Monday, September 15, 2008

Magic Laptops Are Resurrected As Bolivian Crisis Goes Global

The Crisis

After President Evo Morales' resounding victory (67%) in an August 10th recall referendum, the wealthy and white opposition from the Bolivia's lowland "media luna" (half moon) provinces have increasingly turned to violent tactics in a campaign to undermine the government. This past Thursday, opposition gunmen in the province of Pando massacred 25 indigenous activists.

The conflict--the elite are upset that Morales is using natural gas wealth to fund social security payments, as well as being motivated by other factors like virulent anti-indigenous racism--went global when Bolivia declared the US ambassador persona non grata, accusing him of offering support to the anti-democratic opposition. The US responded by expelling the Bolivian ambassador. Venezuela then expelled the US ambassador and recalled their own from Washington, declaring themselves in solidarity with Bolivia and accusing the US of fomenting a new coup against the Venezuelan government. Washington then accused Venezuelan intelligence officials of FARC ties--I´ll discuss this more below. [There is also a lot of hysteria over Venezuela's upcoming joint naval exercises with Russia.] Whew.

Bolivia is in a complicated position. It would be difficult to use the armed forces to restore order without further inflaming unrest. But dialogue is a difficult task when opposition leaders have called for a coup d'etat. And many are worried that the right wing's civil disturbances are a prelude to just that. Some have argued that using the military to impose constitutional order--putting lawbreakers behind bars--is the only way to preserve democracy.

On the Center for International Policy's Colombia blog, Adam Isacson argues that it was an error to expel the US ambassador. He writes that the expulsion strengthened the position of right wing, ideological cold warriors within the Administration and undercut relative moderates like Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon. He also argues that the move was merely an attempt to fabricate an external enemy to consolidate domestic support at a time of crisis.

I don't completely agree with that analysis. While the move may have had such a political effect in Washington, I think that Evo has good reason to be unnerved about the US ambassador meeting with violent and anti-democratic opposition members. We certainly wouldn't countenance a foreign representative in the 1960s meeting with, say, the Weather Underground. Let alone funding them!

Besides, both Venezuela and Bolivia's relationships with the US have been long, complicated and fraught with wrongheaded behavior on Washington's end--such as US support for the short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez. The reasons behind the ambassador expulsion extravaganza are a lot more complicated than a momentary need to wag the dog.

As Center for Economic and Policy Research Co-Director Mark Weisbrot wrote, it is possible that the US is funding opposition groups through USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy. “Washington has decided to keep its ties to Bolivia’s opposition shrouded in secrecy, and that’s not conducive to trust between the U.S. and Bolivian governments. If Washington has nothing to hide in terms of whom it is funding and working with in Bolivia, then it should reveal which groups those are.” He also notes that it was revealed earlier this year that the US embassy in Bolivia has asked Peace Corp volunteers to spy for them.

The Democracy Center has a very detailed and interesting analysis of the situation.

In fact, I was just reminded of how unenlightened some US foreign service functionaries are this morning. I was sitting in a cafe in a wealthy part of Quito, stopping for a coffee on the way home from an interview, when I overheard US embassy employees and an expat businesswoman say the following completely false things about the proposed Ecuadorian Constitution:

- "It is a socialist constitution. If you have have more than you need, they´ll just take it away.¨

- "Indigenous people will have their own justice systems. If I´m in one of their areas they could just execute me¨."

Wow. Had to bite my tongue so I could finish my latte in peace. But pardon the digression.

Regardless of one's conclusions, the overall situation is a serious crisis for Morales and the region as a whole--one in which the US has, at the least, not played an exceedingly helpful role.

The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) met today to discuss solutions to the crisis. Latin American heads of state have, across the board, publicly backed Morales. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, while giving his weekly Saturday radio address in Guayaquil, denounced media luna leaders and declared that "We will not allow another Pinochet in Latin America or the balkanization of our countries." He went on to warn that Ecuador's right wing coastal elite has similar separatist ("autonomist") ambitions: "Be careful, Guayaquil. The guayaquileƱo oligarchy is after the same thing.¨ In a transparent effort to maintain the privatization of wealth in the face of redistributive policies, so-called autonomy has become the watchword of the Latin American elite.

Magic Laptops Resurrected from Earlier Diplomatic Crisis

The US has taken imperial absurdity to new heights in reviving the "magic laptops" that Colombia ostensibly found in an Ecuadorian FARC camp after having bombed it on March 1st of this year. Following the State Department expulsion of the Venezuelan ambassador on Friday morning, the Treasury Department declared that two senior Venezuelan intelligence officials, Gen. Hugo Carvajal and Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, had sold weapons to the FARC. They claimed that evidence on the laptops confirms the charges.

The Colombian government used these same laptops to charge the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian government with FARC ties spring in an effort to show up Ecuadorian diplomatic victories and retroactively legitimize the bombing.

Some government sources are saying that this could be a prelude to designating Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism, which would put an end to $50 billion in annual bilateral trade between the countries--for which reason the move still seems unlikely to this author.

But readers should be extremely suspect of any argument that relies on these laptops for evidence. Proof of the laptops' authenticity and origin, including in INTERPOL's politically charged report, are far from definitive.

I have documented weaknesses in the laptop evidence and pointed to likely fabricated photo evidence in previous articles. Mark Weisbrot has a good discussion of the ambiguities and contradictions in INTERPOL's report and the public statements of its Director, Ronald Noble.

And I am currently finishing an article for NACLA's Report on the Americas on the media war unleashed against Venezuela and Ecuador based on Ć” la carte evidence supposedly procured from these laptops. The media--especially outlets in Colombia, the US and Spain--didn´t think twice about miming Colombia`s allegations. You've got to hand it to these stenographers.

Remembering el otro 11 de septiembre

In other news, 234 people were arrested across Chile as demonstrators marched against the 25th anniversary of the September 11th military coup against President Salvador Allende. 30 protesters and police were wounded.

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