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US Embassy in Bolivia Tells Fulbright Scholar and Peace Corps Volunteers to Spy on Venezuelans and Cubans in Bolivia

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An American Fulbright scholar and Peace Corps volunteers in Bolivia say the US embassy told them to spy on Venezuelans and Cubans in Bolivia. We go to Bolivia to speak with the Fulbright scholar Alexander van Schaick and Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, the reporter who broke the story for ABC News. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: A US embassy official in Bolivia told Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar to “spy” on Venezuelans and Cubans in the country, this according to an ABC News report. Assistant Regional Security Officer Vincent Cooper reportedly told the group of Peace Corps volunteers in July 2007 and at least one Fulbright scholar in November of 2007 to “keep tabs” on the Cubans and Venezuelans they came across in Bolivia.

The US embassy in Bolivia has also been using American taxpayer money to help fund opposition groups, according to an article in The Progressive magazine. Two years into the embattled presidency of Bolivia’s Evo Morales, the US Agency for International Development, or USAID, has funneled over $4 million to support Morales’s opponents.

In August 2007, Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera accused the US embassy of financing opposition groups, and Presidential Minister Juan Ramon de la Quintana said the Bush administration was working to undermine the Bolivian government and foster instability.

    JUAN RAMON DE LA QUINTANA: [translated] We want to say in the most respectful, firm and responsible way that if the United States does not adjust to the policies of the Bolivian government, then the doors are open to leave. We are not going to permit one day more in which this form of cooperation pollutes our democracy, conspires against the right of our people or offends our national dignity.

AMY GOODMAN: I interviewed President Evo Morales in September 2007 here in New York, along with Juan Gonzalez, and asked him what he thought of allegations the US is funding opposition groups in Bolivia.

    PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] Former ministers and vice minister of the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who, as you know, escaped to the United States, and the former President Banzer, who, may he rest in peace, as well as former President Tutu Quiroga, these former ministers are financed through foundations, NGOs, to create this counterweight to the government of Evo Morales. It’s impressive. And what we’re asking for is that all international cooperation be transparent, that it come through formally the central government.

    AMY GOODMAN: What are those groups pushing for?

    PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] First of all, these neoliberals, the rightwing organizations, the ones who sold out the country, as we say in Bolivia, is to exhaust the image of Evo Morales especially. And so, if they have objected, if they want to exhaust Evo Morales, it’s to be done with the government of Evo Morales.

AMY GOODMAN: Bolivian President Evo Morales. Meanwhile, the State Department has denied allegations it’s using aid funds to undermine the Morales government. They also told ABC News the US embassy official who tried to obtain intelligence from Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars had acted “in error.”

Rutgers University graduate Alexander van Schaick is the Fulbright scholar who told ABC News he had been asked to spy on Venezuelans and Cubans by US embassy official Vincent Cooper. Alexander joins me on the phone right now from Cochabamba. We’re also joined on the phone from La Paz, Bolivia by reporter Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, who broke the ABC story.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Alexander van Schaick, tell us what happened in November.

ALEXANDER VAN SCHAICK: Hi, Amy. Thanks. Well, what happened, basically, is I arrived in Bolivia to start my Fulbright grant in La Paz, and the first sort of step before you go and start doing your own research is to go through an orientation, which is pretty standard, at the US embassy, because the main Fulbright officer in Bolivia is based out of the US embassy. So that part was pretty normal, just sort of talking about the Fulbright program, stuff like that, talking about living in Bolivia. I met with a cultural affairs officer in the embassy.

Now, the part, obviously, that’s more controversial is, I was taken to a security briefing on the security floor of the embassy. It was given to me by a man named Vincent Cooper. It was just me and him in the room. And again, for most of the time, it was pretty standard, stuff like, you know, how not to put yourself in danger, how to live in Bolivia, what not to do, stuff like that. But the part that obviously raised the flags in my mind was when he 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.” And then he said, “We know they’re out there. We just want to keep tabs on them.” And that’s pretty much the extent of the ask, as it were.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you say?

ALEXANDER VAN SCHAICK: I actually at the time didn’t say anything, because the first thought that popped into my mind was, “Oh, my god, the US — this US embassy official just asked me to spy,” and I didn’t want to sort of confront him on that directly. I immediately was thinking, what can I do — because this is obviously wrong, obviously against what the Fulbright program is about — what can I do to change this so that it doesn’t happen again?

AMY GOODMAN: What made you decide to go public with this?

ALEXANDER VAN SCHAICK: There’s a couple different — there’s a couple different reasons, and by no means was it an easy decision, which is part of the reason why it’s coming out now and not in November or December. But my main reasons are, I guess I feel like the Bolivian people really have a right to know, because this is their government. Bolivia — you know, the Bolivian people have the right to elect their own government, and the Bolivian government has the right to invite whoever it pleases to work in their country. So I thought that that is a violation of sovereignty and felt like I needed to speak out about it. The other reasons are, I guess, I felt like in order to make — make a change, in order for this not to happen again, and also to hold those who are responsible accountable, that I’d have to sort of — I’d have to go to the press in order to sort of put the pressure on so that this would change.

And I feel like that’s really borne out by things that we’ve later discovered through the investigation into this that was done by Jean — for example, the fact that this guy named Cooper told this class of Peace Corps volunteers basically the same thing he told me. And the Peace Corps administrators actually immediately complained, went to the embassy and said —- or sent an email saying this is not OK for you to have somebody telling our volunteers this. And they said, “Oh, it’s an isolated incident. It won’t happen again. The person who was involved will be disciplined,” or something like that. Four months later, here I am, same thing happens to me. And the response is actually remarkably similar: it was a mistake; it might have been inappropriate suggestions, but the person who was involved is being disciplined. So I feel like really, in order to get to the bottom of this, we needed to make it public.

AMY GOODMAN: Jean Friedman-Rudovsky -—

ALEXANDER VAN SCHAICK: And lastly, I just feel like —-

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, yes, go ahead, Alexander.

ALEXANDER VAN SCHAICK: —- the Fulbright program is — thank you — the Fulbright program is about mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of Bolivia and all the other countries that participate in the program. And this flew directly in the face of that. And I felt like I really needed to do something to right that situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexander, has the Fulbright Committee complained to the US government formally?

ALEXANDER VAN SCHAICK: I’m not sure. I actually haven’t been directly in contact with them since all of this came out. I’m actually looking forward to discussing that with them, and I hope they will take that approach.

AMY GOODMAN: Jean Friedman-Rudovsky also joins Alexander van Schaick, the Fulbright scholar who says the Bolivian — the US embassy told him to spy on Cubans and Venezuelans. Jean, you’ve been covering Bolivia now for awhile, a freelance journalist with Time magazine based in Bolivia. You broke this story with ABC News. Put this in a larger context. Does this surprise you? Why would the US embassy be talking about Cubans and Venezuelans?

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: Hi, Amy. Thanks. Well, we have to understand that, you know, certainly the Bolivian government, and Evo Morales, in particular, is very close with Fidel Castro and with the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. And so, you know, there are a lot of Venezuelans and Cubans here doing mainly humanitarian work. There are about 2,000 Cuban doctors here providing medical services, primarily in rural areas. And so, there are certainly strong — there are strong links. So — and I think that this has raised — or, you know, what this incident with Alex van Schaick and the Peace Corps volunteers shows is that this has raised some serious flags for the US government.

You know, Hugo Chavez is extremely vocally critical against the Bush administration, as is Evo Morales, as is Fidel Castro. And I think there’s something about this trio that is really concerning the US government. And they are trying to take some action to figure out, you know, what exactly is going on between these three people. Do they represent a threat to the United States?

And in the course of trying to deduce what this relationship is and what threat, theoretically, it could possibly have to the United States, they made some mistakes along the way. And one of those is asking US citizens, students, volunteers, scholars, to work in intelligence capacity for the US government. And that is a serious mistake, as the US embassy and State Department admit. They say, theoretically, that this was a breach of US policy, that it is not US policy to ask these citizens to work in an intelligence capacity. But, you know, if it was such a big error and they reprimanded Vincent Cooper as they said they did after the July incident with the Peace Corps, why did they still have him giving security briefings to Fulbright students four months later?

AMY GOODMAN: How did you learn what he had said to the Peace Corps volunteers?

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: Well, I had heard — after Alex came to me, both of us started hearing some rumors that perhaps this has happened to Peace Corps volunteers, as well. And a friend of mine and I here started sort of putting out feelers, talking to Peace Corps volunteers, talking to ex-Peace Corps volunteers to see whether this had come up. You know, we were doing it very sort of quietly. We didn’t want to raise any flags ourselves, because this investigation, the entire time it was going on, we were trying to keep it as confidential as possible. And we eventually found a few volunteers who were part of this training session last July who said, “Yeah, you know, this embassy official came to see us, and during the middle of his security talk he said that we should, you know, report information on our interactions with Cubans, their names, where they live,” you know, almost verbatim as what happened to Alex.

And then we ended up confirming this account with the deputy director of the Peace Corps here in Bolivia — her name is Doreen Salazar — who said, “Yes, this happened. We were so appalled by it that we not only instructed our Peace Corps volunteers not to follow the embassy instructions, but we complained to the embassy and to the State Department and said, ‘Hey, this is not OK. You can’t come here and ask our volunteers to work in an intelligence capacity for the US government. That is not part of their role here in Bolivia’”

According to the State Department and now the US embassy, as soon as this was brought to their attention, they rectified the matter, they reprimanded Cooper. We haven’t gotten any details as to really what that means or what they did. But again, you know, either they didn’t reprimand him seriously enough, either they didn’t make this a big enough deal within the State Department and within the US embassy here in La Paz, or you have, you know, one “bad apple,” quote-unquote. And if that’s true, if he is someone who slides off the cuff and steps over the line, why do you have him giving security briefings three or four months later?

AMY GOODMAN: Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, you write about how this is yet another incident, the spy for US story, following months of charges by the Morales administration and denials by the United States about another relative of the senior US military adviser at the embassy detained at the airport bringing in — how much ammunition?

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: I believe there was 500 bullets that he tried to bring into Bolivia.

AMY GOODMAN: For what purpose?

JEAN FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY: Well, we don’t know. According to this person, it was for, you know, recreational use. It was going to be a present to a family member who, you know, likes to go hunting or something like that. It was never really cleared up. But you’re absolutely right, Amy, in that this is, you know, only the latest in a very long series of accusations, but I’d also say, you know, real events like this, like what happened with the bullets, of the US embassy and the US government having some very strange actions here in Bolivia.

It is noted, in their USAID funding, that they give, I would say, a disproportionate amount of their funding to opposition groups, to opposition parties and to their, you know, allied civic associations. Recently, in the past couple weeks, it’s come to the fore that there are several special police force units that are being trained by the US government, supposedly for anti-narcotics work and other work, but it’s — obviously that’s somewhat irregular. And so, you have a series of, as I said, allegations by the Bolivian government, but I would say that they are well-sustained allegations of the US meddling in Bolivia’s internal affairs. And this incident with Alex and with the Peace Corps volunteers is just another example.

And the Bolivian government is now saying — well, as they’ve been saying for the past several months, that they are taking this very seriously. In the past few days, they have made it clear that they are going to invite US Ambassador Philip Goldberg to have a meeting with President Evo Morales and other representatives of his government so that he can explain just exactly what was happening here with the Fulbright and Peace Corps incident. I mean, they’ve admitted that this happened. So they now have to explain, first of all, why is Vincent Cooper still in this country. Why do they still have him working for the US embassy? And if this was an aberration, if this wasn’t, you know, US policy — one of the things that Vincent Cooper said to Alex van Schaick in his security briefing is that this was, quote, “a scaled-down version” of the normal security briefings that they give to embassy employees, which leads me to ask, OK, well, what’s the normal version? If the scaled-down version is asking US citizens to hand over information like names and addresses of Cubans and Venezuelans, what are they asking the rest of the US embassy officials here to do in Bolivia?

AMY GOODMAN: Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, speaking to us from La Paz. 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, upsidedownworld.org. 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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