The State Department Begins to Pick Off South America’s Pink Tide Nations

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• Bolivia joins Venezuela on Washington’s pariah list.
• Action taken against Bolivian senator coincides with Rice’s efforts to construct a cordon sanitaire around Washington’s regional foes.
• U.S. embassy in La Paz refuses to honor a Bolivian Senator’s visa.
Condoleezza Rice seems intent on a unilateral escalation of ill-will towards some of the more leftist Latin American governments, by ramping up the administration’s campaign against Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. And it appears as though the crusade against the “pink tide” has begun to take root elsewhere on the continent. This is not a game played by standard diplomatic rules however, as was clearly demonstrated by the expulsion from Washington, in violation of the factor of proportionality, of the second ranking embassy official. This action occurred after a U.S. military attaché posted to the U.S. embassy in Caracas was asked to leave the country on grounds of espionage. Such unwarranted punitive tactics are perhaps now being implemented against members of Bolivia’s new government headed by Evo Morales, specifically in the Bush administration’s last minute decision to revoke the visa of adjunct Senator Leonida Zurita Vargas, who hails from Cochabamba.

Zurita today is among Bolivia’s most prominent female leaders and public figures, and undoubtedly one of the most powerful women in the ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) coalition. Like Morales, her roots can be traced to early advocacy work that she did for coca growers in the Chapare region, and the stature she gained as a leader of the anti-coca eradication protests in 2002-2003. In last December’s elections, she joined Morales’ MAS party and won election as an adjunct Senator from Cochabamba, largely because of her leadership in the social sector.

This background would seem to confer substantial prestige on Senator Zurita, yet in her case, dignity and appropriate diplomacy ran afoul of ideology and politics. She had planned to travel to the U.S. for a three week speaking tour, accompanied by COHA Senior Research Fellow and longtime Cochabamba resident George Ann Potter. The trip would have included speaking appearances at Stanford University, the University of Vermont, and the University of Florida at Gainesville, among other academic institutions, culminating in a speech at the Kennedy School of Harvard University. This would have made her the first ranking official from the new MAS government to visit the U.S. Yet when she arrived at the Santa Cruz airport on February 20, she was curtly informed by the American Airline official that her visa had been revoked by order of the U.S. embassy, and that she would not be permitted to travel or would risk facing a $3,000 fine and forced detention. This, despite the fact that until the previously unannounced cancellation, she had held a valid visa and had flown to the U.S. four previous times, most recently to participate in engagements backed by a number of U.S. grass-root movements, including an appearance at Harvard University.

Zurita was later informed that the airline had been called directly from the U.S. embassy in La Paz to inform them that the U.S. visa that she had held for several years would not be honored for this lecture trip. After contacting the U.S. officials, she was told that her visa had been cancelled, but she could come to the U.S. embassy for further discussion. The next day, she met with embassy officials who confirmed the cancellation of her visa but invited her to apply for a new one. The State Department might have found cause for this action in Zurita’s campaign cry of “long live coca, death to the Yankees,” even if it was mere politicking.

The visa denial smacked of outright political intervention, which came despite the relatively conciliatory tone taken by the embassy under Ambassador David Greenlee in recent weeks. He insisted that such sensitive diplomacy would be required if the two nations hoped to reconcile current tensions between them. However, word has been leaked from the embassy that Greenlee and his policy of relative moderation could soon be replaced by the Bush administration. It now seems likely that the Zurita case might be just the first step in what could be a veritable siege of the Morales government, if Washington feels that La Paz’s refusal to follow the traditional coca eradication policies imposed by U.S. policymakers cannot be tolerated, and that Morales’ close ties to Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro are too damning. The decision to revoke Zurita’s visa is appalling, given her prestige and stature as one of her country’s ruling party’s foremost leaders. The situation merits the same degree of outrage that official Washington displayed when five U.S. lawmakers, led by Henry Hyde, were not permitted by the local authorities to exit their plane in Caracas last November.

Furthermore, Zurita is not the only member of the Bolivian left who has experienced similar insulting travel inconvenience. Dr. Waskar Ari, the first Aymara Indian to receive a Ph.D. from a U.S. institution (he received his doctorate in history from Georgetown in 2004), had been offered a teaching position at the University of Nebraska. Yet he too has been denied a visa, because, according to the American Historical Association, his name was “placed on a list of individuals under ‘conspicuous revision’—that is, he is being subjected to extensive background checks due to alleged security concerns,” despite the fact that the AHA notes that he has been a “voice of moderation,” and has no extremist connections whatsoever.

These cases constitute what can only be seen as the machinations of high ranking neo-cons within the administration, rising up to Secretary of State Rice, whose recent bellicose statements and arrogant quips seem more suitable to have been uttered by John Negroponte or the Secretary of Defense. In bringing the torch of raw ideology to Latin America, Rice is expressing far greater sensitivity to national security considerations than to the diplomatic arts, while factoring in perceived or invented geopolitical threats – hardly defusing regional tension. These forces within the Bush administration – which are clearly at work in regards to U.S. Venezuelan policy, and are now being brought to bear on Bolivia – employ of a bifurcated strategy whereby career diplomats such as Greenlee, and even Thomas Shannon, are allowed to make rational, if highly disposable, statements, suggesting that reconciliation can be achieved, but in reality can be cancelled out by policy coming from the highest echelons of the administration where tact and a sense of proportionality are all but unheard of, and “leftist” is still a very dirty word.