Morales Rejects U.S. Ambassador, Linking Him to Lowland Protests
September 10, 2008 - Andean Information Network (AIN)

In the wake of the August 10 Recall Referendum, tensions and rifts have grown between the Bolivian executive branch, currently governed by the MAS political party, and the lowland regional prefectures, represented by opposition leaders. Conflict between these groups centers on several issues, including disagreement over constitutional reform, private land tenure caps, the distribution of national natural gas revenue and departmental autonomy. These issues are all complicated, multi-faceted and interrelated.  However, MAS’s recent initiatives to address these issues have been repeatedly blocked by opposition leaders.

Although legal limits have been stretched by both the central government and the departmental leaders, it is especially clear that the prefects are overstepping the boundaries of the current laws defining their power.  USAID made a decision early in the Morales administration, to carry out projects directly with departmental governments, the majority of which opposed MAS.  Furthermore, the funding of a trip for prefects to Washington created the impression that the Embassy sought to strengthen a political opposition block after the deterioration of traditional political parties, which had received support in the past, and. 

The Morales government’s decision to declare U.S. Ambassador Goldberg ‘a persona non grata,’ represents, in part, the culmination of these widely-held perceptions in Bolivia.  It is unclear to what extent the U.S. Embassy helped give these prefects greater weight as political opposition. It is evident, however, that these leaders manipulated this perceived support to grant themselves the right to do things they don’t have the right to do, like sign international agreements with other nations, or wave a magic wand and turn their departmental council--which is not a democratically elected body-- into a departmental legislature.

Lowland prefects consistently out-step their legal mandates

According to the Administration Decentralization Law #1654, Article 5, among other responsibilities, the prefect is expected to oversee projects related to:

  • Maintenance and construction of the highways, secondary roads and such that pertain to the Municipal
  • Governments
  • Rural electrical projects
  • Irrigation infrastructure and production support
  • Technical-scientific research and extension
  • Conservation and preservation of the natural environment
  • Tourism promotion
  • Social welfare programs
  • Municipal strengthening programs
  • Other applicable Municipal Government projects

Other prefectural responsibilities include administering and supervising social support services, managing the departmental budget, and encouraging good relationships with indigenous and/or rural populations as these relate to matters of concern to the central government. To refer to the complete version of Law 1654 and all of the prefect duties, please view a copy via the following link:

The media luna prefects have not been following the job description listed above, but have instead focused their efforts on demanding autonomy and opposing measures proposed by Evo Morales’ administration. They have also already assumed many other roles in line with their self-definition of autonomy. The issue is further complicated by the racism and cultural divides that separate the lowland region from the altiplano.

Incendiary Remarks by Ruben Costas

For example, on August 17, apparently as a result of frustration related to Morales’ victory in the Recall Referendum, Santa Cruz Prefect Ruben Costas addressed a large crowd, incurring resentment against the central government. His actions and remarks are troubling because they blatantly overstepping the boundaries of his prefecture duties as described in the national constitution.  Although explosive rhetoric from President Morales receives frequent press coverage in English, inflammatory remarks from the opposition rarely appear.

In his speech, Costas demanded that the MAS government cease its ‘bullying.’[i] He went on to address Evo Morales directly: "most excellent, murderous Bolivian President, you sir must take responsibility. He [Morales] is the true criminal in his demands that Santa Cruz refrain from provocation, because 'patience has a limit and it's reaching the end.'‘[ii] Costas also accused Morales, claiming ‘he is what divides us ; he wants to pit us against each other. He doesn't respect women, he doesn't respect the press, he doesn't respect the disabled, or the capital of the Republic, a town which is the capital of the Bolivian people, a town that has told him 'you, sir, have to beg for forgiveness.’’[iii] "Evo reaps the discord and resentment that he has sown,"[iv] Costas stated.

Costas aggressively asserted his questionably-attained mandate, warning that he would not accept any new departmental leaders designated by the central government. Instead, he claimed, "it will be under the authority, under the guidance, by the decision and with the approval of the general commander of the department, Ruben Costas."[v]

Ambassador Goldberg raises suspicion by meeting with Santa Cruz Prefect

In the midst of this tension, U.S. Ambassador Goldberg met with Costas On Monday, August 25, provoking suspicion among Bolivians that the U.S. supports the lowland opposition movement. Goldberg has since stated that the meeting was ‘part of his diplomatic duties,’ and that he met with Costas in public while on a trip to Santa Cruz for other reasons.[vi] Nevertheless, David Choquehuanca, Bolivian Minister of Foreign Relations and Culture, met with Goldberg to assert his position that the Ambassador should be careful about his timing when arranging diplomatic meetings, in light of the recent tensions between the central government and the Santa Cruz prefecture.

This August 25 meeting was especially poorly-timed in light of the actions Costas took that day by refusing to swear in Colonel Franz Lea Plaza, the new police chief appointed to Santa Cruz by the central government. His decision to deny Col. Plaza’s appointment is a clear violation of his legal duties as Prefect, which is primarily limited to facilitating civic works, and in no way authorize him to deny or veto departmental leaders appointed by the central government.

In the wake of the Morales administration’s decision to declare Ambassador Goldberg a persona non grata, and request his departure, it is important to look beyond what in the U.S. is dismissed as anti-American rhetoric and examine the impact of U.S. attention to and relations with opposition prefects, which, at times seem to give Costas parallel status to Morales, and has arguably catalyzed their rejection of Morales and their usurpation of governmental responsibilities reserved for the national government, thus facilitating an escalation of the current political crisis.

--from: Kathryn Ledebur, Director, Andean Information Network

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