The Washington Diplomat / October 2008
By Larry Luxner
When Philip Goldberg arrived in La Paz in October 2006 as the new U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, he had no idea things would get ugly so fast.
"After presenting my credentials to President Evo Morales, I had to go downstairs and speak to the Bolivian press," he recalled. "The first question was: 'Are you really part of a plot to assassinate Evo Morales?' Within hours, Morales had repeated the charge, begun by Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez. This wasn't a very auspicious beginning."
Nor was it an easy two years for Goldberg, who was constantly looked at with suspicion by a government openly hostile to the United States and the Bush administration.
"The last weekend I was there, the government aired TV commercials showing bodies of people killed in Kosovo, where I had served just before coming to Bolivia," he said. "I had also served in Chile, Colombia and in South Africa during the transition from all-white minority rule to democratic rule. It was a vile piece of propaganda."
Goldberg's assignment in La Paz came to an abrupt end Sept. 11, when Morales — accusing him of fomenting civil unrest — kicked him out of the deeply divided Andean country. Goldberg learned of his own expulsion while in a meeting at the Foreign Ministry.
"Without fear of the empire, I declare Mr. Goldberg persona non grata," the president announced on national TV. "He is conspiring against democracy and seeking the division of Bolivia."
The State Department responded by declaring Bolivia's envoy in Washington, Mario Gustavo Guzmán, persona non grata, and giving him 72 hours to leave the United States.
Within hours, Chávez, in an act of "solidarity" with Morales, announced he was expelling Patrick Duddy, the American ambassador in Caracas. The Venezuelan leader also pre-empted the State Department by immediately recalling his top diplomat, Bernardo Alvarez, from Washington.
"We will send an ambassador when there is a new government in the United States, a government that respects the people of Latin America," Chávez declared at a political rally.
And in Honduras, President Manuel Zelaya delayed receiving the new U.S. ambassador, Hugo Llorens, for a week in order to show "solidarity with Bolivia, because the United States meddles in that country's affairs."
Neither Guzmán, who was profiled on the cover of our September issue, nor Alvarez, who appeared twice on the cover of The Washington Diplomat during his five-year tenure here, could be reached for comment.
But Larry Birns, founder and director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, says he's sorry to see them go.
"It just happens that Ambassador Guzmán and Ambassador Alvarez were highly qualified people, and they were both very much respected by the Washington diplomatic corps," he said. "Alvarez was a moderate, and a wonderful bridge between the State Department and Chávez. He was the most important communications device that existed in Washington's relationship with Venezuela, and for him to be surgically removed from the scene just when he was needed the most was a real tragedy."
Goldberg, in his first public appearance since being booted out of Bolivia, told reporters at an Inter-American Dialogue press briefing Sept. 18 that his expulsion is directly related to the internal uprising in South America's poorest country — and to provocations by Venezuela's Chávez, who's never made a secret of his hatred for the United States.
"This is a sad moment in Bolivian-American relations. We have had relations with Bolivia since 1836. The last time an ambassador was declared persona non grata, in Latin America was in 1988," he said (see sidebar). "The Bolivian government decided to take steps against the autonomous movement and against me personally."
He added: "While it was sudden, it was some time in the making, in the sense that the United States has been a constant target of the Morales government, a distraction in some ways for the domestic political situation."
The Morales government's main argument against Goldberg is that only days before his expulsion, he had met with Ruben Costas, the governor of Bolivia's largest and richest province, Santa Cruz. That was the scene of violent protests in which opposition members burnt and ransacked government offices, and blew up a pipeline supplying gas to Brazil.
Santa Cruz is one of five provinces whose prefects, or governors, supported autonomy from the central government in La Paz in an Aug. 10 referendum in which 67% of the electorate also voted to keep Morales in office.
Goldberg called "absolutely false and without foundation" accusations that the U.S. government encouraged anti-government demonstrators to commit violence in Bolivia.
"It's a misconception that meeting with the opposition is somehow not what a diplomat is supposed to do. My colleagues from the EU went to see Ruben Costas the week following my visit. Nobody said a word," said Goldberg. He added that "of course we meet with opposition people to find out what's going on. It's part of our work."
COHA's Birns doesn't see things so innocently. He says the Spanish-speaking diplomat was clearly interfering in Bolivia's internal affairs.
"Unfortunately, our past record doesn't rule anything out. Goldberg, like a lot of U.S. ambassadors, saw themselves not as emissaries but as pro counsels. He is known as an interventionist. That's his style, and there's a history to this, particularly under the Bush administration," he told The Diplomat.
"Most characteristically, an ambassador will go before the conservative leadership of the country and say you have to get behind one candidate or else you'll split the vote and lose. If this were done in the United States, if for example the British ambassador called together American political party leaders and told them who to support, he would be declared persona non grata, in a second."
Goldberg said things took a turn for the worse when the State Department recalled him in June, following a violent demonstration at the U.S. Embassy that was partly organized by the Bolivian government. He also said the Morales government accused both the Peace Corps and the U.S. Agency for International Development of being spy agencies, a charge he called "outrageous and untrue."
But the final straw came when Morales — who was head of the coca growers' union before becoming president — kicked out USAID and Drug Enforcement Administration personnel from the Chapare region. Despite U.S. efforts, this region has seen a 14% increase in coca leaf cultivation, almost all of which is used to produce cocaine for export to Argentina, Brazil and Western Europe.
"For the last two and a half years since Morales came to power, the U.S. has tried to engage with the Bolivian government," he said. "USAID, for example, is now put in the leagues of conspiracies, when in fact their work is very open and transparent."
Michael Shifter, vice-president of policy at Inter-American Dialogue, said the ongoing political standoff in Bolivia deeply concerns him.
"One wonders whether they might go over the edge," he said. "The two sides are now talking, and that's encouraging, but it's unclear whether it'll lead to any sustainable agreement between the government and the opposition prefects. The breaking apart of Bolivia would have very serious implications. This will be a major challenge for the next U.S. administration."
Shifter suggested that the very tense situation in Bolivia "probably strengthens the hardliners in the U.S. government because [the Morales government's expulsion of Goldberg] is seen as so out-of-proportion and extreme. They'll ask what's the point of engaging in direct diplomacy and talking if it doesn't make any sense."
Goldberg himself is reluctant to predict the future course of bilateral relations, especially with regard to the fate of Bolivian trade preferences under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act.
"I don't know what's going to happen. We will have to calibrate our decision-making accordingly," said Goldberg, who has no plans to return to La Paz anytime soon. "The Bolivian government was talking about further expulsions of Americans. I hope that doesn't happen."