- ABOUT US
From NACLA Report on The Americas
November/December 2005 - Vol. 39 Issue 3
In late May and early June, tens of thousands of mostly Aymara campesinos, miners, students, public school teachers, factory workers and residents of the sprawling impoverished city of El Alto overran neighboring La Paz. For the second time in less than two years, they forced Bolivia’s president to resign. In both cases, the rebellions were largely driven by a single concrete demand: greater control over Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, the second largest in South America and the nation’s most valuable resource.
“We want the gas to be industrialized here in Bolivia,” Teodoro Calle, a soft-spoken Aymara street vender from El Alto, told me in late October 2003 as he leaned on crutches outside a church community center in hopes of receiving a small handout. Calle had been shot in the left leg by Bolivian soldiers while protesting against a plan to export natural gas to the United States.
“Before, perhaps we agreed to everything, but not anymore,” said Calle. “People know now what’s going on…. But the government wants to sell the gas abroad at the price of a dead chicken. That’s why we’re fighting. Every neighbor, every Bolivian, that’s why.”
Roger Noriega, outgoing head of the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, has offered a different interpretation of events. On June 7, one day after U.S.-backed Bolivian President Carlos Mesa had resigned, Noriega obliquely blamed Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for inciting the rebellion. Asked about the unrest in Bolivia, Noriega responded, “Chávez’s profile in Bolivia has been very apparent from the beginning…. His record is apparent and speaks for itself.”1
Noriega’s comments were the latest in a steady barrage of insinuations from high-ranking U.S. officials that Chávez, with the assistance of Cuban President Fidel Castro, has financed efforts to destabilize Bolivia’s government. Gen. James Hill, former Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, went so far as to tell the Miami Herald that “it’s pretty well documented that [Chávez] gave money to [indigenous leader and presidential candidate] Evo Morales, and my best guess is that he continues to do it.”2 No U.S. official, including Noriega and Hill, has provided proof of this financing. But the accusations have grown so persistent that some journalists have begun parroting them, such as CNN correspondent Andrea Koppel, who reported in August that Chávez was “spending Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to support other leftist leaders in the hemisphere, like in Bolivia, undermining U.S. efforts to spread democracy.” Koppel gave no evidence to back her claim.
While accusations of Venezuelan and Cuban meddling in Bolivia remain unsubstantiated, evidence abounds that the United States has aggressively intervened in the landlocked nation of nearly 9 million people. Publicly available information, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and interviews with recipients of U.S. aid in Bolivia reveal that the U.S. government has spent millions of dollars to rebuild discredited political parties, to undercut independent grassroots movements, to bolster malleable indigenous leaders with little popular support and to dissuade Bolivians from talking about whether they should have greater ownership rights over their natural resources. The funds have been distributed under the banner of “democracy promotion,” a central plank of U.S. foreign policy since the early 1980s that has become increasingly prominent in recent years.
In Bolivia, “democracy promotion” was relatively small scale outside of the coca-growing region of the Chapare until the massive indigenous uprising that drove former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada from power in October 2003. For more than a decade, Washington has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in military and “alternative development” aid to eliminate the production of coca leaves. Coca production has declined, but the forced eradication carried out by the often-brutal Bolivian military, financed and trained by the U.S. government, has sparked a backlash. Evo Morales, leader of a powerful movement of some 30,000 coca-farming families and now head of a major political party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), nearly won the presidency in May 2002.
Morales, however, only played a marginal role in the October 2003 rebellion. It was the even more combative Aymara residents of El Alto and campesinos of the high-plains altiplano region above La Paz who spearheaded the protests. The indigenous revolt, sparked by an unpopular plan to export natural gas to the United States, was a wake-up call for the U.S. government, which has since expanded and adjusted its “democracy promotion” programs in Bolivia.
“Of course, we’ve been concerned about developments in the last two or three years,” said Adolfo Franco, who heads the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Latin America and the Caribbean. “We’re always concerned when you have violent demonstrations that lead to the disruption of the orderly function of the government. The good news in Bolivia is that the constitutional process has been followed under very trying circumstances.”
But just what kind of democracy do “democracy promotion” efforts promote? In Bolivia, they appear to favor a limited concept of representative democracy, supporting elections and government institutions while stamping out any grassroots challenge to the underpinnings of a political and economic system that has exacerbated crushing poverty and gaping inequalities. For their part, Bolivia’s indigenous-based social movements have advanced their own concept of democracy, calling for greater participation of the long-excluded masses in the political decisions that most affect them. In a 2002 cable to the State Department obtained by independent journalist Jeremy Bigwood through a FOIA request, the U.S. Embassy in La Paz warned of the growing threat this alternative vision of democracy was posing to the democratic system supported by the United States:
A variety of “anti-systemic” movements continue to demand changes to Bolivia’s democratic system, changes that would elevate group representatives (particularly from indigenous, labor, small farmers and other poor communities) above elected representatives into decision-making roles.3
Even before the Aymara uprising that ousted Sánchez de Lozada, USAID was raising warning signals about the rising popularity of the MAS, which was seen as a threat to Bolivia’s increasingly discredited traditional parties. According to the Embassy cable to the State Department, a planned USAID political party reform project would “help build moderate, pro-democracy political parties that can serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS or its successors.” In both the cable and on the State Department’s Web site Morales is referred to as an “illegal coca agitator.”
“Moderation” has become a buzzword for recent U.S.-funded “democracy promotion” programs in Bolivia, which have consistently favored parties and political leaders who advocate maintaining the status quo despite a poverty rate that ranks as the highest in South America and a government that has long excluded the poor indigenous majority. Meanwhile, indigenous leaders such as Morales who have advocated road-blocking protests to pressure for change in the face of an unresponsive and often repressive government controlled by a tiny elite are branded as “radical,” “anti-systemic” and “neo-populist.”4
With Bolivia’s traditional political parties in shambles, the U.S. National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) included the Andean nation in its regional “political leadership program” between 2002 and 2004 thanks to a grant from the quasi-governmental U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED). According to documents obtained through FOIA requests by Bigwood, the program brought 13 “emerging political leaders” between the ages of 25 and 35 to Washington for seminars, and then funded their party-strengthening projects in Bolivia. The participants included members of several parties: Sánchez de Lozada’s Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR); the Nationalist Democratic Action (AND), founded by deceased dictator Gen. Hugo Banzer; former President Jaime Paz Zamora’s Leftist Revolutionary Movement (MIR) and the upstart New Republican Force (NFR). Despite the radical-sounding names of some of these parties, they are all firmly entrenched, conservative organizations with slim popular support. New political parties that emerged out of the nation’s surging indigenous-based social movements, such as Morales’ MAS and the Pachakuti Indigenous Movement (MIP) led by Aymara campesino Felipe Quispe, did not participate in these programs.5
“I wouldn’t read anything into that,” said Jim Swigert, director of NDI’s programs in Latin America and the Caribbean. “Not all political parties are necessarily included in the leadership training program…. Our philosophy in countries where we work across the world is that we are determined to work with parties across the political spectrum.” When NDI opened a permanent office in La Paz with funding from USAID in January 2004, the existing leadership program gave way to a broader political party reform effort. Swigert said the MAS has participated in this new program.
Also funded by USAID, the U.S. International Republican Institute (IRI) followed suit with an office of its own less than two months later. While NDI has worked with political parties, IRI has attempted to strengthen “civil society,” including a project that involved distributing 20,000 manuals in high schools called “Towards a Democratic Culture: Authority and Responsibility.” No indigenous communities, let alone indigenous authorities, are mentioned in the manuals.
“These cultures don’t respect rules,” said IRI representative María Eugenia Verástegui, who like many lighter-skinned, middle- and upper-class Bolivians in La Paz is indignant about the road-blocking protests staged by indigenous groups. “They are authoritarian. In a democracy, you need to respect the rules…. We have to institutionalize the conflict so those radical figures are in the democratic game.” Another IRI project involved a series of meetings between politicians and journalists to encourage the media to “show the good side of the political system and political parties that are so discredited now.”
Some critics say the IRI programs exemplify an ethnocentric attitude inherent in U.S. “democracy promotion” efforts. In Bolivia, they say, the United States pushes an imported Western-style representative government at the expense of a more participatory form of democracy that indigenous communities have been practicing for centuries that includes rotating leaderships and consensus-based decision making. “Instead of strengthening local organizations, they destroy them from the inside,” said Mónica Mendizábal, who worked at the El Alto-based Gregoria Apaza Center for the Promotion of Women until last year. At Gregoria Apaza, Mendizábal ran a $35,000 USAID-funded program to hold a series of forums in 2004 with Aymara campesinos about communal justice, a homegrown legal system that has been practiced semi-clandestinely by the Aymara since the time of the Incas.
According to Mendizábal, USAID representatives told her not to allow the discussion in the forums to become “too free,” and warned her not to “move the waters too much.” Mendizábal said she ignored this advice and allowed the Aymara participants to speak openly about communal justice. She also added that a USAID-funded forum she attended held by another group ended with the indigenous participants walking out in protest, after becoming angry with the organizers of the event for trying to convince them that communal justice must be subsumed by the Bolivian state’s justice system. “They give you money and impose tactics that don’t work for the indigenous people,” said Mendizábal. “The logic of the indigenous peoples is circular, and the logic of USAID is square. They’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole and it just doesn’t fit.”
Franco, the head of USAID in the region, denied the United States was imposing a Western-style model of democracy on Bolivia’s indigenous people. “I have to categorically reject that premise,” said Franco. “USAID and the U.S. government are not imposing anything on anybody.”
In march 2004, less than five months after Sánchez de Lozada’s ouster, USAID opened a branch of the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in La Paz. OTI was founded in 1994 “to bridge the gap between relief and development and provide short-term political assistance to countries in crisis.” Dubbed by one analyst as “the special forces of developmental assistance,” OTI prides itself on its ability to intervene within weeks of being given the order and to evaluate and approve grant proposals in a matter of days.6 It has this capacity because while it is technically a branch of USAID, its $50 million annual budget is not subject to the same bureaucratic and accounting constraints.7 Unlike USAID, OTI has an “overtly political” focus, and it prioritizes working with local groups that can have an impact on political participation. As such, OTI also “works particularly closely with the Department of State, which has often used OTI’s programmatic instruments to translate diplomatic and foreign policy goals into tangible improvements on the ground.” OTI’s political activities are often more closely coordinated with the U.S. Embassy than with the USAID mission.8
“It was opportune to bring in the most expert professionals we have at AID, which is what we do whenever democracy is under stress in a country,” said Franco. “That’s standard operating procedure. Whenever we have a tenuous situation with respect to a democratically elected government, this is the team we bring in.”
Private contractor Casals and Associates administers OTI’s funding in Bolivia through an office in La Paz called Iniciativas Democráticas Bolivia (Democratic Initiatives Bolivia). OTI’s budget for 2004 and 2005 in Bolivia amounted to $11.8 million, with which it is supposed “to help ensure the survivability of Bolivia’s current constitutional government.”9 OTI has focused its efforts on the altiplano and El Alto, disbursing grants for highly visible infrastructure projects, such as the building and repairing of schools in the area. The bulk of OTI’s money, however, has been spent on projects with stronger political overtones.
One set of grants financed a government program to install domestic gas connections for residents of El Alto in order to “de-politicize the issue of natural gas by giving Bolivians access to their own resource at the same time that it is being exported.”10 Another grant valued at $31,000 financed a government program to install water and sewage pipes in El Alto in order “to defuse radical sectors’ demands for nationalization of water services.”11 The grant was provided in the wake of citywide protests in January 2005 against the privatized water company owned by Suez, a France-based multinational.
At a time when poor Bolivians were demanding more control over their natural resources, OTI was spending U.S. taxpayers’ dollars to help the government limit the national debate and maintain the status quo, implicitly advancing the agenda of a handful of multinational corporations.
According to Franco, de-politicizing the natural gas issue is an attempt to prevent a “demagogic” debate. “If there’s anything that we’ve been doing in conjunction with [U.S.] Ambassador [David] Greenlee, it has been supporting the government of Bolivia by providing them with technical assistance and advice to demonstrate that the government is delivering goods and services that the people expect,” said Franco. “Bolivia is a poor country that has trouble delivering basic services, whether it’s gas or any service Bolivia’s citizens are entitled to. Bolivians deserve that these services be delivered—only when this happens with gas, can you have a fair debate about the future of gas.”
From March 2004 through July 2005, some $2.8 million dollars, or nearly 43% of the money distributed by OTI, went toward “information diffusion and dialogue.” According to Sandra Aliaga, the former head of communications under President Mesa until the end of 2004, OTI funded 40% of the Bolivian government’s public relations budget, including a series of “informative encounters” on a July 2004 national referendum in addition to other key issues. The referendum asked five ambiguous questions about the future exploitation of Bolivia’s natural gas resources, but it avoided the subject of nationalization, a central demand of the October 2003 protests. And due to “sensitivity” on the part of OTI and the government, said Aliaga, the decision was made to avoid holding conferences on the substance of the Hydrocarbons Law itself, even though this legislation more than the referendum itself would ultimately determine the fate of Bolivia’s natural gas.
An economist who formed a youth group that organized a series of workshops on the referendum in El Alto with OTI funds said he was scolded by Curt Schaeffer, the head of Casals’ Democratic Initiatives Bolivia, for having invited a speaker who criticized the referendum. The economist, who asked to remain anonymous, said he invited Jorge Viaña, also an economist, formerly at the La Paz-based Center for Labor and Agrarian Development Studies (CEDLA), to generate a more far-reaching discussion. “We saw that the referendum wasn’t going to resolve anything,” said the economist. “What needed to be discussed was the question of nationalization.” An OTI representative monitoring the workshop reported Viaña’s presence to Schaeffer, who then told the economist not to invite anyone critical of the referendum in the future to avoid “conflict” and to keep discussion limited to the “technical points of the referendum.” Schaeffer declined to be interviewed.
According to Julio Mamani, an Aymara journalist with the El Alto Press Agency, leaders of neighborhood groups in El Alto have denounced Democratic Initiatives Bolivia for offering them computers, telephones and other office supplies in early June on the condition that they end the protests.12
While OTI has spent millions of dollars attempting to mollify the Aymara of El Alto, the agency has been conspicuously absent from the political turmoil in the city and region of Santa Cruz, where a coalition led by light-skinned wealthy landowners, businessmen and local political elites staged large anti-government protests in January 2005 and threatened to secede if their demands for autonomy were not met. The Santa Cruz demonstrations were sparked in part by fears that the government would discourage foreign investment by increasing taxes on multinational energy companies. Santa Cruz is whiter and wealthier than the rest of Bolivia; much of the city’s population is of European descent, and it is the hub of the nation’s oil and natural gas industry and drug trade. Despite OTI’s expertise in “conflict mitigation,” it did not give a single grant to de-politicize the gas issue in Santa Cruz.13
At the same time OTI was helping the Bolivian government push the referendum and keep the debate on natural gas in El Alto within certain limits, it was quietly giving unusually large sums of money to build a U.S.-friendly indigenous movement practically from scratch.
The prime beneficiary of this aid was the Brecha Foundation, an NGO founded by leaders of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB). An umbrella group for indigenous communities in the lowlands of eastern Bolivia, CIDOB grew to prominence during the rise of the nation’s indigenous movements in the 1980s and early 1990s. But in recent years, accusations of corruption and shady deal-making with Bolivia’s elite have decimated the group’s credibility, and many indigenous communities have openly defied its leadership. Much of the controversy surrounds Marcial Fabricano, former president of CIDOB, and founder and president of the Brecha Foundation. Fabricano was accused by indigenous communities living in the Isiboro Sécure National Park for accepting payoffs in 1997 from a logging company in exchange for illegally harvested trees. Fabricano has denied the allegations. He served as Vice Minister of Indigenous Affairs under Sánchez de Lozada, while maintaining a strong influence over CIDOB.
According to Brecha Foundation director Víctor Hugo Vela, CIDOB’s position on many issues has been diametrically opposed to that of more progressive indigenous groups who often resort to road blockades to exert pressure on the government. CIDOB leaders allied with Fabricano have condemned the cultivation of coca, helped the business elite in the department of Santa Cruz to push for regional autonomy and opposed a proposal to require petroleum companies to consult with indigenous communities before drilling on their lands.
While Fabricano may have lost the bulk of his popular support, his willingness to cut deals with Bolivia’s business and political elite seem to fit the profile of the “moderate” leaders sought by OTI. According to OTI, “While other regional and indigenous groups are blockading the streets, seizing private land and striking, CIDOP [sic] has consistently called for dialogue and peaceful means to ensure greater equity for the country’s indigenous population.”14
A senior official at a foreign aid organization who administers programs that assist indigenous groups in eastern Bolivia offered a contrasting analysis of CIDOB under Fabricano’s influence. “CIDOB hasn’t done much to fight for indigenous rights in recent years, and has taken positions that directly contradict the wishes of the communities it is supposed to represent,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s not a question of being moderate or not. It’s a question of being legitimate and representative, of lobbying the government to respect the collective rights of the indigenous peoples. CIDOB hadn’t been doing this until the change in leadership this year.” Last July, CIDOB renewed its leadership, and its new president Saúl Chávez has disavowed Brecha.
The Brecha Foundation was founded in August 2003 in response to protests against IMF-imposed budget cuts in February of that year, according to Vela. But the foundation did not become active until February 2004, said Vela, thanks to a grant from OTI to carry out workshops promoting the July gas referendum among indigenous communities.
While OTI’s grants are typically between $5,000 and $50,000, Brecha was awarded two grants after the referendum, valued at $91,800 and $67,600, to train indigenous leaders to participate in the constituent assembly now slated for 2006.15 The assembly is charged with rewriting the Constitution, and as such, it could potentially affect every aspect of the Bolivian state and its laws, from the legality of coca cultivation to the role of multinational corporations in extracting natural resources. Vela said the OTI-funded project was scrapped after the government announced it would ask Congress to pass a law barring participants of such training programs from being elected to the assembly.
In February 2005, OTI approved an additional grant of $151,000 to Brecha to train 60 indigenous leaders from eastern Bolivia.16 According to Vela, 40% of the grant money has been used to hold a pair of two-week training sessions near CIDOB headquarters in the city of Santa Cruz. The rest, which is to be spent organizing more intensive training seminars in each of the participants’ communities, is on hold until after national elections are held this December.
“With the elections coming up, we don’t want to make it look like we’re buying leaders,” said Vela. This time, said Vela, the seminars do not train participants in running for the assembly; instead, the stated intention is to teach them about government, political processes and the law. But the goal, according to Vela, is the same: to groom indigenous leaders from each of the Bolivian lowlands’ 34 indigenous groups for participation in the constituent assembly.
Vela said Brecha is also anxious to make inroads among the Aymara in the highlands of western Bolivia. He said Brecha members in Conamaq, a leading association of indigenous communities, have requested USAID funds, but have been turned down because some Conamaq leaders are allied with Morales’ MAS.
“We need to get rid of all the MAS leaders,” said Vela, who boasted of meeting with Roger Noriega during his visit to Bolivia in August 2004. “There’s been strong pressure from the U.S. Embassy that they will not support projects with Conamaq while it’s divided…. Democratic Initiatives has told us they won’t support any project while it has to do with the MAS. That’s why we need to unify the Conamaq [under new leadership].”
Vela said he favored no candidate in the December presidential elections, but because of his opposition to Morales, he and Fabricano would likely form an alliance with a middle-class, urban-based candidate. Fabricano has been spotted attending campaign events of former President Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, a U.S.-educated businessman of European descent and the darling of Washington. Franco defended the Brecha Foundation as a “well-established” group, and he denied that USAID or OTI “cherry picks” pro-U.S. parties or individuals.
“We support everyone who is faithful to democratic principles, and that is where the word moderate comes about,” said Franco. “There are movements and individuals in the country that in the view of the United States do not support democracy, certainly participatory democracy, the kind with elections. The kind of democracy we understand at least. And those are the individuals we don’t support.”
The Brecha Foundation was not the only “moderate” indigenous group to receive funds from OTI. Walter Reynaga has built from the ground up a pro-U.S. indigenous-based political organization called the Land and Liberty Movement (MTL) thanks to a $190,000 grant from OTI in 2004. During an 11-month period, Reynaga trained 80 young indigenous leaders during intensive four-week tutoring sessions covering economics, politics, sociology and law, among other subjects. The training program culminated in a public debate in February 2005.
“As a result of this course, we now have 40 to 50 people capable of being regional leaders and 10 people with national leadership capability. What’s more, now they are capable of reproducing the course themselves,” said Reynaga, whose MTL only had six members before receiving the OTI grant. “MTL constitutes a concrete possibility of organizing the people and even taking power.”
At the vanguard of the indigenous movement in the 1980s, Reynaga is now a fervent advocate of U.S.-promoted neoliberal policies and an admirer of Western-style representative democracy. Reynaga said he decided against forming his own party, in favor of a political movement whose members could participate in a wide range of parties, organizations and indigenous movements. He says the MTL has incorporated members of the MAS, such as congressman Aurelio Ambrosio, and of Bolivia’s combative Landless Workers Movement (MST). The MST has split, and one wing has been run out of Reynaga’s La Paz office.
Reynaga said he even attempted to win over Evo Morales—and with him the MAS—to his own “political line” in early 2005, giving him private lessons in economics and politics at Morales’ home in Cochabamba. But Morales abruptly cut off the meetings without offering a reason, said Reynaga. Like Vela at Brecha, Reynaga said he and his adherents are hoping to take control of Conamaq from its MAS-allied leadership.
In a telephone interview in September, Reynaga complained that OTI had turned down his request for another grant. He said USAID officials attributed the negative response to budget cuts.
OTI-funded efforts to create a parallel pro-U.S. indigenous movement in Bolivia and improve the government’s image were unable to save Mesa.
OTI has regrouped since Mesa’s resignation, reducing its spending slightly in July “to fine-tune its coordination mechanisms with the new government” and with Casals.17 USAID grants to NDI and IRI have not been renewed. IRI has closed its office and NDI has continued its political party strengthening program while it looks for funding.
“The United States has dumped a lot of money in El Alto since October, but they have no real influence because they aren’t resolving the structural problems,” said Marco Quispe, an Aymara political organizer in El Alto. “These programs are trying to establish Western structures of power, but transgressing is a part of the Aymara culture. They can offer all the courses they want. If we don’t have water, jobs, sewage system, transportation, then when it’s time to mobilize, we mobilize. They don’t seem to understand the Andean logic.”
2. Andres Oppenheimer, “Chavez’s Oil-Fueled Ego Trip May Be His Own Undoing,” The Miami Herald, January 20, 2005.
3. The cable appears to have been written by then-Ambassador Manuel Rocha. Most of the cable is redacted, but the letters R-O-C-H-A are barely legible at the end of the document. Document available upon request.
4. Document available upon request.
5. Document available upon request.
6. “OTI Special 10th Year Edition: A Decade of Transition, 1994-2004,” available at: link to PDF.
7. The $50 million figure does not include more than $150 million in extra annual funding in recent years earmarked for Iraq and Afghanistan.
8. “OTI Special 10th Year Edition: A Decade of Transition, 1994-2004,” op cit.
9. OTI Web site: link.
10. OTI Web site: link.
11. OTI Web site: link.
12. Julio Mamani Condi, “Trying to Bribe the Social Movements,” El Alto Press Agency, June 7, 2005: link.
13. For its part, NED gave $128,825 between May 2004 and April 2005 to the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), the international arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to work with the Santa Cruz Chamber of Industry, Commerce, Services and Tourism (CAINCO), a major player in the anti-government protests, on reducing corruption in public procurement processes.
14. OTI Web site: link.
15. OTI’s country representatives can approve grants worth less than $100,000. Grants above this amount must be approved in Washington, see: “OTI Special 10th Year Edition: A Decade of Transition, 1994-2004,” op cit.
16. OTI Web site: link.
17. OTI Web site: link.