just come back from Bolivia and has written a piece in The Progressive magazine about US efforts to undermine the Morales government.

Benjamin Dangl, can you flesh out what Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is saying, where you know the money is coming from and where it’s going to in Bolivia?

BENJAMIN DANGL: Yeah, the primary programs that the US government is using to undermine Bolivia are — it’s happening through USAID, US Agency for International Development. And in 2002, a declassified memo explained clearly that a “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.” That’s a declassified document that I’m quoting here, and the MAS is the Movement Toward Socialism, the political party of Evo Morales. So that shows that at least for the last five or six years the US government has been interested in weakening the influence of the Evo Morales political party. And most recently, after Evo was elected in 2005, the US government has been acting to empower rightwing groups across the country by funding them through USAID.

And though Morales won in 2005 with 54 percent of the vote, four rightwing governor positions did go to the rightwing, and at that time, USAID redirected its funding, redirected its focus, to embolden those governors that were the central part of the rightwing opposition movement. And in 2006 alone, they have given them approximately four-and-a-half million dollars to help departmental governments operate more strategically and work toward decentralization and autonomy from the central government. This is what members of the Movement Toward Socialism party have explained to me, and this is what members of rightwing political parties have also said. And it’s also backed by declassified documents, government documents.

AMY GOODMAN: You quote Jose Carvallo, a press spokesperson for the main rightwing opposition political party, Democratic and Social Power, saying “USAID helps with the process of decentralization.” Talk more about that.

BENJAMIN DANGL: Right. In the four main rightwing-led departments in Bolivia, which geographically looks kind of like a half-moon on the eastern part of the country, they’re very rich in natural resources, gas wealth. A lot of the land that’s set to be redistributed by Morales is based in Santa Cruz. And these leaders in these departments are working to decentralize the power of the government and work to redirect the funding, the profits from a partially nationalized gas reserve, to their departments. The constitutional — the changes in the new constitution have also been protested by this rightwing, and the various demands for autonomy are pushing for — against the changes that the government is advocating. And the main banner that these rightwing groups are holding up is this demand for autonomy, which USAID has explicitly supported.

AMY GOODMAN: You say, Benjamin Dangl, in your piece in The Progressive, “Undermining Bolivia” — your conversation with Raul Prada, who’s sitting with you eating ice cream. His face is black and blue. What happened to him? What’s he saying?

BENJAMIN DANGL: Well, he had been beaten up in Sucre while the constitutional assembly was meeting there. And Sucre was the place of — was the site of a lot of violence in November of last year, where rightwing groups were attacking MAS assembly members, like Raul Prada. And he explained to me that he believed that the USAID was also — has also been organizing with rightwing governors, working to build the infrastructure of these governor positions and basically empower them in this very polarized political setting in Bolivia, and in some cases capacitate assembly members for their work in the assembly.

AMY GOODMAN: You quote Evo Morales at a diplomatic gathering in La Paz, saying, “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,” says the Bolivian president. So what is Evo Morales doing about this?

BENJAMIN DANGL: Well, he’s come out in the press regularly and denounced these acts. And it’s been kind of a back-and-forth between the US ambassador and Morales. In October, they did pass a law to prevent the funding, ideological-based funding and political funding, of groups like USAID. However, there are other groups, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, which was very active in the coup against Chavez in 2002, and that continues to operate in the country. The NED has been organizing panels to work against — to advocate for the privatization of natural resources and argue against the state control of gas, which has been a major demand of social movements in recent years. So the NED, combined with USAID, is contributing to the polarization and the conflicts in the country right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Benjamin Dangl, I want to thank you for being with us, editor of Latin American news website, His book is The Price of Fire, has a piece in The Progressive magazine called “Undermining Bolivia.” We will link to it.

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