Over the past four years, Bolivian President Evo Morales has leveled one charge after another that the U.S. does not respect Bolivian sovereignty and that it has meddled in the country’s domestic affairs.
Some of those charges have been based on substance. It is suspicious that Ambassador Phillip Goldberg went on a tour in September 2008 to visit the country’s opposition governors, just on the eve of their launching a series of hot street rebellions against Morales. It is also a fact that an Embassy official illegally solicited Fulbright Scholars and Peace Corps volunteers to scrounge up intelligence for the Embassy.
Other times Morales’ charges against the U.S. have been just silly. This includes the infamous photo (right) taken of a smiling Goldberg on the floor of the Santa Cruz fair, Epocruz, alongside a supposed Colombian paramilitary operative. To cite the photo as evidence of a U.S. conspiracy, as Morales did at a summit of Latin American Presidents, is to assume that the U.S. Embassy prefers to hold its clandestine meetings amidst thousands of people sampling local fruits and machinery.
There is however another recent case of U.S. intervention in Bolivia’s domestic affairs that goes far, far beyond meddling. It is a case that involves the U.S. Pentagon colluding with the Bolivian Army behind a President’s back. It involves the clandestine removal of Bolivian arms for shipment to the U.S. It involves the proffer of a $400,000 payment by the Pentagon to the leaders of Bolivia’s armed forces, again behind the back of the President. And it is a case that is not based on conjecture but on hard evidence, including documents we are publishing here in this post.
If the Morales government is looking for evidence of U.S. disregard for Bolivia’s sovereignty, then this is the case upon which that charge can be made and made clearly. Instead however, the Bolivian government is letting the U.S. off the hook and pinning the blame, wrongly, on the former President behind whose back the U.S. conspired.
This is the story of the U.S. theft of Bolivia’s surface-to-air missiles, and of the wrongful prosecution of former President Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze.
The Chinese Missiles
In August of 1986, four Bolivian military officials went to China on a shopping expedition for weapons. Their wish list mainly included guns and bullets, some 3,300 of the first and millions of the second. After a long period of negotiations, the weapons were finally purchased with a loan by the Chinese government of $2 million. Later, in October 1997, when one batch of those weapons arrived in Bolivia, military officials discovered something else in the mix – what many Bolivians would call una yappa, like the extra tomato a vegetable seller might add in as a thank you for purchasing the other twenty.
Included in the crates that arrived were thirty HN-5 Chinese surface-to-air missiles, known in the military trade as Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems (MANPADS). Bolivia suddenly had what some in the military liked to refer to as an “air defense system.”
In the course of this investigation I had a long conversation with a Canadian arms specialist who works for the UN on weapons destruction projects (who spoke on condition of not being identified by name). He told me that the Chinese surface to air missiles like those shipped to Bolivia were considered the “Yugo” of MANPADS. In other words, they were poorly made to begin with and even more useless over time. “It’s the Russian models that you want,” he told me.
Maybe it was for that reason that the Bolivian Army was reluctant to test them. It was three years later, in 2000, when the Army finally took a shot at firing one. These missiles are small weapons, thin tubes about five feet long and weighing just twenty pounds. Their lethal qualities come not from their size or range but their function. Used against aircraft, the missiles aim for the heat emitted from the exhaust pipe and tunnel right inside before exploding. They attack a plane or helicopter at its weak spot, in the way that Luke Skywalker took out the Empire’s Death Star through a tiny ventilation shaft.
That particular knowledge of the missiles’ mechanism must have been lost on Bolivia’s Army in its La Paz test launch. According to sources, the missile fired and then went crazy, flailing around in the air and sending soldiers diving for cover. It then fell – a dud. The only other test attempted by the Army was in 2004 when the missile wouldn’t fire at all. Its battery, like that of the rest of the missiles, had gone dead.
U.S. interest in stripping other countries of their surface to air missiles began not long after the September 11, 2001 attacks. That effort to find and decommission stockpiles of the MANPADS got a key push in 2005 by a bipartisan team of U.S. Senators, Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana and a freshman Democrat from Illinois, Barack Obama. Speaking of the MANPADS Lugar said. “Such weapons could be used by terrorists to attack commercial airliners, military installations and government facilities here at home and abroad. Al Qaeda reportedly has attempted to acquire MANPADS on a number of occasions.”
The focus of the U.S. hunt for these weapons was on the Russian-made variety, which were considered serious weapons and loose in the world in great numbers. Why the U.S. suddenly took such an obsessive interest in Bolivia’s outdated junk-MANPADS in the middle of 2005 is a subject of speculation and theory – but an obsessive interest it took.
The Unlikely President
In most countries of the world the men and women who become President do so only after decades of careful plotting and positioning. Eduardo Rodriguez became the President of Bolivia with about 30 minutes notice and he wasn’t very happy at all about the prospect.
On the night of June 10, 2005, as Bolivia was spiraling into nationwide chaos, the scholarly Chief Justice of the country’s Supreme Court was watching the news on television with his wife and getting ready to go to bed when his telephone rang. It was the President of the Senate, Hormando Vaca Diez.
For days, Bolivia’s social movements had paralyzed the country with a series of protests and road blockades demanding nationalization of the nation’s gas and oil. The protesters were furious with the watered down gas and oil reforms being pushed by President Carlos Mesa, and Mesa was once again repeating his penchant for threatening resignation to try to cajole the Congress and the country his way.
Mesa’s resignation gaming had set off a monumental power struggle between he and Vaca Diez, the next in the line of succession. When his rivals called Mesa’s bluff and told him to send the resignation right over, Mesa refused if it meant that the right-wing Senator would take control (Vaca Diez had declared publicly that his answer to the protests would be to crush them with the military).
That night in June the Congress had fled the capital in La Paz, where the social movements had made it impossible to meet. Instead the Congress sought to convene in a surprise session in Sucre where it would accept Mesa’s resignation and swear in Vaca Diez. The social movements, led by dynamite-wielding miners from Potosi, surrounded the Congress in session and blocked members’ exit to the airport. Bolivia was on the verge of exploding.
Over the phone, Vaca Diez explained that he, President Mesa, and the leader of the House of Deputies, Mario Cossio, had finally agreed to the only deal they could think of to keep Bolivia from rolling off the precipice. Mesa would resign and the two Congressional leaders would relinquish their right to succession. That meant that Rodriguez as head of the Supreme Court would have to assume the Presidency, a move which would also trigger automatic elections within six months. “Do you agree to do this?” Vaca Diez asked him. Rodriguez knew he didn’t have any choice.
After hanging up the phone and changing back into a suit and tie, Rodriguez found himself an hour later speaking live before the Congress and the nation. “I didn’t even have a speech prepared,” Rodriguez told me, explaining the odd and dramatic events that night. “I had to make it up as I went along.”
Afterwards Rodriguez was up until 4am getting briefed by the nation’s generals on one standoff after another around the country where the Army and the social movements were on the verge of open warfare with one another. As he recounted the events of the night he told me, “You can’t imagine the stress. Presidents come into office with a whole team of people they have worked with. I was totally alone.”
The next morning Rodriguez’s two young children awoke to discover that their father was now the President. As he walked the two out his front door in Sucre to the car that would take them to school, the children looked wide-eyed at the line-up of television cameras and the swarm of armed soldiers roaming around their home. Rodriguez told me that is seven-year-old son looked up at him and said, “Dad, you are the President. What are you going to do?”
In the landscape of Bolivian politics, Rodriguez is an oddity. He came to the Presidency not as a lifelong politician, nor as a social movement leader. He rose to lead the Supreme Court based on a respected and squeaky-clean record as a lawyer and public servant. In Latin America in 2005 there wasn’t a President anywhere that seemed a less likely candidate to be screwed by the U.S.
Eduardo Rodriguez is the kind of man one might pass on the street and not notice, even if you had seen him on television a number of times. At 54, with scholarly glasses and a short graying hair, Rodriguez looks like the mild-mannered lawyer he set out to be at an early age. He grew up in Cochabamba across the street from Plaza Colon. His parents owned a local pharmacy and Rodriguez was schooled nearby by the Jesuits at St. Augustine, a private Catholic School which also graduated just a few years afterwards Morales’ Vice President, Alvaro Garcia Linera.
The first thing that set Rodriguez on the path toward law, he says, was a school requirement that sent the clean-cut high school student to the San Sebastian men’s jail to help teach inmates to read. The school requirement was for two months, Rodriguez stayed six. Injustice, he told me, was no longer a theory taught in class.
Rodriguez second conversion experience came in 1973 during the year he spent in Springfield Missouri as a high school exchange student. Night after night the teenager from Cochabamba joined his host family and millions of Americans as they watched the Senate Watergate hearings unfold on television. Thinking about the brutal dictatorships back at home, Rodriguez was mesmerized by a political system that brought down its President without a shot.
Back in Bolivia he set his professional trajectory on public service. After attending public university and law school, he got a job as junior staff to a special Congressional committee investigating the country’s most recent dictatorships, an operation quickly shut down in 1980 with the arrival of yet another coup. Later he won a USAID scholarship to attend the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. On his return he helped build a new national auditor’s office, the stuff of numbers not revolution. In 1999 Rodriguez tossed his hat in the ring for an improbable promotion, as a Justice of the country’s Supreme Court. Then candidates for the job were selected by a vote of Congress. In a process overflowing with politics and party jockeying, the unaffiliated Rodriguez ended up finishing first place in the Congressional vote. Later he was elevated by his bench mates to be Chief Justice.
Then in September 2005, just three months after assuming the presidency, Rodriguez discovered that the U.S. military officials and the Army chiefs under his command had been mobilizing behind his back.
The U.S. Acts Behind the President’s Back
During the last weekend of that September, President Rodriguez was on a rare trip away from Bolivia, to a Presidential summit in Brazil. That is when the Bolivian Army and its U.S. counterparts decided to act.
On Sunday morning of that weekend a Bolivian military unit entered the weapons storage facility in La Paz where the missiles were held and loaded them on a truck for the drive uphill to El Alto. The 28 missiles that remained in the Bolivian arsenal were taken to the base of the Bolivian Air Force where they were transferred to a U.S. military aircraft and transported out of the country. The President knew nothing of the operation, finding out about it only afterwards.
Nor did President Rodriguez find out until afterwards about the four-page signed document that the U.S. Pentagon left behind as a thank you, a September 30, 2005 “Mutual Cooperation Agreement” between Bolivia and the U.S. It includes the following:
WHEREAS in recognition of the Republic of Bolivia’s outstanding support of the war on terrorism and as incentive to continue this support DoD [Department of Defense] desires to transfer $400,000 to the Republic of Bolivia.
The Pentagon memorandum then leaves a series of blank spaces where the Bolivian generals were expected to list the bank, bank account, and beneficiary to which that $400,000 in Pentagon cash should be wired. The Bolivian Generals could have listed anyone on the simple return form to Washington, including themselves.
The whole manner in which the U.S. rushed to remove the missiles from the Bolivian arsenal in the closing months of 2005 raises a series of crucial questions.
First, why the rush and why behind the back of the democratic President of the country?
The UN arms destruction specialist who I spoke with was astonished on this point. “Handing over weapons to the UN or to another country for destruction is an extremely political decision. Usually it requires an act of Congress.”
Former President Rodriguez recounted a conversation he had with the then-U.S. Ambassador, David Greenlee on this question. According to Rodriguez, Greenlee told him, “We had to get them out. If we didn’t get them out then we wouldn’t be able to.”
There are several theories about why the U.S. went rogue.
One has to do with the other big event taking place in Bolivia that September – a historic Presidential election in which a fierce U.S. adversary, Evo Morales, was surging to the lead. Was the U.S. really worried that two dozen outdated missiles in the hands of Morales was some kind of threat?
According to Rodriguez and others, U.S. concerns about stray MANPADS falling into the hands of Al Qaeda included charges of some form of terrorist presence on the Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay border. Witnesses in an Argentine legal case reportedly testified that members of the Bolivian military had sold at least one missile in the area and Rodriguez believes that reports like these made the U.S. nervous about the possible slippage of the Bolivian MANPADS into undesirable hands.
President Rodriguez, a man known to be a stickler for the law and correct procedure, was not likely to give a stamp of approval to such a politicized action as handing over missiles to the U.S. without submitting it to public disclosure and proper consideration. And that undoubtedly would have spilled the U.S. request over into a Morales administration.
Or was the U.S. trying to curry favor with the Bolivian military on the eve of a Morales presidency? This is where the offered payment of $400,000 becomes especially curious, especially given the informality with which the generals could submit the designated beneficiary for that fortune. I asked the UN weapons expert about the payment and the U.S. insistence that the missiles be removed from Bolivia for destruction.
“Twenty-eight MANPADS? It’s a simple process. You dig a hole three meters wide and three meters deep in an unpopulated area, wrap them in a bundle with some dynamite and explode them. If I were contracting it out it would be a day’s work and cost about $1,500.”
Nearly half a million dollars is a mighty big thank you for such a small project. In fact, it remains unclear why the U.S. wanted the missiles removed from Bolivia at all, instead of just observing their destruction in some desolate hole in the altiplano.
Speaking about the scandal to Voice of America, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormick dismissed concerns that the U.S. had acted behind a President’s back. “As for who was told in Bolivia about the action, you’ll have to talk to the Bolivian government about that.”
Given the long history of the U.S. colluding with militaries in the region behind the backs of democratic leaders (see General Pinochet, Chile, 1973) one would expect that the State Department understands that talking to the generals is not enough.
Facing Trial for Treason and Left Hanging in the Wind by Uncle Sam
Last month the Morales government announced that it was going to accelerate its efforts to prosecute a list of former Presidents, and included Eduardo Rodriguez on the list. While the others face charges of corruption related to foreign oil contracts, the case against Rodriguez, over the missiles, is something altogether more serious. He faces charges of treason that can carry up to thirty years in a Bolivian prison.
There is no question that Rodriguez was kept in the dark about the handover of the missiles to Washington. In fact, upon discovering it, Rodriguez cancelled the $400,000 offer from Washington, demanded a full report (read the report here), and fired both the head of the Army and the Minister of Defense.
Why the Morales administration is going after Rodriguez over the missiles, instead of leveling those charges against Washington, is a mystery — especially given that the reason for the U.S. operation may have been fears of Morales himself.
The U.S., for its part, knows it wronged Rodriguez and is letting him face life in prison over a set of acts that it undertook not him. The former President claims that several high level U.S. officials have admitted as much to him in private, but say that the U.S. can’t admit its actions in public for “political reasons.” The former exchange student to Missouri is being taught a new lesson about the realities of U.S. politics, one not nearly so attractive as the accountability he witnessed during Watergate. Today Rodriguez is looking at options for filing a legal action against the U.S., on behalf of Bolivia and its people.
The U.S. has says often that it wants to build a new relationship with Bolivia, including exchanging ambassadors again (the two countries kicked out their respective ambassadors in September 2008). If it wants to do so it should start by coming clean about its behind-the-back-of-democracy shenanigans that September weekend in 2005. It should not let a decent man take the rap for the Pentagon’s suspicious maneuvers. And if the Morales government wants its prosecution of other former Presidents, including Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, to look like more than a political twitch, it should re-aim its sights on the missile case to where those sights belong – on Washington.