On September 11, as violent political and social convulsions shook Bolivia, president Evo Morales declared senior U.S. diplomat Philip S. Goldberg persona non grata, accusing him of sanctioning spying on Bolivian nationals, and then attacked him on nationwide television. Goldberg's expulsion marked a low point in the increasingly strained relations between Washington and La Paz, and only the eighth time in history that a U.S. chief of mission has been ousted from duty. Goldberg has had challenging assignments before—he was posted as chief of mission to Kosovo in 2004, when ethnic tensions were still smoldering, and before that served on the State Department's Bosnia Desk and as special assistant to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. But no job was as trying as running the embassy in Bolivia. Goldberg recently spoke from Washington by telephone with NEWSWEEK's Mac Margolis on what's in store for Latin America's most conflicted nation. Excerpts:
Newsweek: There's been a lot of media on your expulsion from Bolivia. What was the official reason and how did it happen?
Goldberg: I was in a meeting [on Sept. 10] with the Bolivian foreign minister. I had gone to see him after receiving a call from the Bolivian government informing me that our D.E.A [drug enforcement agency] personnel had to leave immediately from the Chapare region, where president Evo Morales is also the president of the coca growers federation. During that conversation, Morales called the minister's cell phone to say that he had just announced—at a public event, not through the normal diplomatic channels—that he was declaring me persona non grata. The official notification arrived the following day.
The State Department has stated essentially that whenever things are not going well in Bolivia or in Venezuela, their leaders try to distract attention. Is that a fair interpretation of your ouster?
I think that's an important factor. The situation in Bolivia had deteriorated to the point of confrontation. And I think it became very easy to blame the United States for that. Secondly, I think there were external factors at work.
External factors meaning Venezuela?
Yes, you can probably say that. This wasn't just one day in coming. I had been the subject of really outrageous attacks for some time. So had the United States as well as the USAID program and the Peace Corps. This wasn't a new tactic. It was part of the general policy of the Bolivian government for Morales to attack the United States.
One version circulating in Bolivia is that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Bolivia was said to be caught instructing some 30 American aid workers and a scholar to spy on Venezuela and Cuban medical workers. Is there any truth to this?
That interpretation is quite at variance with what exactly happened. What happened was that one of our security officers went to brief Peace Corps workers on security [measures] in Bolivia. During the course of that briefing he started going into areas that are ordinarily reserved for direct American employees—which the Peace Corps are not—basically telling them to be careful about third country people who might want to take advantage of them. He should not have gone over that ground, but it was not a request for them to do anything. And this has been blown up way out of proportion. A minister of government tried to blame us for all kinds of spying scandals, with which we had nothing to do. Our security officer should not have mentioned this area and as a result left the country at our request. And that was the sum total of it. It was a mistake. The person paid for the mistake, but it was in no way, no way, an effort to spy on anyone.
How serious is the political and social unrest in Bolivia and what's at stake?
Obviously it's very serious. There were confrontations and a number of deaths. I think the region is clearly concerned about what's going on. There are issues related to general stability in Bolivia. Drug trafficking is another. There are issues related to gas supplies, especially for Brazil and Argentina, which are recipients of Bolivian gas. Bolivia's problems are a deep concern to Latin America.
Recently Hugo Chávez invited the Russians to join war game exercises in the Caribbean. Morales traveled to Libya and Iran and is reported to be considering aid from Russia in lieu of U.S. money. Is a new Cold War brewing in Latin America?
I can say that there are clearly concerns about Iran in the hemisphere because of the nature of [the government in] Iran. Bolivia has every right to have relations with whatever country it wishes. That isn't in question. You and others can better analyze what it means when Iran is searching for alliances in an area that has not been traditionally an area of interest.
How has all this effected U.S. relations with Bolivia and its neighbors?
I think what's happening is that there are Latin American countries, and Bolivia is one of them, that are distancing themselves in many ways from the direction that the world is taking. As the [U.S.] State Department mentioned the other day, there are presidents in Latin America, such as Chavez of Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia, who were elected democratically but may not be governing completely democratically. That is a problem and a serious issue. And it's a problem for the region. But there are also a number of other countries with which the United states works actively—Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico—that are solid and very large partners in commerce as well as important democratic partners. We are making an effort to be engaged everywhere, including with Bolivia and Venezuela. But this is a two way street. If people are more interested in accusation and rhetoric and expulsions or to use the United States as a sort of diversion, then it's a problem and a [hindrance] to a relationship we would very much like to continue.
Many political analysts describe president Morales almost as a disciple of Hugo Chávez. Did you see evidence of that when you were in Bolivia?
I think everyone who lives in Bolivia sees a very close relationship—political and in every other way—with Venezuela.
The State Department talks about pursuing a positive agenda in the region. Has that agenda been damaged?
In Bolivia, certainly. Our main activities in the country are assistance programs, which have been demonized in many ways. They've targeted our alternative development programs in the Chapare region, where coca (the raw material of cocaine] is grown. They decided to virtually expel DEA without any kind of explanation. These are not cooperative gestures.
I see you have been described as the former ambassador to Bolivia. Is this final or do you hope to go back to La Paz?
I'm not going back. I am the former ambassador to Bolivia.
Do you regret that?
I regret that the Bolivian government took this decision. I think this has set back U.S.-Bolivian relations. It was uncalled for, by anything that I did or anything the US government has done. This is not a decision that is taken lightly. This was an extraordinary step, basically a decision by Bolivia to lash out. In our view this was a grave error. Blaming others for your internal problems is not the way to cultivate bilateral relations.