Recruiting Spies in the Peace Corps

Washington’s blunder in Bolivia strains relations with the Morales government

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky March 12, 2008

Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca (right) shakes hands with U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg before the start of a meeting in La Paz on Feb 13. at the U.S. embassy.

In Feb­ru­ary, alle­ga­tions sur­faced that the U.S. embassy in La Paz, locat­ed in west­ern Bolivia, has been ask­ing Peace Corps vol­un­teers and Ful­bright schol­ars to pro­vide intel­li­gence infor­ma­tion to the U.S. embassy about for­eign nation­als in Bolivia.

It flies in the face of what the Ful­bright pro­gram is all about,” says John Alexan­der van Schaick, 23, a Ful­bright schol­ar from Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty, who says that last year, an embassy offi­cial instruct­ed him to report on Venezue­lans and Cubans liv­ing and work­ing in Bolivia. We’re sup­posed to be here to help with mutu­al under­stand­ing, not intel­li­gence operations.”

This alle­ga­tion, along with a sim­i­lar inci­dent involv­ing Peace Corps vol­un­teers, has again called into ques­tion the U.S. role in Bolivia, test­ing the thick­ness of the ice under its feet here in the heart of the Andes.

Anato­my of a scandal

On Nov. 5, 2007, van Schaick entered the U.S. embassy in La Paz for a rou­tine ori­en­ta­tion in prepa­ra­tion for his year-long fel­low­ship in Bolivia. After meet­ing with var­i­ous cul­tur­al affairs offi­cials, the 2006 Rut­gers grad met with Assis­tant Region­al Secu­ri­ty Advis­er Vin­cent Cooper.

He said that he was going to give me a scaled-down’ ver­sion of the nor­mal brief­ing giv­en to U.S. embassy employ­ees,” says van Schaick. Accord­ing to the schol­ar, Coop­er explained that although Ful­bright par­tic­i­pants are not U.S. gov­ern­ment employ­ees, the embassy likes to keep them under its wing.”

The meet­ing con­sist­ed main­ly of help­ful tips for the new­com­er – heed cau­tion while on pub­lic trans­porta­tion, steer clear of street protests and respond appro­pri­ate­ly in med­ical emergencies. 

But the part that made my ears perk up was when he casu­al­ly said, Alex, if, when you are out in the field, should you encounter any Venezue­lans or Cubans like field work­ers or doc­tors,’ that I should report to the U.S. embassy with their names and where they live,” van Schaick explains.

His expe­ri­ence wasn’t an iso­lat­ed inci­dent. On July 29, 2007, Coop­er vis­it­ed a group of 30 Peace Corps trainees in Bolivia to give a secu­ri­ty talk that includ­ed sim­i­lar instruc­tions, this time with respect to Cubans.

We were imme­di­ate­ly alarmed by the request,” said Peace Corps Bolivia Deputy Direc­tor Doreen Salazar in an inter­view dur­ing the ini­tial inves­ti­ga­tion. We stopped the meet­ing and made clear to our group that they had no oblig­a­tion to report any­thing to the embassy.” 

Salazar said she then lodged a com­plaint with the U.S. embassy and was assured that it wouldn’t hap­pen again.

After this mis­take, our prin­ci­pal secu­ri­ty offi­cer instruct­ed his per­son­nel not to repeat this type of inap­pro­pri­ate infor­ma­tion,” the U.S. embassy wrote in a two-page state­ment issued Feb. 11, three days after ABC News released the sto­ry of the Ful­bright and Peace Corps inci­dents. We regret any mis­un­der­stand­ing that this iso­lat­ed inci­dent – which hap­pened sev­en months ago and which was cor­rect­ed imme­di­ate­ly – might have pro­duced,” the embassy wrote.

The U.S. State Depart­ment has also repeat­ed­ly called the request an error and a breach of U.S. pol­i­cy. U.S. vol­un­teers and aca­d­e­mics are not expect­ed to be involved in U.S. intel­li­gence oper­a­tions abroad, even if the pro­grams are gov­ern­ment fund­ed, as is the case with the Peace Corps pro­gram and the Ful­bright schol­ar­ship, accord­ing to State Depart­ment officials.

Yet there has been no expla­na­tion as to why this hap­pened again just three months lat­er, espe­cial­ly if embassy offi­cials were instruct­ed not to make such requests.

Imme­di­ate fallout

When the news broke on Feb. 8, the Boli­vian gov­ern­ment and U.S. offi­cials were already engaged in a scuf­fle. The Boli­vian gov­ern­ment was fac­ing alle­ga­tions that it had been ille­gal­ly spy­ing on the oppo­si­tion movement’s civic lead­ers and its elect­ed officials. 

The Fulbright/​Peace Corps inci­dents brought the ten­sion lev­el neck-high. With­in 48 hours of the story’s release, Boli­vian Pres­i­dent Evo Morales had declared Coop­er an unde­sir­able,” and the Unit­ed States had called Coop­er back to Wash­ing­ton for an inter­nal inves­ti­ga­tion. The Boli­vian gov­ern­ment then launched a crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion into the inci­dents – mark­ing the first time in Boli­vian his­to­ry that the gov­ern­ment has brought crim­i­nal charges against a U.S. embassy official.

The affair’s legal grav­i­ty is indu­bitable. Accord­ing to the Boli­vian penal code, Coop­er could be giv­en up to 30 years in prison with­out the pos­si­bil­i­ty of parole for espi­onage – Bolivia’s most severe sentence. 

More­over, if either van Schaick or the Peace Corps vol­un­teers had pro­vid­ed infor­ma­tion then used by the embassy in an espi­onage oper­a­tion, they, too, could have been liable to the same prison time.

It was in this con­text that rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the two gov­ern­ments sat down to talk five days after the sto­ry broke. It was the sixth time in the two years since Morales took office that U.S. Ambas­sador in Bolivia Philip Gold­berg had been offi­cial­ly sum­moned to explain an action or state­ment the Boli­vian gov­ern­ment found questionable. 

We accept the U.S. government’s expla­na­tions and we want to get beyond this inci­dent,” said For­eign Rela­tions Min­is­ter David Choque­huan­ca after the lengthy ses­sion. We want pos­i­tive bilat­er­al relations.”

The big­ger picture

One of the cen­tral tenets of this coop­er­a­tion was test­ed – and secured – just 24 hours lat­er. On Feb. 14, the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Com­mit­tee on Ways and Means approved the exten­sion of its trade pref­er­ences, which lim­its or elim­i­nates tar­iffs on more than $200 mil­lion worth of Boli­vian goods sold in U.S. mar­kets annu­al­ly. Up to 150,000 Boli­vian jobs depend on the via­bil­i­ty of these exports (every­thing from wood­en win­dow frames to Brazil nuts) – a sig­nif­i­cant fig­ure in South America’s poor­est nation. 

Though the 10-month exten­sion falls short of the two-year renew­al the Boli­vian gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to lob­by for, it is a sig­nif­i­cant vic­to­ry giv­en that a year ago, the Bush admin­is­tra­tion was threat­en­ing not to renew at all (as a way to pun­ish Morales for his refusal to sign a bilat­er­al free trade agreement).

Bolivia is one of the biggest recip­i­ents of fund­ing for Unit­ed States Agency for Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment (USAID) in the world – with more than $120 mil­lion flow­ing in annu­al­ly, which goes toward every­thing from organ­ic cof­fee farms to mil­i­tary anti-nar­cot­ic pro­grams to health clin­ics to inner-city youth theaters.

Over the years, this fund­ing has been a source of con­tention as alle­ga­tions of a bias against Morales and his Move­ment Toward Social­ism (MAS) Par­ty have surfaced. 

In a 2005 inves­ti­ga­tion for NACLA Report on the Amer­i­c­as mag­a­zine, jour­nal­ist Reed Lind­say uncov­ered declas­si­fied inter­nal State Depart­ment mem­os dat­ed from 2002 that alleged USAID was direct­ing its mon­ey to help build mod­er­ate, pro-democ­ra­cy polit­i­cal par­ties that can serve as a coun­ter­weight to the rad­i­cal MAS or its successors.” 

And recent­ly pub­lished inves­ti­ga­tions into USAID, and specif­i­cal­ly into its Office of Tran­si­tion Ini­tia­tives (OTI), which han­dled democ­ra­cy pro­mo­tion” work in Bolivia from 2004 until 2007, have been sim­i­lar­ly alarming. 

In Bolivia, USAID-OTI has focused its efforts on the sep­a­ratist move­ments in regions rich in nat­ur­al resources, such as San­ta Cruz and Cochabam­ba,” wrote Eva Golinger, a Venezue­lan-Amer­i­can attor­ney, in Washington’s Silent War on Venezuela and Bolivia,” a Sep­tem­ber 2007 arti­cle in Green Left Week­ly. The major­i­ty of the $13.3 mil­lion has been giv­en to orga­ni­za­tions and pro­grams work­ing toward rein­forc­ing region­al gov­ern­ments,’ with the inten­tion of weak­en­ing the Morales government.”

The Morales gov­ern­ment has there­fore made a show of its anger at USAID, declar­ing in August 2007, that the door is open” for the group to leave Bolivia. But one month lat­er, the gov­ern­ment qui­et­ly signed a con­tract to renew USAID’s work here for anoth­er year.

Though big steps – such as kick­ing USAID out – do not seem to be on the Morales agen­da, the Boli­vian pres­i­dent has tak­en small steps to ful­fill his promise of less­en­ing U.S. involve­ment in the country. 

Eco­nom­i­cal­ly, Bolivia today is far less depen­dent on the Unit­ed States, espe­cial­ly giv­en its close rela­tion­ship with oil-rich ally Venezuela, and a five-year, $1 bil­lion deal with Iran to finance every­thing from gas explo­ration to dairy farms. 

In the last few days of Feb­ru­ary, Morales was once again lam­bast­ing the U.S. embassy here for con­spir­ing against Bolivia’s new­ly writ­ten con­sti­tu­tion, which must be approved or reject­ed in a nation­al ref­er­en­dum this year. 

But even in the wake of recent scan­dals, Morales has con­firmed his com­mit­ment to mak­ing it work with the Unit­ed States. 

We would nev­er look to break nei­ther diplo­mat­ic nor com­mer­cial rela­tions,” he stat­ed at a recent press con­fer­ence, despite recent polit­i­cal problems.”

The ice, though con­stant­ly thin­ning, seems far from breaking.

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