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September-October 2010
Vol. 35, No. 5

Bolivia: Difficulty renewing diplomatic ties

In September 2008 Bolivia expelled U.S. ambassador Phillip Goldberg for his alleged involvement with political opposition; the U.S. responded by expelling Bolivian ambassador Gustavo Guzman. Since then, the two countries have had a volatile relationship. In December 2009, after months of negotiations, there were indications that the countries would renew their diplomatic relations by reinstalling ambassadors, perhaps before the end of the year. In early June, Bolivian foreign minister David Choquehuanca announced that “the two sides were 99 percent done with a pact that would allow the exchange of ambassadors.” Yet no ambassador has been reinstated and relations continue at a standstill. The central dividing issue, the “one percent,” is transparency around U.S. assistance to Bolivia.

A few months after cutting diplomatic relations, the two countries began to meet to establish a framework for future relations. The four central aspects of this framework are: developing a mechanism for working out future agreements; shared responsibility for drug trafficking; promoting trade that is beneficial to all economic participants; and developing an outline for transparent financial assistance. According to people involved, it is this last point that is holding up the negotiations.

Lack of transparency was the central reason for which the Bolivian government expelled Goldberg. Bolivian government officials suspected that he had been working with members of the opposition to undermine the administration of President Evo Morales. The alleged use of USAID money to opposition groups was an important part of their decision.

With the history of USAID and National Endowment for Democracy’s involvement in funding groups in Venezuela that participated in the attempted coup against President Hugo Chavez, Bolivian officials have reason for concern over how U.S. aid money is distributed. Documents discovered through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests show that before Morales was elected president, money from both organizations had been channeled to organizations opposed to Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), his political party, and toward altering Bolivian law to favor of those opposed to MAS. USAID has refused to release any documents since the beginning of Morales’ presidency despite numerous FOIA requests.

According to the U.S. embassy, USAID currently spends close to $85 million in rural areas of Bolivia, but refuses to name the recipients of this money despite its being public money. It is this lack of transparency and history of funding opposition groups that concerns President Morales. “If USAID continues working in this way,” he said in early June, “I will not hesitate to expel them because we have dignity and sovereignty, and we are not going to allow any interference.”

As Andean Information Network’s Kathryn Ledeber has shown, the U.S. and Bolivia have both ratified two important international agreements that provide clear guidance on financial assistance protocol: the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (2005) and the Accra Agenda for Action (2008). Both of these guidelines recommend that donors should not support or fund separate initiatives that could undermine the partner nation; donors and recipients should reach consensus on who will carry out and monitor development initiatives. The Accra Agenda counsels that donors’ support for capacity development will be demand-driven and designed to support country ownership. To this end, developing countries and donors will i) jointly select and manage technical cooperation, and ii) promote the provision of technical cooperation by local and regional resources. As Ledeber states, “Continuing to insist on unilateral determination of development initiatives and granting predetermined project implementation units to private contractors – often U.S. based – violates the terms of the Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda and impedes collaboration with other international donors.”

The decision by President Obama to nominate Mark Feierstein to the position of Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at USAID has not helped the negotiations with Bolivia. Feierstein worked on the campaign to elect Gonazalo Sanchez de Lozada (“Goni”), the former Bolivian president who fled the country after a massacre in 2003 in order to avoid possibly being prosecuted for his involvement in the massacre. The Morales government has requested that the U.S. extradite Goni so that he can respond to respond to his charges, but has been ignored by the U.S. so far, another impediment in renewing relations with Bolivia.

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