Wednesday, February 20, 2008

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Bolivia’s leftist government has sharply cut back security cooperation with the United States following espionage claims that led to the expulsion of a U.S. diplomat last week.

The government announced yesterday that it will no longer send Bolivian officers for military training in the U.S. A colonel who was supposed to join the staff of the U.S.-based Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation was ordered to stay home.

Days earlier, Interior Minister Alfonso Rada announced that he has decided to dissolve the Organization for Development of Police Research (ODEP), an intelligence unit funded by the U.S. State Department to investigate narcotrafficking and terrorism.

“This unit has completed its cycle,” Mr. Rada told reporters when he arrived at ODEP’s offices to shut them down on Friday. “We don’t want the unit to be used for other work,” he said in a clear reference to recent charges of U.S. espionage made by Bolivian officials and an American student.

The commander of ODEP, Maj. Miguel Rivera, has denied that his group was used for any improper activities.

“The unit worked in the struggle against international narcotrafficking and terrorism. We received support from the embassy of the United States to combat that threat,” he said.

Another Bolivian security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the government had already been progressively dismantling parts of the security services controlled by the U.S. and had simply used the “atmosphere” generated by the spying charges to close ODEP.

That atmosphere was established when John Alexander van Schaick, an American Fulbright scholar, said earlier this month that a U.S. security officer had asked him to report back on any suspicious activity by Cuban and Venezuelan officials that he came across during his research into local peasant organizations.

Vincent Cooper, a U.S. assistant regional security officer, was subsequently declared an “undesirable person” by the government and forced to leave Bolivia.

Mr. van Schaick, who has expressed sympathy for the Evo Morales government, said in a television interview that he was “shocked” when Mr. Cooper asked him during a routine briefing at the embassy to pass on information about Cuban doctors and Venezuelan aid workers whom he might encounter in the countryside.

“I’m here in solidarity with the Bolivian people. I’m not paid to spy for the government,” declared Mr. van Schaick who decided to make the accusation public after discussing it privately with Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca.

In a series of interviews, Mr. van Schaick has also charged that U.S. spy agencies have “infiltrated” Bolivian security services.

U.S. relations with Bolivia have been badly strained since Mr. Morales assumed office more than two years ago. U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg openly opposed Mr. Morales’ initiatives to legalize the cultivation of coca — which is the main ingredient for cocaine — and criticized his government’s alignment with Cuba, Venezuela and Iran.

“They seem to blame the U.S. for everything,” said one U.S. government official.

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