The United States vs. Bolivian democracy: Part 1; Terrorists, fascists, and the US embassy
Even if we assume the US embassy didn’t know of the cell, why would the US then provide a sanctuary to funders of terrorists whose own public defender was telling the embassy were “most likely” guilty? The answer is long and complex and reveals the lengths to which the US has gone to undermine the democratically-elected government of Evo Morales since it came to power in 2005.
By Matt Kennard on Monday, March 11th, 2013 - 9,257 words.
Part 2 can be read here: The United States vs. Bolivian democracy: Part 2; the USAID-NED-Opposition Nexus.
In the middle of the night on 16 April 2009, an elite Bolivian police unit entered the four-star Hotel Las Americas situated in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, a hotbed of opposition to the President Evo Morales’s government. Flown in from the capital, La Paz, the commandos planned to raid a group of men staying in the upscale lodgings. What happened in the early hours of that morning is still disputed, but at the end of the operation, three men who had been asleep in their bed just minutes earlier, lay dead, killed in cold blood. Some say they were executed, while the Bolivian government claims its officers won out in a 20 minute fire-fight.
In the aftermath, the story gained international attention when it was revealed that two of the dead were not even Bolivian. One was Michael Dwyer, a 26-year-old Irishman from county Cork, where he had been a bouncer and security guard before moving to Santa Cruz just six months earlier. Another Arpad Magyarosi was Hungarian-Romanian, and had been a teacher and musician before relocating to Bolivia at the same time.
The third killed in the operation was the ringleader of the group, Eduardo Rozsa-Flores, an eccentric Bolivian-Hungarian who had been born in Santa Cruz before fleeing the country during the US-backed dictatorship of Hugo Banzer in the 1970s. His family moved to Chile before the ascent of another US-backed dictator in that country, General Augusto Pinochet, meant they resettled finally in Hungary. Rozsa was a supporter of Opus Dei, the rightwing Christian sect and fought in the Croatian independence war in the early 1990s, founding the paramilitary International Platoon which many believed was aligned with fascistic elements. Two journalists, including a British photographer, died suspiciously while investigating the platoon.
Two others, Mario Tadic, a Croatian, and Elod Toaso, also from Hungary, were arrested and remain in a high-security La Paz prison to this day. Another two other suspects, both with eastern European connections as well, were not at the scene and are still missing.
It transpired that the government had acted on intelligence telling them that these men comprised a cell of terrorists who were planning a program of war and violence in the country, which included a somewhat bizarre plan to blow up Evo Morales, the President, and his cabinet on Lake Titicaca, the biggest lake in the Andes and a major tourist attraction. The intelligence services, after a tip-off from an informer close to the group, had been following them for a number of months. They decided to act soon after a bomb exploded at the house of the Archbishop of Santa Cruz, Cardinal Julio Terrazas.
The government appointed a seven-person committee to investigate the plot, headed by Cesar Navarro, deputy-minister for coordination with social movements and civil society, which spent the next five months until November 2009 looking into it. Among the items seized during the raid was Rozsa’s laptop in which investigators claim to have discovered emails between ex-CIA asset and Cold War double agent Istvan Belovai.
“There are emails between Rozsa and Belovai, he was the brains behind it,” Mr Navarro tells me in his office in the presidential palace in La Paz. “He would ask them logistical questions about escape routes, about whether the government or police would be able to get to them.” Belovai, who died in 2010, was a spook who called himself “Hungary’s first Nato soldier”. Rozsa is thought to have become friends with Belovai in the 1990s at the time of the Balkans War.
At the time of the attacks, the attitude of the US embassy, revealed through the cables sent from La Paz to Washington, was one of incredulity of the government’s claims and worry about persecution of the opposition. One comment was headlined ‘”Terrorism” excuse for mass arrests?”’ The US embassy was concerned about “raising fears of possible arrests of members of the Santa Cruz-based political opposition.” Another cable did admit that in “an interview released posthumously, the group’s leader [Rozsa] advocated the secession of Santa Cruz department, Bolivia’s largest and most prosperous state.”
The reaction from the opposition was no less sympathetic. The right-wing governor of Santa Cruz, Rubens Costas, accused the MAS government of “mounting a show” in the aftermath. The photos released by the government afterward told a different story. Rozsa and Dwyer can be seen posing with large caches of heavy weaponry including pistols and sub-machine guns, and a large rifle with telescopic sights. President Morales said the cell was planning to “riddle us with bullets”.
A US embassy official met with a public defender assigned to alleged terrorist Tadic. She told the official that “the Santa Cruz leaders named by the government are most likely linked with the group” – these leaders were in fact intimately involved with the US embassy. Tadic, she said, had been stockpiling weapons and carrying out military training on rural properties outside Santa Cruz. She confirmed they were responsible for placing the explosive device in front of the cardinal’s house, while Tadic had testified that the next target was going to be Prefect Ruben Costas’ residence, and that Rozsa had advised Costas to strengthen his security gate to minimize the damage. The intent in targeting the Cardinal and the Prefect was to make it look like MAS-supporters were carrying out the attacks.
The fact the alleged terrorists were staying in a four-star hotel, with no discernible day job, suggested they had money coming from somewhere. The pictures of these foreigners partying in Santa Cruz – subsequently released – also show they were accepted and welcomed openly by some powerbrokers in the city – it seemed to go all the way to the top, even the Prefect of the department. But none came more powerful than Branko Marinkovic, a local Croatian-origin oligarch, who had been a long-time friend of the US embassy and is now in exile in the US after being identified as one of those “most likely” to have been involved with the terrorist group. Juan Kudelka, the right-hand man of Marinkovic, said in March 2010 that he had been asked by Marinkovic to pass envelopes of money to Rozsa as part of this plan to support this terrorist group, called, he said, “La Torre”. Another suspect, Hugo Achá Melgar, a keen friend of a strange human rights group in New York, also soon fled to the US, where he was also welcomed with open arms.
“[T]here are several factors that could induce the [government of Bolivia] to connect us to suspected extremist groups in Santa Cruz,” noted one US embassy cable released by Wikileaks. “The petition of political asylum from alleged terrorist Hugo Acha and his wife, allocation of USAID assistance to a Bolivian organization suspected of funding a terrorist cell in Santa Cruz, and an implied [US Government] role based on the [Government of Bolivia]‘s assertion that the Santa Cruz cell leader organized meetings and had contacts in Washington.” All of these assertions turned out to be true; in fact the situation was worse than that. The US planned to bring the opposition from all over the country together in a supra-departmental business lobby in an effort to rid Bolivia of its socialist government.
At the time the US embassy “reassured” vice-president, Álvaro García Linera, “that there was no US government involvement”, and President Obama vouched for that too when asked by President Morales soon after. But investigator Mr Navarro still didn’t believe it. “The US didn’t not know,” he told me. “Nothing like this happens in Bolivia without the US knowing something about it,” Mr Linera, vice-president, added. Even if we assume the US embassy didn’t know of the cell, why would the US then provide a sanctuary to funders of terrorists whose own public defender was telling the embassy were “most likely” guilty? The answer is long and complex and reveals the lengths to which the US has gone to undermine the democratically-elected government of Evo Morales since it came to power in 2005.
‘TURNING THE TIDE’
The raid and the deaths had come at a pivotal moment in Bolivian history. At the time the poorest country in South America, it also has the highest proportion of indigenous people in the continent – 60 per cent. In December 2005, there was a tectonic shift in the power structure of the nation, unheard of since independence from Spain, when the country elected its first ever indigenous president, the socialist trade union leader Evo Morales Aymara.
It wasn’t a sudden development but followed decades of confrontation and public protests which had ramped up in the previous five years. In 2000, the so-called ‘Water Wars’, centred in the city of Cochabamba in the east of the country, had pitched the local communities en masse against the government and the World Bank which had overseen the privatisation of the water industry and resultant soaring prices. Police had been instructed to arrest people collecting rainwater to escape the new prices they could not afford. Over the next years, the indigenous movement, which is based around small micro-democratic communities, grew stronger. In 2005, mass protests spread and thousands of demonstrators went on to blockade La Paz before troops, allegedly under orders of the government, shot dead a score of protestors.
The presidential incumbent, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, more commonly known as Goni, was forced out and fled to Miami, where he lives to this day. It was in this maelstrom and ferment that Morales, a former cocalero turned trade union leader, and his party, Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS), came to power with a huge take of the popular vote. This turn of events, however, was not greeted kindly by the traditional elites in Bolivia and their international backers. The US had been sending its own political “experts” for years to try and avoid exactly this scenario: a 2005 documentary, Our Brand Is Crisis, shows a team of slick campaign managers from Greenberg Carville Shrum successfully running Goni’s campaign of Goni as he defeated Evo Morales in the 2002 presidential elections. This time was different, the US was powerless to stop Morales, causing serious worry amongst planners.
Bolivia remains one of the most unequal societies in the Western hemisphere, but the established state of affairs had made some people very rich. As the New York Times put it when describing Santa Cruz: “Scenes of extreme poverty stand in contrast here with the construction of garish new headquarters of corporations from Brazil, Europe and the United States.” On top of this, the land distribution has led some analysts to call the set-up akin to “semi-feudal provinces dominated by semi-feudal estates.” Five percent of the landowners control over 90 per cent of the arable land. When MAS came to power it sought to deal with this egregious inequality, which is marked pretty consistently along race lines, with the poor landless peasants largely comprising the indigenous population.
A land reform program was started to break up huge rural estates that had long been controlled by a small elite and redistribute land that was fallow to landless indigenous peasants. The government stipulated that private ownership of huge estates, known as Latifundistas, would only be acceptable if put to ‘social use’. But a plan like that was going to engender vociferous opposition from the entrenched elite that felt it was being usurped. One particularly illustrative case is that of Ronald Larsen, a 67-year-old American from Montana, who came to Bolivia in 1968 and by the time President Morales came to power owned 17 properties throughout Bolivia (along with his sons), comprising 141,000 acres, or three times the space of the country’s biggest city.
The new Bolivian government accused Mr Larsen of keeping indigenous Guarani farmers as “virtual slaves”, and tried to deliver seeds to them to help them escape from servitude. Mr Larsen’s response was telling them: “These people, their main thing in life is where they’re going to get their next bowl of rice,” he told one reporter. “A few bags of rice buys a lot of support.” The government reported that it was fired on as it tried to deliver said rice.
The reaction from the east of the country to land reform, where the majority of natural resources and wealth is located, was near-hysterical. A class of magnates — most European-descendants – own many of the businesses there and over the next three years, they alongside allies around the media luna, or crescent shaped “opposition” area of the country, worked to bring down the new President Morales.
The US government and its agencies, which have for decades exercised overwhelming economic and political power over Bolivia in tandem with these newly displaced elites, was not a benign player in this period. It has actively worked to help the opposition and undermine the democratically-elected sovereign government of Bolivia. The spider web of US control was extensive, with many US agencies created at the height of the Cold War still in place in Bolivia until now, civilised language hiding their use, first, as a tool against Soviet influence in the region, and now to undermine the democratic socialism of MAS. Despite vast natural gas reserves, these agencies alongside transnational corporations, and their local compradors in government, have conspired to keep Bolivia the second-poorest country, and among the most unequal, in South America.
When the MAS government threatened to upend that social order, it was logical that the US would be nervous. One of President Morales first acts in power was to shutter the CIA office that had until then been operating in the presidential palace. Morales has claimed since he came to power that the various agencies that make up the US foreign policy apparatus have been giving covert support to the opposition, claims denied by the US government who call it “conspiracy theories”. Alongside the US government, a score of non-governmental institutions, some headquartered in New York, or US-ally Colombia, have been working to undermine the democratic government in Bolivia and continue to this day.
‘PAYING CLANDESTINE VISITS’
As we sit in his office, lined with pictures of Che Guevara and prominent members of Bolivian civil society, Mr Navarro, who headed the terrorism investigation, speaks at a 100 miles an hour, desperate to get all the information out as quick as possible. “Rozsa didn’t come here by himself, they brought him,” he tells me. “Hugo Achá Melgar brought him.”
The prosecutor in the case has charged that one of Achá’s business cards was found in the backpack of one of the alleged terrorists. Further it is claimed Achá met with Rozsa on at least three occasions, while testimony from other terrorist suspects in custody implicate Achá as a financial supporter of the group. The Bolivian government has tried to request the extradition of Achá, who is currently in the United States, to no avail.
Achá’s story reveals a long trail that leads all the way to a set of tony offices in the midtown area of Manhattan. The husband of a prominent opposition congresswoman, Achá was the founder and head of a Bolivian version of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), an American non-governmental organisation based in New York. Not very well known – but boasting Elie Wiesel and Václav Havel on its “international council” – the HRF was founded in 2005 by a character atypical of the NGO and human rights world. A rich playboy-cum-political talking-head, Thor Halversson, can be spotted on the Manhattan party scene, as well as giving his two-pennies worth on Fox News.
The foundation he founded is not typical either, with Mr Halversson telling the Economist in 2010 that he wanted his organization to break out from the traditional NGO mould. Firstly his group had an overt agenda, the magazine said, focusing “mainly on the sins of leftist regimes in Latin America”. But his tactics were different, too. “With the confidence of a new kid on the block,” the article continued, “he argues that the big players in human rights have become too bureaucratic, and disinclined to do bold things like pay clandestine visits to repressive countries.” From his midtown Manhattan office, Halversson told them, “They work in these big marbled offices, where’s the heart in that?” It was in the dusty streets of La Paz that he wanted to be.
In many ways, Halversson was merely a chip off the old block. HRF’s obsession with the “repressive” governments of, particularly, Venezuela and Bolivia was not something new to the family. Neither were clandestine activities. Halversson’s father, Thor Halvorssen Hellum, is a Venezuelan businessman, the head of one of the richest families in the country. In 1993, he was arrested and charged with homicide and other counts after a group of terrorists set off a series of six bombs around the capital, Caracas. It was named the “yuppie” terrorists plot because its planners were allegedly bankers and other gilded elite who hoped that the panic caused by the bombs would help them speculate on the stock market.
The Houston Chronicle noted at the time: “Police have identified one alleged mastermind as Thor Halvorssen, a former president of telephone company CANTV, former presidentially-appointed anti-drug commissioner, and, according to officials, a former operative of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in Central America.” (My emphasis) Halvorssen Hellum eventually spent 74 days in prison before a superior court judge found him innocent of attempted homicide and all other changes related to the bombings. Many found the decision murky. And two hours after his release, another “human rights” NGO, the International Society for Human Rights appointed him director of their Pan-American committee.
During a CIA “anti-drug” campaign in Venezuela,w which saw a ton of nearly pure cocaine shipped to the US in 1990, Mr Halversson, in his position as narcotic chief, was again in trouble. The New York Times reported that “[t]he DEA discovered that Halvorssen, who had his own links to the CIA, was using information from DEA cases to smear political and business rivals” (My emphasis). All the media were coming to the same conclusion: “Halvorssen is thought to be linked to the CIA,” added the Associated Press.
Like father like son, Halversson Jnr’s own human rights project, the HRF, was set up, he says, to help in “defending human rights and promoting liberal democracy in the Americas”. The group said it “will research and report on human rights abuses” and “produce memoranda, independent analyses, and policy reports”. But what is clear is that the organization is set up, primarily, to malign the governments of Venezuela and Bolivia.
It did have sizeable funds to carry out its tasks. The group’s financial accounts make interesting reading. In the year ending 31 December 2006, the first full year of operations, the group spent $300,518 on its programs. By the next year, ending 2007, this had more than doubled to $644,163. In 2008, this had gone down to $595,977, but it surged again in 2009 to $832,532, as political violence was reaching a head in Bolivia. Interestingly, in the year ended 2008, “general programs”, which was the highest spending category was $85,525, or 14.4 per cent of total spending on “program services”. By 2009, “general programs” spending was up 813 per cent to $458,840, and comprised 55 per cent of total spending. In the four years from 2006 to 2009, HRF has spent nearly $2.6m on running costs.
But where was the money going? We do know thanks to the Wikileaks cables that when Marinkovic fled to the US, one of his first ports of calls was the HRF offices in Manhattan. Unfortunately, we don’t know what they talked about.
In its six years of operations, the group have released two 30-odd page annual reports, and 16 other reports on varying topics related to “repressive governments”. To be fair, the group did now organize an Oslo Human Rights Conference, which one Wall Street Journal journalist noted, was “unlike any human-rights conference I’ve ever attended”, because “there was no desire to blame … the U.S. or other Western nations”.
In the same article, Mr Halversson laughs off claims that he, like his father, is in hock with the CIA, calling them “conspiracy theories”. But links between his group and Achá, the man accused of buying the tickets for the terrorists in Santa Cruz, are closer than he lets on. Mr Halversson maintains that the Bolivian group was “inspired by HRF’s work” but is “a group of Bolivian individuals … a wholly independent group with a board of directors made up entirely of Bolivian nationals.” Really? Achá was briefing the US embassy on his problems all through the period and officers from the embassy met with him in “his capacity as head of Human Rights Foundation – Bolivia,” which the embassy was told was tightly linked to the New York-based organisation. One cable notes that Achá’s outfit is “an affiliate of the larger Human Rights Foundation group” — the one headed by Mr Halversson.
The HRF group in New York naturally still denies any wrongdoing by Achá, and is, according to some, likely helping him in his efforts to remain in the US. Its spokeswoman told the press that “Human Rights Foundation in Bolivia has carried out extraordinary work denouncing human rights abuses in that country, and unfortunately the response of Morales comes in the form of insults and unfounded accusations… We have carried out an internal review and have found no evidence that Mr. Acha is linked to the group that the government claims is carrying out separatist activities.” The group further accused President Morales of “vilifying the reputation” of HRF due to HRF-B’s reporting on the “destruction of democratic institutions, the grand human rights violations in Bolivia” and the “anti-democratic character of the Morales Administration”. It was a typical response. Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) Waldo Albarracin referring specially to the Human Rights Foundation, told the US embassy “they do not have the facts and so any opinion they have is just that, an opinion.”
Achá was eventually arrested on suspicion of being involved in the plot. The cables reveal the concern of the embassy over the arrest of this “Embassy contact and leader of a human rights NGO.” Achá had even given the embassy a copy of the warrant for his arrest, which he linked to his “investigations” into a massacre in the Pando department of Bolivia (carried out, in fact, by far-right elements of the opposition). But, like many of the opposition figures, he was successful in persuading the US to grant him political asylum. The cable ends by saying that “Acha is currently in the U.S.” Providing a sanctuary for Bolivian suspects would become a theme of US policy. In fact, the US had been active in his alleged terrorist education. According to the Wikileaks cables, Achá had actually participated in a Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies “Terrorism and Counterinsurgency” course in Washington from in late 2008, one assumes to gain knowledge for his own violent “counter-insurgency” terrorism back in Bolivia. Among the course’s mandatory reading is: “Left Wing Terrorism in Italy,” by Donatella della Porta, as well as “Lenin on Armed Insurrection,” by Tony Cliff.
Roger Pinto, a Senator for the opposition party, Podemos, told the US embassy that the government “has evidence that Acha was involved with the alleged Santa Cruz cell.” He added that Achá was involved in trying to solicit funds for the group from opposition leaders in the Media Luna, the opposition stronghold, but only in order to “set up a self-defense force for the Media … not to assassinate the President”. Pinto contended that, among others, Achá approached the mayor of the central city of Trinidad, Moises Shriqui, with Rozsa to enlist his support. Pinto said Shriqui flatly refused to get involved and discounted the group as “a really bad idea.” Another opposition Podemos Deputy Claudio Banegas told the US embassy that the congressional investigation into the Santa Cruz group had revealed that Achá did in fact have a relationship with the cell. His colleague said his involvement was “not at the top of the lighthouse, just at the bottom.”
In another cable from La Paz, Acha is called a “human rights lawyer” and it is noted that political officers from the embassy met twice with him in Santa Cruz while he was investigating the September 2008 massacre of indigenous peasants in the Pando department of Bolivia. “He was preparing a report detailing a high degree of Morales administration involvement to provoke violence in Pando,” the cable adds. Halversson never mentioned whether this “wholly independent group” had received funding from the HRF for the task, but his own group came to similar politically-motivated and erroneous conclusions about the Pando massacre.
‘LA ESPANA GRADIOSA’
Bolivian society, in particular it business interests, have always had a strong disdain for a central government they see as interfering and stifling. To this purpose, in most areas of the country, there are institutions called Civic Committees which organize and represent business interests. They have become especially important in the opposition stronghold of the Media Luna. In Santa Cruz, where the Rozsa group was foiled, the civic committee has become the major non-governmental voice of opposition to Evo Morales. Its presidency has been held by some of the most powerful businessmen and politicians in the country, including Rubens Costas, the current governor of Santa Cruz. Its funding comes from 220 businesses in the department.
In its internal report on civil society in Bolivia (which I obtained through the FOIA), USAID reports that the two main columns on either side of the state are “the civic committees […] on the right, and the large labor organizations on the left”. There have been accusations that the Santa Cruz committee (SCCC) has members with fascist leanings involved with violence against indigenous citizens, particularly in the affiliated Youth Union. Ignacio Mendoza, a senator in Sucre, who is part of the left-wing opposition to MAS, told me: “Against us there is Santa Cruz Civic Committee and the Youth Union, which is a neo-fascist group. These groups always threaten.” In the New York Times, correspondent Simon Romero notes: “It is no surprise that many Bolivian supporters of Mr. Morales view Santa Cruz as a redoubt of racism and elitism.” He adds: “This city remains a bastion of openly xenophobic groups like the Bolivian Socialist Falange, whose hand-in-air salute draws inspiration from the fascist Falange of the late Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco.”
This would appear to include the SCCC. When I have finished a series of interview at their offices, the group’s spokesman inexplicably allowed me to download a tranche files from the computer in the main office. When I look at them, they include racist cartoons of Evo Morales, as well as a poem lauding the old colonial country, Spain.
One reads (my translation):
The grand Spain
with benign fate.
Here he planted the sign
And it did in its shadow
An eminent people
Of clear front
A loyal heart
There is also a letter titled Filial Espana (Spanish affiliate) sent by the president of the committee to the president of the far-right civic committee in Spain, Carlos Duran Banegas, thanking him for his support and help. Another folder includes a coat of arms for German Busch who was a German former president of Bolivia in the 1930s and was believed to have Nazi tendencies.
Reports by the fascist-linked grouping UnoAmerica also feature prominently on the SCCC computer. In fact, amongst the documents there are photos taken one can assume by a SCCC photographer of UnoAmerica delivering their report on Pando to the OAS in New York. The computer files I retrieve are also full of unhinged documents calling Chavez and Morales terrorists. The London Guardian accurately notes that the SCCC is “a sparkplug of separatist agitation in the East”.
Despite these leanings, the US taxpayer, through USAID, are funding members of this group. In the Wikileaks cables, under the subtitle Blowing Smoke, an August 2007 dispatch makes fun of Bolivian government claims about USAID activities being used to help the opposition. But inadvertently they prove it. It notes: “[a]nother USAID contractor, Juan Carlos Urenda (a Santa Cruz civic leader) described the MAS accusations as an attempt to cast a smokescreen over the ‘serious problems in this country’”.
A search in the trove of documents retrieved from the SCCC’s computer turns up the same Mr Urenda, USAID contractor, as the author for the SCCC of a long article lauding the history of the department’s autonomy struggle. A prominent lawyer in the east, in 1987 he published a book called Departmental Autonomies, which, he notes, “outlines what will be the fundamental doctrine of the process of autonomy.” He goes on to write, “Conscious of the error of having structured the country in a centralized way, [Santa Cruz] has not ceased in its attempt to decentralize the state throughout its republican history.”
It turns out that Mr Urenda was actually one of the founders of the SCCC’s Pre-Autonomy Council, one of the area’s most prominent ideologues. This finding makes a mockery of USAID’s claim to be apolitical. As its own report notes: “it is clear that Bolivian civil society in the first columns on both sides [civic committees and labor movements] are playing roles that are less social and more political and governmental.”
Although they shy away from talking about direct aid, the brass of the SCCC is full of praise for USAID when I talk to them. Documents from the computer also show extensive preparations for the Ferexpo 2007, a business show in the city, which US ambassador Philip Goldberg would attend. “USAID in Bolivia was supporting democratic organizations and tourism and fairs,” said Ruben Dario Mendez, the spokesman. “They were interested in fomenting political participation. Evo doesn’t like that, he doesn’t like there to be freedom.”
It’s not just USAID that helps out either. He notes that the Journalists Association of Santa Cruz has an agreement with the US embassy which helps them print books and put on events, which is not in place in other parts of the country. “In some cases the US helps us,” he says. “Anyone can submit a proposal to get help. I have attended events about political governance about freedom of expression, human rights,” he adds. “There was a new penal prosecution code, and a workshop on that has been carried out by USAID for years.”
He is still optimistic about the ability of USAID to go about its work. “There are still organizations and people in Santa Cruz who believe in democracy,” he says. “This was proved the other day when I went to the opening of a center for the support of democracy, USAID helped fund this, they work with the university president, and the vice-president of the civic committee helped set this up.”
He obviously thinks USAID believes in his type of democracy. “We have a totalitarian system here, if there was a democratic government there wouldn’t be a problem here. The biggest problem in Bolivia is centralism.” (A view echoed by USAID in their reports.) The links between the SCCC and the NGO’s HRF and UnoAmerica are also revealed by the extensive cache of reports from both organisations on the office computer. They were evidently being sent out as primers on the situation in Bolivia.
I found more evidence of US support for these rightwing opposition forces in Sucre, where in August 2006 President Morales announced the opening of the constituent assembly in the judicial capital. It would spend six months redrafting the constitution with enhanced rights for indigenous communities, more economic control of the country’s resources, as well as land reform. It was eventually passed by a referendum in 2009.
“Sucre is like the dividing line between the east and the altiplano [poorer indigenous west] so the idea was it was a place that could bring peace between the two peoples,” Mr Mendoza, the left-wing senator, tells me as he sits in the local government headquarters. “But radical groups here connected themselves with Santa Cruz and all of a sudden it became about something bigger.” The whole process was marred by violence, as the opposition set out to scupper the process. “It all comes down to racism,” added Mr Mendoza. “The constituent assembly was largely made up of indigenous farmers and that prompted racism. People were saying, ‘Whoever doesn’t jump is a llama’, acting superior to indigenous people and calling them llamas because they are from the altiplano.”
As the killings and lootings got underway the US made no statement of condemnation. “They are setting fire to gas pipelines, and the U.S. government does not condemn that?” asked Morales at the time. “Of course, they know they [the opposition groups] are their allies. So why then they would denounce them?” He was right.
The tactics used by the SCCC mirrored those used in Chile when the US was trying to destabilise the government of Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. In Bolivia, there was the violence from the local youth groups but also strikes – this time organised by the business elites – designed to bring the country to its knees and keep goods from being delivered to the west of the country. The Confederation of Private Businesses called for a national shutdown if the government refused “to change its economic policies”.
All together this was called a “civic coup”. It failed, but around the same time the US was trying to rejuvenate the opposition, according to evidence uncovered during my time there. While in Sucre, the judicial capital of the country, I talked to the civic committee for the department of Chuquisaca, in which the city sits, still an opposition stronghold. Felix Patzi, the president, describes the civic committee’s role as keeping “an eye on government projects to make sure they follow through on their promises.” But the US embassy had been in contact with a staggering request, he recalled. “They made an offer years ago. They wanted to finance a meeting of all the civic committees in the country to bring them together in 2007,” he said.
The idea was, he continued, “to bring together the works of the different civic committees to encourage communication between them.” He adds, “I don’t know why the US did it, but we heard from Santa Cruz that the idea was to create a national civic committee.” The US obviously knew (from their own internal documents) that such a National Civic Committee would be right-wing and take on a political and governmental role. That must have been the intention. Mr Patzi says the Chuquisaca committee refused because they don’t receive outside funding, but, he added, “I don’t how many other civic committees have accepted money from the US.”
Back at the SCCC I talk to other officials who give the impression of a tight relationship with the US. “We’ve always tried to work so that civil society in Bolivia has its own place to develop,” says Nicolas Ribera Cardozo, vice-president of the SCCC. “We’ve always had a conversation with the US about it.” He says that in the past year-and-a-half as vice-president he’s had two conversations with the head of communications and publications at the embassy. “What they put across was how they could strengthen channels of communication,” he says. “The embassy said that they would help us in our communication work and they have a series of publications where they were putting forward their ideas.” But, he continues, things were even better under Bush. “There were better programs under Bush; there were programs from USAID and DEA to deal with narco-trafficking.” He adds that the US-funded National Endowment for Democracy has “held informative workshops for young people about leadership”. For him it’s not controversial that these programs were designed to help the opposition. “Of course they were opposition, it’s a liberal train of thought, you train people to be more aware, productive.”
The most controversial part of the SCCC is its youth branch, the Union Juvenil Cruceñista, or UJC, who have been called by one Bolivia analyst “paramilitary shock-troops”. They roam the streets of Santa Cruz in times of turmoil and have been involved in violent attacks and atrocities against indigenous peasants, as well as damage to government buildings.
The US embassy notes that the UJC “have frequently attacked pro-MAS/government people and installations,” adding, “Their actions frequently appear more racist than politically motivated. Several months ago, a group of mainly white Youth Union members attacked an altiplano migrant… The Youth Union has boasted to the press that it has signed up 7000 members to participate in the [civil defense militias] – the number is likely inflated but many of those who have signed-on are militant.” Another cable notes that “the Santa Cruz youth union seems to be radicalizing: one group waving Santa Cruz flags drove through town in a jeep emblazoned with swastikas.” In the aftermath of the Rozsa plot, the police apprehend Juan Carlos Gueber Bruno, reportedly an advisor to the UJC, and former SCCC activist, who was known as “Comandante Bruno”.
“Youth Union violence was basically in retaliation to a threat,” Mr Cardozo, the vice-president, tells me. “The youth groups did participate in these things but because they thought it was a threat and MAS started it.”
I also talk to Samuel Ruiz, president of the UJC. He arrives with slicked-back hair, and sits down in the meeting room at the SCCC headquarters, surrounded by photos of previous presidents, including Marinkovic and Costas. “The committee was formed in 1952 as a means to protect this region, it was under attack from other regions and felt it needed to protect itself,” says Mr Ruiz. “The civic committee existed but it was felt it could do with a youth branch too.” Now the UJC has 3,000 passive members, and 500 active, according to its president. Asked three times if it has any indigenous people as members, he avoids the question twice. On the third time of asking, he replies, “What percentage? I don’t know. There are 20 representatives in different provinces that represent areas with indigenous people,” he offers.
He complains that when Evo came to power he got rid of USAID and other US groups, a false claim. “It has had a huge impact,” he says. “When there were international agencies, Bolivia was much more peaceful, now we see loose arms and legs about the streets, there are kidnappings, it violent and dangerous whereas it wasn’t before.” The Youth Union have taken matters into their own hands. He says the government is bringing people from Chile and Peru to train farmers in military combat, and that Venezuelan and Cuban doctors are actually providing military training. He evinces paranoia of Cuban and Venezuelan influence similar to that shown in the cables from US officials. He makes the claim that Evo sent campesinos to Santa Cruz to start violence at the height of tensions, even though the cables note that Morales went out of his way to avoid casualties. “[M]ilitary planners have told us that President Morales has given them instructions not to incur civilian casualties,” one notes. “Field commanders continue to tell us they will require a written order from President Morales if asked to commit violence against opposition demonstrators.” Another notes: “A senior military planner told [an Embassy official] December 13 that President Morales wants the military to be careful to avoid violent confrontations with demonstrators if called upon to support Bolivian police.”
“We are monitoring government to see what they are doing,” Ruiz claims. “But for example they are getting people from Peru to come and train campesinos who kill my friends, and they are training campesinos in war, what are we meant to do?” On the resulting violence against indigenous people, Ruiz says it was self-defense. “After last elections, Evo sent campesinos to Santa Cruz to start aggression; our organisation sent out its people but only to defend itself.” “It’s not a direct threat,” he admits, but it worries him because they are “training campesinos who can’t even read or go out and feed themselves”. Ruiz claims the UJC have never had any weapons, which is also demonstrably false.
The cables reveal US suspicions that “some Crucenos are reportedly forming fighting groups,” in the same period. They would know as they were funding them. “Sources reported that Crucenos are developing fighting/defense groups and are equipped with weapons such as long rifles and hand guns,” it added. The paranoia continues as Ruiz claims that the Pando massacre was caused by fighting campesinos. “The Venezuelans killed the indigenous people,” he says. “There are photos”. “The Venezuelans infiltrated by entering through the Cuban doctors,” he says. “They went to Pando to form military strategy for organization, so it wasn’t chaos, but all the campesinos armed people were drunk, and the Venezuelans killed them by mistake because they didn’t know what side they were on, and they also shot in the leg a Bolivian journalist because they wanted them to stop filming.”
The SCCC also became involved in the Rozsa plot when Ignacio Villa Vargas, a local fixer and driver for the group, said that a number of their members were involved. But the brass believes that the Rozsa plot was organized by the Morales government. They do, though, admit to me that Rozsa had been to their office, but say he was trying to infiltrate the committee on behalf of the government, disguised as a journalist. I am shown screenshots of supposed emails between Rozsa and Vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera, which are clearly faked. They purport to show an email conversation between Mr Linera, from his email account email@example.com, to Rozsa, email account firstname.lastname@example.org, dating from August 2008 and March 2009, just before the raid in the Hotel Las Americas.
The cables note that the opposition “are nervous to the point of paranoia”. They were also trying to cover their tracks with delusional conspiracy theories. One of those suspected of involvement in the terror cell was retired president of the SCCC, Branko Marinkovic, one of the wealthiest men in Bolivia, who owns a vast soybean business and large tracts of land in the east of Bolivia. His parents were emigrants from the former Yugoslavia in the 1950s and Marinkovic became a successful businessman before moving into politics, a well-trodden route in the east of Bolivia. When the Morales government came to power and embarked on a land reform program that took fallow lands from their owners to give to landless peasants, men like Marinkovic had much to lose. In a 2007 interview with the New York Times, Marinkovic predicts that Bolivia will soon be like Zimbabwe “in which economic chaos will become the norm”. (The head of the IMF’s western hemisphere countries unit in the same year praised the Morales government for what he referred to as its “very responsible” macroeconomic policies.) But Marinkovic continued — “speaking English with a light Texas twang he picked up at Southern Methodist University” – with a veiled threat. “If there is no legitimate international mediation in our crisis, there is going to be confrontation,” he said. “And unfortunately, it is going to be bloody and painful for all Bolivians.” This was just before the Rozsa-Flores plot was scuppered.
The New York Times also notes that Croatian news services have investigated claims that Marinkovic “sought to raise a paramilitary force with mercenaries from Montenegro, where his mother was born.” Marinkovic denies the claims, but there is no doubt he was pushing for a break-up of the country in the same way Yugoslavia had been split in the 1990s. On September 1 2008, Marinkovic flew to the US, and when he came back just a week later the east of the country was up in open revolt. At around the same time, Ambassador Goldberg met in secret with the governor of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas (it was captured by a news organisation).
Initially Marinkovic filed a lawsuit against two government officials for “slander” for linking him with the Rozsa-Flores plot. His attorney declared that he “is in Santa Cruz, will stay in Santa Cruz, and will remain in the country,” to prove he had no links to the terrorist cell. Except now he is in hiding, although his whereabouts were not known – until now. The UJC President divulges that he is in the US. “The government has already cast him as guilty and he can’t defend himself from here so he asked the US for political exile and they granted it to him,” Ruiz tells me. Like Achá. He adds that he doesn’t know if Marinkovic had ever met Rozsa.
Maybe it’s not so surprising. “The US has had a very good relationship with Branko Marinkovic,” says Mr Navarro, MAS minister. “When he was head of civic committee they shared their opposition to the president.” Marinkovic once jettisoned plans to visit Argentina due to distrust of the Morales-allied Kirchner government, fearing that he could be arrested there and extradited to Bolivia. During one of Marinkovic’s trips to the US he was participating in strategy meetings with political consultants Greenberg Quilan Rosner and other polling and consulting firms, according to Wikileaks cables.
When I finish talking to the committee, I ask if there’s anyone else I should speak to. The spokesman recommends former general Gary Prado, who is infamous for being the man who captured Che Guevara and handed him over to his executioners, while a young captain in the Bolivian army. “Where do I find him?” I ask. “He usually has coffee over there in a little cafe about 4pm every day,” I’m told. I subsequently find out Gary Prado is under house arrest, but freely moves around as it is not enforced. I head along to his house in an upmarket neighborhood of Santa Cruz. “I am under house arrest but I go to work every day so there’s not much point in that,” he says. Mr Navarro had told me there was “a group of retired generals who have advised the civic committee in the event of a government attack on them.” Prado is alleged to be among them.
The government has drawn attention to a meeting Prado had with Rozsa at his house. “I gave an interview to Rozsa-Flores just like I’m giving to you, he came here to this same room, we had an interview about the guerrilla Che Guevara in Bolivia, he took a picture with me here, and that’s all the contact I had with him.” Rozsa apparently thought he was the new Che Guevara, as well as the new Hemingway. But from what Prado does know he doesn’t believe Rozsa planned to assassinate Morales. “There was no intent of assassination, never, absolutely not,” he says. Asked why they bought in foreigners, he replies, “They were brought to Santa Cruz by some people probably to try to create a group of mercenaries to defend Santa Cruz.” Then he adds that the cell was “probably created to justify political repression.” He does not offer a guess on who bought the mercenaries in. The US, he adds, merely “promote seminars about democracy and freedom”.
‘THE MASSACRE THAT WASN’T’
In May 2008 political turmoil was rocking Bolivia and threatening civil war as Santa Cruz held an autonomy referendum, which the government accused of being a move to secession by the eastern province. Ruben Costas, the governor of Santa Cruz, had said in the run up that the vote – which was not legally sanctioned by the National Electoral Court or recognized by the Organisation of American States – would “give birth to a new republic”. (This is the same governor whom terror suspect Tadic told authorities had met with the terror cell’s leader three times and vaguely discussed “organizing something.”) As things hurtled out of control, with mass protests and violence, Morales refrained from annulling the departmental plebiscites which also took place in other departments and called a recall referendum on his own mandate. He won resoundingly, with two-thirds of the national vote.
At this point, desperate and bewildered, the opposition went on strike, and sent out the Union Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC), the far right youth group, to attack government buildings and local indigenous people. The defeat at the polls led the opposition to unilaterally declare “autonomy” in four of the country’s eastern provinces. One of the platforms of the autonomy movement was the rejection of central government control over profits from the country’s natural gas reserves concentrated in the region. In the Bolivian context, therefore, the term was used as a euphemism for increased control over taxation, police and public works. If autonomy was granted in the form Santa Cruz wanted, the extensive reforms of Morales would be impossible – which was obviously the aim of the request.
The strategy of the autonomy movement was to take complete control of the media luna, provoke a national crisis to destabilize the government, and convince the army to remain neutral or move against Morales. The major of Santa Cruz, Percy Fernandez, had already called on the military to overthrow Morales’ “useless government” just before the August referendum. In this heady tumult, in September 2008, 13 indigenous peasants in the Pando department of Bolivia were massacred in violence erupting across the region between pro-government and opposition forces. The atrocity remains relatively uncontroversial – unless you are the HRF, Achá, or the Bolivian opposition.
A report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) placed the blame for the killing of the peasants at the hands of people working for the local prefecture, which was led at the time by the opposition politician Leopoldo Fernandez. Fernandez is still in jail in La Paz, after being arrested, in the aftermath, on charges that he was involved in ordering the attack. The US embassy, in the Wikileaks cables, notes that he is being held “under dubious legal pretext”.
The UN report unequivocally called it a “massacre of peasants” and a “grave violation of human rights”, concluding that the massacre was committed by personnel from the local road service office, members of the Pando Civic Committee (a local civic group) and others linked to the prefecture. UNASUR also sent a delegation to investigate, headed by the Undersecretary for Human Rights of Argentina, who concluded that the Bolivian government had acted fairly and it was the opposition who was responsible for the murders. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called an emergency meeting in Santiago of UNASUR to discuss the Bolivian crisis. The resulting Declaration of La Moneda signed by the twelve UNASUR governments, expressed their “full and decided support for the constitutional government of President Evo Morales,” and warned that their respective governments “will not recognize any situation that entails an attempt for a civil coup that ruptures the institutional order, or that compromises the territorial integrity of the Republic of Bolivia.” Morales, who participated in the meeting, thanked UNASUR for its support, declaring: “For the first time in South American’s history, the countries of our region are deciding how to resolve our problems without the presence of the United States.”
But men like Achá and his “affiliate” HRF saw it differently.
In October, a month after the massacre, HRF dispatched their own team to Bolivia to investigate. Not the massacre – but the “arbitrary detention” of “opposition members and at least one journalist”. Their sources in Bolivia, presumably Achá, were telling them how serious the situation was. “Preliminary research done by our staff and reports sent to us from Bolivian civil society advocates suggest that the recent arrests of journalists and members of the opposition in Bolivia are politically motivated,” said Sarah Wasserman, chief operating officer of HRF.
The report from Achá, as mentioned by the US ambassador, posited that the MAS government had actually initiated the murders. And the HRF went on to link a speech by government minister Ramon Quintana exhorting government sympathizers to take Pando Governor Leopoldo Fernández “to the end of the world” and “give him an epitaph: Prefect, rest in peace and live with the worms,” to the eventual massacre. “The speech preceded violence that erupted on September 11, 12 and 13 in Pando, where more than 20 people were murdered for political reasons,” they noted. The report by the Bolivian “affiliate” of the HRF blames the massacre on Morales and his national executive officers. “The deterioration of the rule of law, individual rights … do not allow the existence of a democratic system,” the report concluded. “In Bolivia, with this background, it outlines the installation of a regime despotic and dictatorial presided by Evo Morales.”
To be fair, there were other NGOs who came to a similar conclusion. One was another “human rights” group based in Colombia, named UnoAmerica, who in their logo have turned the ‘O’ in their name into a crosshairs. It was founded in 2008 in Colombia by Alejandro Pena Esclusa, who is now detained in his home country, Venezuela, for allegedly being found with detonators and 2lbs of explosives in his home. The Venezuelan government claims he has close ties to the CIA, and was involved in the 2002 coup which temporarily deposed Hugo Chavez.
In one video, Esclusa is seen insisting on a plan for massive protests across Venezuela, making the government unable to control it. “It is a more efficient mechanism that generates a political crisis and a crisis of instability that forces the regime to withdraw the reform,” he says. UnoAmerica became heavily involved in Bolivia after the Pando massacre, sending a team on a five-day mission to investigate what had happened.
To conduct the report they partnered with NGO’s from Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay and Venezuela, which reads like a Who’s Who of fascist names in Latin America. From Argentina, El Movimiento por la Verdadera Historia, or Movement for the True History, took part, a group who seek to bring to justice “subversives” working against the fascist junta that ruled from 1976 to 1983 and murdered an estimated 30,000 people. One of its Argentina delegates was Jorge Mones Ruiz, an intelligence officer of the Argentine army in Bolivia during last dictatorship. (The government also claims that the Rozsa cell had links with fascist groups in Argentina, which go by the name of carapintadas or ‘painted faces’.)
Their joint report concluded that “the government of President Evo Morales had planned and executed the violent acts.” It claimed it had “sufficient information to demonstrate the responsibility of the Evo Morales administration in the so called Pando Massacre.” The cables reveal that the US embassy was receiving highly-questionable intelligence like this, from Achá and other contacts in the opposition, and taking it without the constant cynicism reserved for MAS statements.
In conversation with a political officer from the embassy one contact “alleged the MAS deliberately fomented unrest in Pando in September to justify a military siege, depose Prefect Leopoldo Fernandez, and arrest opposition-aligned leaders to swing the balance of power to the MAS in the Senate.” It is not countered. In another cable it notes after the September 2008 violence in Pando “the government illegally jailed Prefect Leopoldo Fernandez and violently detained over forty more, many of them prominent political opposition members.” The UN had said that Fernandez’s jailing was not illegal.
Matt Kennard graduated from the Journalism School at Columbia University as a Toni Stabile Investigative scholar in 2008. He has written for the Guardian, Salon and the Chicago Tribune, amongst others. In 2006 he won the Guardian Student Feature Writer of the Year Award.
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