U.S. Diplomat in Bolivia Walks Out on Morales Speech (Update1)
January 22, 2009 - Bloomberg.com

By Jonathan J. Levin

Jan. 22 (Bloomberg) -- The senior American diplomat in Bolivia walked out of a speech by President Evo Morales today after the Bolivian leader accused the U.S. Embassy in La Paz of trying to undermine his government.

“There was an external conspiracy headed by the United States ambassador,” Morales said before a group of congressmen and diplomats at the Bolivian Congress building in La Paz. “The United States has fomented the regional disintegration of the country, holding secret meetings to promote disturbances against the national government.”

The comments were broadcast on La Paz-based television station Universal de Television, known as Unitel.

Immediately after leaving the building, U.S. Charge d’Affaires Krishna Urs told the network that the remarks were “unfounded and false.”

The Bolivian president declared U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg “persona non grata” in September, leaving Urs as the top diplomat to the Andean nation. Morales expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on Nov. 2, saying the agency had spied on his government. The U.S. Embassy called the accusations “false and absurd.”

Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said Jan. 20 that the Bolivian government hoped for a “new beginning” with the U.S. after President Barack Obama took office, according to an e- mailed statement.

‘Two-Way Street’

“Respect is a two-way street,” Urs said. “If Morales needs or wants respect, then it’s also necessary that he give respect to the United States government.”

Speaking Nov. 17 at the United Nations in New York, Morales said he wouldn’t reconsider the expulsion of the DEA as a way to improve relations with the new U.S. leader.

Morales has a 56 percent approval rating in Bolivia, according to a January poll by La Paz-based pollsters Ipsos Apoyo. His popularity is fueled by a new nationalism that demonizes the U.S., an easy target in light of the hostility of Bolivia’s coca growers to the U.S. war on drugs. Coca, better known abroad as the main ingredient in cocaine, is often chewed by people in the Bolivian highlands to stave off hunger and cure altitude sickness.

“U.S. coca eradication policies in the Andes were instrumental in Morales coming to power,” Nicholas Robins, a Bolivian history scholar at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said in telephone interview. “I found it surprising that it took him almost three years to throw out the DEA; clearly it’s a way of mobilizing the base.”

When contacted by Bloomberg News, the U.S. Embassy said it had no further comments on Morales’s remarks or Urs’s decision to walk out.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan J. Levin in La Paz at Jlevin20@bloomberg.net