On August 23, the Rev. Pat Robertson called for the US government to suspend the Fifth Commandment and assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. While the Bush White House quickly distanced itself from the suggestion, the fact is that Robertson’s outburst builds on months of White House tale-spinning and conspiracy theories about South American politics.
From its highest levels the Bush administration has been trying to convince anyone who will listen that Chavez and Fidel Castro are trying to launch a Marxist rebellion right here in Bolivia.
After four years of largely ignoring Latin American politics the Bush administration wants back in the game and it is using the same card that it used to get us into Iraq, false intelligence.
EVOLUTION OF A WHITE HOUSE TALE
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice started off the administration’s new tale of concern in February. In testimony before the Senate, commenting on the political rise of Bolivian socialist party leader Evo Morales, she announced, "We are very worried." Since then, the White House’s rhetoric about the threat in Bolivia has continued to escalate, in ways reminiscent to the rhetorical run up to the invasion of Iraq.
In July, a senior pentagon official speaking off the record told the Associated Press that the recent citizen uprisings in Bolivia were the result of a joint effort by Chavez and Castro, "to steer this revolution toward a Marxist-socialist populist state." Chavez was providing the cash, he explained, and Castro the direction and organization.
Last week, on a five-country tour of South America, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took up the administration’s warnings again. He told reporters, "There is certainly evidence both Cuba and Venezuela have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in unhelpful ways." Yet, when asked, Rumsfeld could offer neither examples nor evidence to support his claim.
On Rumsfeld’s plane, one of his senior aides, again speaking off the record, laid out the full scope of the White House’s imagined Chavez/Castro Bolivian conspiracy. "The Cubans are back with a big game," a senior Pentagon official told the French news agency, AFP. The official charged that Cuba had, "reactivated its underground networks throughout the region, particularly in Bolivia," and warned that these Cubans were, "providing political guidance, stimulating street violence and attempting to discredit the country’s democratic institutions."
So now, in place of weapons of mass destruction, we have a hidden army of underground Cuban operatives fomenting violent rebellion right here in Cochabamba. I haven’t spotted any yet.
FOREIGN INTERFERENCE, YES, BUT FROM WHERE?
No US official has ever presented any actual evidence about all this foreign interference in Bolivia, despite repeated requests to do so from the press. But as we sadly know, in the Bush White House actual evidence is not required before the US acts. Hunches and accusations will do just fine. As Rumsfeld himself argued in the debate over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, "Simply because you do not have evidence that something does exist does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist."
Some in the US press, unfortunately, are also up to their old game of swallowing the evidence-free bait. Yesterday a CNN report repeated the Bush tale – hook, line and sinker: "[Chavez] is spending Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to support other leftist leaders in the hemisphere, like in Bolivia, undermining US efforts to spread democracy."
That said, I believe that the White House is right on the mark about two things. First, there is indeed a populist revolt underway in Bolivia and, second, that revolt is very much a product of foreign interference. The problem with the Bush-Rice-Rumsfeld picture is that the real inspiration to rebel comes not from Havana or Caracas, but from Washington.
Five times in five years Bolivia has been the scene of a major citizen rebellion revolving around policies that were sent here from Washington:
In April 2000 the citizens of Cochabamba rebelled against a water privatization coerced on them by the World Bank (the Bank’s chief is appointed by the White House). The deal handed the city’s public water system over to the US engineering giant, Bechtel, which promptly raised water rates far beyond the reach of the city’s poor. That is the same Bechtel to which Bush later handed a no-bid mega-contract to rebuild Iraq.
In February 2003 thirty-four Bolivians lost their lives during public protests against an economic belt tightening package imposed on Bolivia by the Washington-based International Monetary Fund. The US is the only single nation in the world which holds a veto over major IMF policies.
In October 2003 more than fifty Bolivians were killed during protests against a proposed gas export deal to California, a deal backed by the US Embassy here.
In January 2005 the city of El Alto revolted over another water privatization deal imposed on the country by the World Bank.
In May and June 2005 a national uprising swept Bolivia, opposing privatization of the country’s vast oil and gas reserves. That privatization was yet another economic experiment pushed on the country by the IMF and World Bank.
It may well be that somewhere along the way we discover that some Venezuelan cash found its way into the coffers of activists here, though certainly it would be dwarfed by the US’s own years-long heavy hand in Bolivian politics (In 2002 the US Ambassador here famously threatened voters against supporting a candidate not to the US’s liking.).
But the real question is this one: Are Bolivia’s citizen uprisings homegrown or a creation imported from abroad?
If you speak with people in the streets, the answer is dead clear. After more than a decade of being a lab rat for an experiment in free market fundamentalism imposed on the country from Washington, Bolivians want to change economic course. They want control of their natural resources. They want their children and grandchildren to reap the benefits of those resources, not only corporations such as Bechtel, Shell, Enron and British Gas.
One can agree or disagree with the positions advanced by these protests and with the tactics they have employed. However, what is not in doubt is that the political movement underway in Bolivia today is the product of genuine Bolivian sentiments.
And if US officials really want to track down the agents of foreign influence that have spawned all this, they don’t need weapons inspectors or spies. A simple mirror will do just fine.
Jim Shultz writes from Cochambaba, Bolivia where he is the director of the Democracy Center, an organization which works globally to advance human rights through a unique combination of investigation and reporting, training citizens in the art of public advocacy, and organizing international citizen campaigns.
Check out his excellent blog here.