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Bolivia and Venezuela's expulsion of their US ambassadors exposes yet another faultline in north American foreign policy

By Richard Gott

12/09/08 "The Guardian" - -- O
n the 35th anniversary of the military overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile on September 11, 1973, which had the overt support of the United States, the presidents of Bolivia and Venezuela have asked the US ambassadors accredited to their countries to leave.

They both believe they are facing the possibility of an imminent coup d'etat in which they accuse the Americans of being involved. A third country, Paraguay, announced 10 days ago that it had detected a conspiracy involving military officers and opposition politicians. Latin America now faces its most serious crisis since the re-introduction of democratic practice at the end of the last century.

Brazil and Argentina have both denounced the violent activities of opposition groups in Bolivia that have led to the closure of the natural gas pipelines to their countries, while President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has warned that a coup against Evo Morales of Bolivia would be seen as a "green light" for an armed insurgency in that country.

Giving details of a planned coup in his own country, in which retired military officers and opposition figures were involved, Chávez announced the expulsion of the US ambassador, Patrick Duddy, and the withdrawal of his own ambassador from Washington. Any aggression against Venezuela, Chávez said, would involve a halt in the supply of Venezuelan oil to the United States.

Chávez's decision came one day after President Morales had thrown out the US ambassador in La Paz, Philip Goldberg, who has been frequently accused by the Bolivian government of plotting with the separatist politicians in the eastern province of Santa Cruz.

The situation in Bolivia is immediately more dramatic than in Venezuela, although both countries are facing important electoral battles at the end of the year.

Evo Morales, an indigenous politician from the Andes in the west of the country, has organised a referendum on a new constitution to which the rightwing (and white racist) politicians in the eastern lowlands are bitterly opposed. The atmosphere of violence has now broken into the open, with endless political demonstrations and several deaths, the seizure of provincial airports, and sabotage of the oil and gas installations on which the country's economy depends. Morales has accused the regional governors of the five eastern regions of creating the conditions for a coup.

Chávez originally announced his decision to expel the US ambassador from Caracas as an act of solidarity with Morales – "so that Bolivia is not alone". But it was soon clear that he had his own possible coup d'etat to deal with. A tape recording of phone conversations between retired military officers, some of whom were involved in the failed coup of April 2002, was broadcast on Venezuelan television on Wednesday night, revealing plans to seize the Miraflores presidential palace and to capture or shoot down the presidential plane.

The suggestion that there were plans to assassinate the president brought large crowds down from the shanty towns on Thursday night to demonstrate their solidarity with Chávez. Several of the alleged conspirators have been detained. Venezuela, like Bolivia, has an uncertain pre-election climate, since there will be regional and municipal elections in November that will be viewed as a judgment on the popularity of the president.

The possible coup in Paraguay appears less serious, since it only appeared to involve preliminary discussions between retired General Lino Oviedo, an old hand at failed coups, and a serving officer. Yet since the government of the left-wing former bishop, Fernando Lugo, has only been in power since August, tales of a possible coup have reverberated through the continent. Brazil declared pointedly that it would not tolerate a coup in Bolivia "or in any other Latin American country".

The US is, of course, preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but whichever presidential candidate takes over in January will also find Latin America at the top of his in-tray.

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