Bolivian President Evo Morales has declared U.S. Ambassador to La Paz Philip Goldberg "persona non grata", after accusing him of aiding and abetting pro-autonomy opposition groups that are blocking highways and occupying government buildings, reducing the supply of natural gas to Brazil. "I am not afraid of anyone, not even the empire (the United States)," Morales said.
(IPS) – Bolivian President Evo Morales has declared U.S. Ambassador to La Paz Philip Goldberg "persona non grata", after accusing him of aiding and abetting pro-autonomy opposition groups that are blocking highways and occupying government buildings, reducing the supply of natural gas to Brazil.
"I am not afraid of anyone, not even the empire (the United States)," Morales said Wednesday afternoon at the presidential palace when he instructed Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca to inform the U.S. ambassador in writing that he was no longer welcome in the country.
"It is unprecedented for a head of state to announce a declaration of "persona non grata," although this must be looked at within the context of the deteriorated diplomatic relations," former Foreign Minister Armando Loaiza told IPS.
Over the past year, the leftwing Morales administration has accused the U.S. embassy in Bolivia of offering its backing to departmental (provincial) governments in Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija and Chuquisaca in their crusade for radical autonomy.
Loaiza said that Washington may retaliate by expelling the Bolivian ambassador, Gustavo Guzmán, precipitating a crisis in the already difficult relations between the two countries.
Washington has been critical of Bolivia’s foreign policy alignment with Cuba and Venezuela, and its recent overtures to Iran, as well as the longstanding issue of coca leaf cultivation for traditional and medicinal uses.
The decision to expel Goldberg came after major confrontations, such as the Bolivian Foreign Ministry’s report that the U.S. ambassador had held a private meeting on Aug. 25 with the rightwing governor of Santa Cruz, President Morales’ main political opponent.
The following day, Ambassador Goldberg was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and asked for an explanation. Minister Choquehuanca also asked Goldberg to be cautious in his contacts with opposition governors.
Goldberg later paid a courtesy visit to the opposition governor of Chuquisaca, Savina Cuellar, on Sept. 4, further fuelling the government’s annoyance.
"We do not want separatist or divisive people, who want Bolivia to break apart. We do not want people who are conspiring against democracy," said President Morales, while in the eastern and southern departments, respectively, of Santa Cruz and Tarija, acts of violence by radical rightwing youth groups continued, encouraged by pro-business Civic Committees and opposition governors.
Senator Félix Rojas of the governing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) said President Morales’ action was based on the Bolivian constitution, which proclaims the principle of self-determination.
Goldberg, who presented his credentials in La Paz on Oct. 13, 2006, has an interesting diplomatic record. He was head of mission (2004-2006) in Kosovo, formerly a province of Serbia until its local government, supported by the ethnic Albanian majority of the population, declared independence in February 2008.
The government argues that he may have had contact with Bolivian separatist movements in the natural gas-rich "eastern crescent" of the country, which are encouraged and backed by conservative groups.
According to opposition lawmaker Fernando Messmer of the rightwing Social and Democratic Power (Podemos) party, the government’s attitude is "radical and reckless."
An immediate effect on trade with the United States is that it will be hard to negotiate a new enlargement of a trade agreement that would allow market access for exports of 250 million dollars a year of manufactured goods, said congressman Michiaki Nagatani of the rightwing Revolutionary Nationalist Movement.
"The government should think twice" before taking such measures, Nagatani said.
The move by President Morales came the day after severe incidents of social unrest were provoked by Civic Committees in the city of Santa Cruz. Several public buildings were occupied and looted, and executives working for the state oil company YPFB confirmed that an explosion had occurred at a pipeline that transports natural gas to Brazil.
At 5:00 a.m. (09:00 GMT) on Wednesday the pipeline was sabotaged at kilometre 51, between the gas fields of San Alberto and San Antonio, in the southern province of Tarija, an area containing two-thirds of Bolivia’s gas wealth.
Santos Ramírez, the head of YPFB, announced that the explosion caused losses of 100 million dollars, and reduced the 26 million cubic metres a day of gas that Bolivia exports to Brazil, its main market, by three million cubic metres.
Ramírez said putting out the fire in the gas pipeline and repairing it would take about 20 days.
In the city of Tarija, the capital of the department of the same name, pro-autonomy activists attempted to occupy a large market belonging to small farmers in the region who provide food for the city’s 180,000 people.
Inocencio Almanza, the head of the Association of Town Councils in Cercado, a town in Tarija, told IPS that groups of radical rightwing students, with the support of Governor Mario Cossio, attacked the food market where some 5,000 farmers sell their produce.
Over the course of the day, small farmers supporting the government resisted the violent attacks of these groups, and the police were only able to make the two sides disperse by using tear gas.
In the town of Villamontes, also in Tarija, rightwing protesters beat and disarmed army troops, and went on to take over the gas field of Vuelta Grande and the gas processing plant there.
The president’s chief of staff, Juan Ramón Quintana, reiterated his statement that a civilian coup by opposition governors is in progress.
He accused Civic Committees and the five opposition governors of blocking roads and ordering the takeover of gas fields. The authorities have ordered reinforcements for the troops guarding YPFB installations and those of private oil companies operating in the country.
In the city of Santa Cruz, members of the rightwing Santa Cruz Youth Union (UCJ) continued to occupy public offices for the second consecutive day, and at nightfall they took control of the bus and rail terminals, overwhelming the police on guard who fled before the demonstrators’ violent onslaught.
Several times on Wednesday, the violent youth groups swarmed a low-income market called Barrio Lindo, where indigenous people from the western Bolivian regions of La Paz, Oruro and Potosí sell clothes and food.