Ambassador Calls Ouster From Bolivia A Foil

Bolivian President Evo Morales sent the U.S. ambassador, Philip Goldberg, packing this month, accusing him of fomenting unrest. Goldberg calls this a sad moment in U.S.-Bolivian relations and says he believes Morales used his ouster to distract from serious political problems he has at home.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. You know relations between two countries are on the rocks when they kick out each other's ambassadors. Well, Philip Goldberg found himself in the middle of a diplomatic mess last week after Bolivian President Evo Morales sent the U.S. ambassador packing. Goldberg returned to Washington this week and met with a few reporters, including NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN: A career foreign service officer, Philip Goldberg says his 10-year as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia was never very easy.

Ambassador PHILIP GOLDBERG (U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia): When I arrived in Bolivia on October 13, 2006, I presented my credentials. And from there, I had to go downstairs to speak to the press. And issue number one was, are you really part of a plot to assassinate Evo Morales? I didn't think this was a very auspicious beginning.

KELEMEN: Goldberg called it a rollercoaster ride, saying President Morales often used the U.S. and the U.S. Embassy as a foil, a distraction from the problems inside Bolivia. This month, the ambassador was told that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency would have to leave a main coca-producing part of Bolivia. The U.S. Agency for International Development was also forced out. And soon Goldberg himself was packing his bags, declared persona non grata. As he left, he says the Bolivian government aired, what he called, a propaganda infomercial about him on TV.

Ambassador GOLDBERG: It was a vile piece of propaganda accusing the United States, accusing opposition members, too, of taking instructions from the U.S., making links with people I'd never met. It really was - is a sad, sad display.

KELEMEN: And a sad moment for U.S.-Bolivian relations.

Ambassador GOLBERG: This is a very delicate, very dangerous moment in some ways, because of the internal situation. And I think what happened also is very much tied to that.

KELEMEN: Bolivian President Evo Morales, an indigenous leader and head of a coco-farming union, is facing increasingly violent protests in wealthy parts of the country. Ambassador Goldberg defended his meetings with conservative opposition figures saying that's the role of a diplomat, to find out what's going on in the country. Goldberg was speaking to a small group of reporters at the Inter-American Dialogue, where he was joined by Michael Shifter who said Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, had a hand in this.

Mr. MICHAEL SHIFTER (Vice President for Policy, Inter-American Dialogue): The U.S., I think, is preoccupied with economic problems and its presidential campaign, and Chavez seems to have in this moment gotten a bit feisty. The challenge for the U.S. is how to, sort of, deal with this situation in, sort of, a step-by-step, calm, quiet approach, which is not always easy.

KELEMEN: Chavez, in solidarity with Bolivia, kicked out the U.S. ambassador and withdrew his from Washington. Venezuela has also stepped up its military ties with Russia, which adds a whole new dimension to the Bush administration's troubles in Latin America. Shifter says the next administration will have an opportunity to get off to a better start.

Mr. SHIFTER: The Bush administration has just had real difficulty, and there's just been tremendous mistrust from the beginning. I mean, this goes way back. So it's nothing new. And there'll be a new opportunity, but the issues are not going to disappear.

KELEMEN: These are countries, he says, which are asserting their nationalism. They have energy resources. And Shifter predicts they will continue to pose challenges to the U.S., no matter who is elected here in November. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Bolivian President's Career Tied To Coca Leaf

Evo Morales i

Embattled Bolivian President Evo Morales at a swearing-in ceremony for new Cabinet members. Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty Images
Evo Morales

Embattled Bolivian President Evo Morales at a swearing-in ceremony for new Cabinet members.

Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty Images

The political crisis in Bolivia and the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador from La Paz has brought Bolivian President Evo Morales into the hemispheric limelight and focused attention on his dispute with the U.S. over his left-leaning economic policies and the growing of coca leaves, the raw material for cocaine.

Morales accuses the U.S. of conspiring with his right-wing opposition and inciting anti-government protests in the country's resource-rich eastern regions that have left at least 10 people dead. The U.S. State Department accuses Morales of undermining some 25 years of cooperation between the two countries on drug eradication programs.

Morales' career and his political rise have been closely tied to the growing of coca. The 47-year-old president is an Aymara, one of the indigenous peoples of the Andean uplands. He was one of seven children born into a poor farming family and grew up herding llamas and growing crops, including coca leaves.

Coca is widely used by native peoples in the Andes. Chewed or brewed into tea, it acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst and fatigue. But the active ingredient of coca is the alkaloid cocaine, and it's the subject of intense eradication efforts by the United States and other countries.

Morales joined a union of coca farmers in the early 1980s and was elected general secretary in 1985. In 1988, he was elected executive secretary of a loose confederation of coca growers unions, a post he still holds. The position put him in direct opposition to the Bolivian government's policy, which was to eradicate coca, with aid from the United States.

Morales argued for a policy that would allow coca cultivation for traditional uses while banning the illegal traffic in cocaine. He was jailed several times by the Bolivian government, and once beaten and left for dead by political opponents.

From Union Organizer To Politician

In 1995, Morales helped found a political movement of farmers and indigenous people, and two years later he was elected to parliament. The party eventually became known as the Movement Towards Socialism — its Spanish acronym, MAS, is also the word for "more."

Morales was expelled from Bolivia's parliament in 2002 for suggesting that coca farmers should mount armed resistance to the government's attempts to eradicate their crops. That same year, he pulled off a surprising near-upset, coming in second in the country's presidential election.

MAS kept up pressure on the government with sometimes violent demonstrations and roadblocks that eventually forced the resignation of President Carlos Mesa Gisbert. In 2005, Morales ran again for president and won.

He embarked on a world tour that included visits to Cuba's former president, Fidel Castro, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as well as European leaders such as French President Jacques Chirac.

Morales Nationalizes Bolivian Resource Industries

Within a few months of taking office, Morales nationalized all of Bolivia's natural gas reserves, the country's most important resource. In doing so, he emulated Chavez, who is widely considered his biggest ally. During the current crisis, Chavez, saying he was acting in solidarity with Morales, expelled the American ambassador from Caracas and withdrew his own envoy from Washington.

A year later, Morales nationalized a major metal-smelting plant, saying the Swiss company that owned it had been guilty of "a lack of transparency in its financial dealings." The firm had been privatized by a conservative Bolivian government in 2000.

Around the same time, he accepted a loan from Venezuela to help build two plants to process coca leaves into tea and chewing mixtures. The move prompted renewed criticism from the U.S.

Morales' economic policies have met with opposition from many of Bolivia's regional governments, known as departments. The opposition is particularly strong in departments such as Santa Cruz and Tarija, which have substantial oil, gas and other resources. Governors in those regions have called for more autonomy from Bolivia's central government. Morales denounced those moves as an effort to break up the country.

Protests and counterprotests in La Paz and other Bolivian cities have turned violent over the summer, leading to the deaths of at least 10 people. Morales has scheduled talks with his main opponents.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.