Our Man in La Paz

September 25, 2007

ROBERT GELBARD IS RETURNING TO WASH- ington this summer after three ,years as U.S. arbassa- dor to Bolivia to take the number two position at the State Department for Latin American affairs. The Bush adminis- tration has promoted him to deputy assistant secretary for inter-American affairs, behind Bernard Aronson. Gelbard's departure will notbe mourned in La Paz, where hisreputation for heavy-handed tactics and his enthusiasm for a military- led drug war have drawn criticism across the spectrum. Gelbard was rewarded with the ambassadorial post after serving under Elliott Abrams at the State Department in the mid-1980s. His interest in Boliviabegan when he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s. Gelbard is credited with lobbying hard in Washington to boost U.S. foreign aid to Bolivia, now the largest recipient of U.S. assistance in South America. Bolivia's dependce on U.S. aid and good will has come at a high price. As one U.S. congressional aide notes, "Gelbard's behaviors as ambassador has made a mockery of the concept of sovereignty. He has discredited the political class in Bolivia by making it clear that decisions cannot be made without the approval of the U.S. Embassy.'" Gelbard's diplomatic leverage was displayed most prominently in the escalating drug war, which the United States believes can be won only by recruiting the Bolivian military and providing U.S. military aid and training. While the U.S. militarization plan is almost universally opposedacross the political spectrum in Bolivia, Gelbard has made it clear-without explicitly stating so in public-that the provision of further U.S. economic aid is conditioned on Bolivia's acceptance of military assistance and training for the anti-drug campaign,. Bolivian officials who question the wisdom of militariz- ing the drug war have been pressured to keep quiet. When Bolivia's ambassador to the United States, Jorge Crespo, privately commented at a congressional breakfast in Wash- ington that Bolivia didn't need military aid, Gelbard report- "edly tried to have'Crespo removed from his post, charging that the ambassador was interfering with U.S. internal af- fairs. Gelbard has also reportedly had a hand in key appoint- ments of Bolivian officials. Carlos Mesa Gisbert, a columnist for the major La Paz daily Presencia, complains that "The nomination of anti-narcotics officials depends on the ap- proval of DEA officers and, in the most important cases, of the ambassador, before the decision is made by our ministers and our own president." Mesa also accuses Gelbard of recommending military officers who led a coup attempt in the early 1980s. "One Gelbard recommendation reportedly led to the ap- pointment of Col. Germlin Linares as head of the CEIP, a special investigative police unit created at the urging of the U.S. embassy to look into terrorist activity. According to the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, prisoners havebeen severely tortured at CEIP, and Col. Linares was present during some torture sessions. He has reportedly been rotated out of CEIP and now directs police intelligence. Gelbard's style of drug diplomacy has had a profound impact on Bolivian politics. He is now leaving La Paz having achieved his objective: the drafting of the Bolivian military into the drug war. The Paz Zamora government signed a military asSistance agreement in May 1990. As part of the agreement, Bolivia will receive S35.9 million in military aid this year. U.S. Special Forces advisors began arriving in April to train two Bolivian infantry battalions. "The agree- ment was Gelbard's central goal as ambassador," says Eduardo Gamarra. "Now he can go back to Washington and declare. 'mission accomplished."

Tags: Bolivia, US foreign policy, ambassador, Robert Gelbard, Military

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