Bolivian Politician Visits US Amid Charges of Political Interference

By Leandro Prada | July 7, 2008 | 8:18pm EDT

Buenos Aires ( - Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia begins a visit to Washington Tuesday amid allegations by the leftist government that the U.S. Embassy in La Paz is interfering in domestic affairs.

Last Wednesday, Bolivian government minister Juan Ramon Quintana warned that "the doors are open" for American officials attached to the embassy to leave if they do not abide by local regulations.

Quintana alleged that some of the nearly $120 million in U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funding for Bolivia is being used by the embassy to undermine the government of President Evo Morales.

Morales himself earlier in the week accused "some ambassadors" of wanting to get involved in politics in Bolivia and financing the opposition. The government wants more control over foreign aid programs.

Garcia said he would take the opportunity during his three-day visit to Washington this week to discuss the issue.

The American market is Bolivia's largest, and businessmen in Bolivia fear the controversy may harm bilateral economic relations. Garcia played down the concerns, and suggested that the Bush administration had been unaware of the alleged actions of the embassy in La Paz.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey told a press briefing last week, "There is absolutely no truth to any allegation that the U.S. is using its aid funds to try and influence the political process or in any way undermine the government there."

"We don't use aid money for partisan purposes," Casey said. "If the Bolivian government has any concerns or questions about our activities, I'm sure our ambassador, as well as our aid officials will be happy to clarify any questions they might have."

Morales' government charges that USAID funds are supporting groups that have taken part in strikes aimed at thwarting a constitutional assembly that is supposed to amend Bolivia's constitution. Among other things, the changes aim to allow Bolivia's indigenous sectors a bigger role in politics.

The Bolivian government has listed people and organizations that it says are receiving aid from the U.S., among them the right-of-center Podemos Party. Jorge Quiroga of Podemos, who served as president of Bolivia in 2001-2002, called the allegations a smokescreen to divert attention away from the aid the government is getting from Venezuela's populist anti-U.S. leader, Hugo Chavez.

Morales and Chavez are close allies. Cayetano Llobet, a political analyst in La Paz, says the Bolivian constitutional assembly is "a copy of the Venezuelan [one], and has the same goal -- establishing some sort of eternal presidency."

But Llobet said the plan has not worked in Bolivia, where strikes are in their third week in some regions. Some critics of the government, such as Manfred Reyes Villa, the governor of a city in central Bolivia, insist that Morales should resign, saying he is leading Bolivia into civil war.

Morales recently issued a decree requiring a visa for American citizens wanting to enter Bolivia.

Jose Brechner, political analyst with the Los Tiempos newspaper in La Paz, wrote that the country is digging its own grave through such decisions.

If it's not bad enough that Bolivians traveling abroad are viewed with suspicion because of drug trafficking associations, "with Morales' close friendship with Islamic Middle East rulers" they may now be viewed as potential terror suspects too, he said.

Like Chavez, Morales has been strengthening ties with countries that have strained ties with the U.S., including Iran, which the Bolivian leader plans to visit this month.

During a visit to Latin America last January, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad praised Morales and Chavez and what he called "a wide anti-imperialist movement" in the region.

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