An Open Letter to the U.S. State Department Regarding Recent Violence in Bolivia

Evo Morales

Since the democratic election of Evo Morales in December 2005, the U.S. government has sent millions of dollars in aid to departmental prefects and municipal governments in Bolivia. Last year, the U.S. Agency for International Development spent $89 million of U.S. taxpayer money in the Andean country. At least some of these funds have ended up in the hands of opposition groups linked to recent anti-government violence. A group of Latin America experts have called on the U.S. government to publicly disclose USAID’s funding portfolio.

An abbreviated version of this letter, signed by 90 experts on Bolivia and Latin America, was sent to the U.S. State Department today:

To Dr. Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State

Cc: Phillip Goldberg, U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia
Henrietta Fore, Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development
Representative Eliot Engel, Chair, Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Committee of Foreign Affairs
Senator John McCain
Senator Barack Obama

Dear Dr. Rice,

We are writing out of deep concern over recent events in Bolivia that have left dozens dead and cost millions of dollars in lost revenue to the Bolivian government and the Bolivian people. We are especially concerned that the United States government, by its own admission, is supporting opposition groups and individuals in Bolivia that have been involved in the recent whole-scale destruction, violence, and killings, above all in the departments of Santa Cruz, Pando, and Chuquisaca.

Since the United States government refuses to disclose many of the recipients of its funding and support, there is currently no way to determine the degree to which this support is helping people involved in violence, sabotage, and other extra-legal means to destabilize the government of Bolivia.

Yet since the democratic election of Evo Morales in December 2005, the U.S. government has sent millions of dollars in aid to departmental prefects and municipal governments in Bolivia. In 2004, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) opened an "Office of Transition Initiatives" (OTI) in Bolivia, which provided some $11 million in funds to "build on its activities designed to enhance the capacity of departmental governments."[1] 

The OTI in Bolivia sought to "[build] the capacity of prefect-led departmental governments to help them better respond to the constituencies they govern," and even brought departmental governors to the U.S. to meet with state governors.[2]  Some of these same departmental governments later launched organized campaigns to push for "autonomy" and to oppose through violent and undemocratic means the Morales government and its popular reforms.

According to the OTI, it ceased operations in Bolivia about a year ago; however some of its activities were then taken up by USAID, which refuses to disclose some of its recipients and programs. USAID spent $89 million in Bolivia last year. This is a significant sum relative to the size of Bolivia’s economy; proportionally in the U.S. economy it would be equivalent to about $100 billion, or close to what the United States is currently spending on military operations in Iraq.

U.S. taxpayers, as well as the Bolivian government and people, have a right to know what U.S. funds are supporting in Bolivia.

On August 10, a national recall referendum was held in which Bolivian voters had the opportunity to vote on whether the President, the Vice-President, and eight of nine departmental prefects should continue in office. President Evo Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera won with more than 67 percent of the vote, much more than President Morales’ original electoral victory in 2005, which had the largest margin in the country’s electoral history.

The recent opposition violence appears to be an organized response to this mandate, attempting to use extra-legal means to win what the opposition could not gain at the ballot box.  This includes the National Democratic Council (CONALDE), composed of "five provincial governors, business associations, conservative civic groups, and legislators of the right-wing Podemos party led by former president Jorge Quiroga."[3]

Perhaps most alarming is the recent evidence of close collusion and cooperation between the departmental governments and violent groups such as the UJC (Unión Juventud Cruceña, or Union of Santa Cruz Youth) and the Santa Cruz Civic Committee. As a new campaign of violence began following the August 10 recall referendum, a Reuters journalist interviewing Santa Cruz opposition leader and prominent businessman Branko Marinkovic witnessed UJC members going into Marinkovic’s office and coming out with baseball bats.[4]  Even more startling is evidence that the events of the past two weeks are the result of a deliberate decision by the opposition coalition CONALDE to pursue a campaign of violence. Media reports describe how opposition Podemos legislators were ejected from an early September CONALDE meeting after voicing opposition to the violent methods under discussion.[5] 

News articles in the past week further noted the support from some departmental prefects and other regional government officials’ for the violence. "The conservative governors are … encouraging the protesters in their actions," Agence France Presse reported, adding that, "The opposition coalition, which also includes town mayors, have focused their attention on the main source of Bolivia’s income: the natural gas fields that lie in their eastern half of the country," and "Militants linked to the opposition group set up road blocks to add pressure to the governors’ demands for more control over gas revenues." [6]

The racist nature of the UJC and other hate groups is well known and documented. These groups have focused their attacks mostly on indigenous MAS (governing party) supporters. In May, for example, members of the "Interinstitutional Committee," composed of civic and local leaders, and other youth militants forcibly marched indigenous and peasant supporters of President Morales to the city center of Sucre (Chuquisaca), beat them, stripped them of clothing, and forced them to chant anti-Morales slogans while berating them with racist taunts.[7] 

As you know, at least 15 people have been killed in the past several days in Pando alone – the great majority of them Bolivian peasants and farmers – in what eyewitnesses describe as a massacre by assassins with machine guns. The Bolivian government has arrested Pando prefect Leopoldo Fernández in connection with the killings.

This violence, which has been accompanied by sabotage that has caused extensive economic damage, is utterly deplorable, and should be condemned from every quarter. Yet the U.S. government response has been weak. Before the extent of the massacre was known, and before the Bolivian government had declared U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg to be persona non grata, many had already been killed and economic damage done. Yet as of September 12, according to its website, the U.S. State Department had said only that it regrets the expulsion of Ambassador Goldberg and that this "reflects the weakness and desperation [by President Evo Morales]" and "an inability to communicate effectively internationally in order to build international support," and suggested that the Bolivian government is not improving the well-being of its citizens.[8] 

The State Department website shows no statement between May 5, 2008 and September 11, 2008,[9]  indicating that the State Department failed to condemn the violence in recent months, and also failed to congratulate President Evo Morales on his overwhelming victory in the August 10 referendum.

We call on the U.S. government to turn a new page in its relations with Latin America by clearly and unequivocally condemning the violent, destructive and anti-democratic means employed by members of Bolivia’s pro-"autonomy" opposition. Most importantly, Washington must also disclose its funding for groups inside Bolivia – through USAID and other agencies – and reveal the names of the recipients of these funds. The U.S. government must cease any and all support – financial or otherwise – to any group or person in Bolivia and other Latin American countries that engages in violent, destructive, terrorist, or anti-democratic activities such as we have witnessed with great shock and sadness in the past weeks in Bolivia.


Ben Achtenberg, Refuge Media Project, Boston, MA
Emily Achtenberg, Housing Policy & Development Consultant, Boston MA
Robert Albro, Assistant Professor of Antrhpology, School of International Service, American University
Juan Manuel Arbona, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Bryn Mawr College
Byrna Aronson, Boston, MA
Teo Ballvé, Journalist, former editor of North American Congress on Latin America Report on the Americas
Ericka Beckman, Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Charles Bergquist, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Washington
John Beverley, Professor of Hispanic Languages and Literatures, University of Pittsburgh
Michelle Bigenho, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Hampshire College
Lina Britto, Ph. D. Candidate, Department of History, New York University
Beverlee Bruce, Ph.D., Program Associate, Planning Alternatives for Change, New York City
Marisol de la Cadena, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California-Davis
Joaquín Chavez, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, New York University
Mike Davis, Distinguished Professor of Non-Fiction, University of California-Riverside
Nicole Dettmann-Quisbert, Sudbury, MA
Luis Duno-Gottberg, Associate Professor of Hispanic Languages and Literatures, Rice University
Arturo Escobar, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Duke University
Nicole Fabricant, Ph. D. Candidate, Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University
Samuel Farber, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Brooklyn College
Sujatha Fernandes, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Queens College
Lesley Gill, Professor of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University
Marcial Godoy-Anativia, Associate Director, Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, New York University
Daniel Goldstein, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Rutgers University
Manu Goswami, Associate Professor of History, New York University
Greg Grandin, Professor of History, New York University
Bret Gustafson, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Washington University
Charles R. Hale, Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas-Austin, former president of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA)
Jack Hammond, Professor of Sociology, Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center
Daniel Hellinger, Professor of Political Science, Webster University
Eric Hershberg, President, Latin American Studies Association (LASA)
Doug Hertzler, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Eastern Mennonite University
Kathryn Hicks, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Memphis
Connie Hogarth, Center for Social Action, Manhattanville College
Forrest Hylton, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, New York University
Rachel Kahn-Hunt, Professor Emerita of Sociology, San Francisco State University
Caren Kaplan, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, University of California-Davis
Laura Kaplan, Bronx Community College
Steven Karakashian, Milwaukie, OR
Marie Kennedy, Visiting Professor of Urban Planning, UCLA, Professor Emerita of Urban Planning, University of Massachusetts-Boston
Eben Kirksey, Ph.D., National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, Santa Clara University
Naomi Klein, Journalist
Benjamin Kohl, Associate Professor of Geography and Urban Studies, Temple University
James Krippner, Associate Professor of History, Haverford College
Richard Krushnic, City of Boston, Department of Neighborhood Development, Boston, MA
Maria Lagos, Associate Professor Emerita of Anthropology, Lehman College, CUNY
Amy S. Lang, Professor of English and Humanities, Syracuse University
Daniel Lang/Levitsky, New York, NY
Brooke Larson, Professor of History, State University of New York-Stony Brook
Catherine LeGrand, Associate Professor of History, McGill University
Florencia E. Mallon, Julieta Kirkwood Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Angela Marino Segura, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Spanish & Portuguese, New York University
Francine Masiello, Acker Professor of Humanities, University of California-Berkeley
Marie-Josée Massicotte, Director, International Studies and Modern Languages, University of Ottawa
Richard Monks, Vice-President, International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 877
Elizabeth Monasterios, Professor of Hispanic Languages and Literatures, University of Pittsburgh
Pablo Morales, Editor, NACLA Report on the Americas, New York, NY
Mary Nolan, Professor of History, New York University
Lisette Olivares, Ph.D. Candidate, History of Consciousness, University of California-Santa Cruz
Almerindo E. Ojeda, Professor of Linguistics, Director of the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, University of California-Davis
Andrew Orta, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Deborah Poole, Professor of Anthropology, Director, Program in Latin American Studies, Johns Hopkins University
Nancy Postero, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California-San Diego
Seemin Qayum, Independent Scholar and Development Consultant, New York, NY
Peter Ranis, Emeritus Professor of Political Science, City University of New York Graduate Center
David C. Ranney, Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning and Policy, University of Illinois-Chicago
Gerardo Renique, Associate Professor of History, City College-CUNY
Marcus Rediker, Professor of History, University of Pittsburgh
Christina Rojas, Director, Program for International Studies, Carleton University, Montreal, CA
Nancy Romer, Brooklyn College & Professional Staff Congress/CUNY, AFT #2334
Fred Rosen, Senior Analyst, North American Congress on Latin America
Karen B. Rosen, Cambridge, MA
Karin Rosemblatt, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Maryland, College Park
Frances Rothstein, Professor of Anthropology, Montclair State University
Ethel S. Ruymaker, Oakland, CA
Tamara Lea Spira, Ph.D. Candidate, History of Consciousness, University of California-Santa Cruz
Kent Spriggs, Spriggs Law Firm, Tallahassee, FL
Diana Steinberg, Boston, MA
Marcia Stephenson, Associate Professor of Spanish, Purdue University
Steve Striffler, Zemurray Chair in Latin American Studies, University of New Orleans
Estelle Tarica, Associate Professor, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of California-Berkeley
Sinclair Thomson, Associate Professor of History, New York University
Marilyn Young, Professor of History, New York University
George Yudice, Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, American Studies, and Latin American Studies, University of Miami
Jeffrey R. Webber, Ph. D. Candidate, Political Science, University of Toronto
Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, DC
John Womack, Robert Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics, Harvard University
Patricia A. Wright, Retired Urban Scholar, University of Illinois-Chicago
Carol Zuckerman, MD, Boston, MA
Rosanna Zuckerman, Boston, MA

  [1] USAID/OTI Bolivia Field Report, July – September 2006.

  [2] Ibid.

  [3] Franz Chávez, "BOLIVIA: Divisions Emerge in Opposition Strategy." Inter Press Service. September 4, 2008.

  [4] Eduardo Garcia, "Foes of Morales stage general strike in Bolivia." Reuters. August 19, 2008. Found at 

  [5] Franz Chávez, "BOLIVIA: Divisions Emerge in Opposition Strategy." Inter Press Service. September 4, 2008.

  [6] Agence France Presse, "Bolivia orders US ambassador out, warns of civil war." September 11, 2008.

  [7] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Press Release, "IACHR Deplores Violence In Bolivia And Urges Punishment Of Those Responsible." N° 22/08. May 29, 2008. Accessed at on September 16, 2008, 5:52pm EST.

  [8] U.S. Department of State Press Statement, "Expulsion of U.S. Ambassadors to Venezuela and Bolivia." September 12, 2008. Accessed at on September 16, 2008, 4:46pm EST.

  [9] U.S. Department of State website: Bolivia – Releases. Accessed at on September 16, 2008,4:35pm EST.