Bolivian President Evo Morales ordered the expulsion Wednesday of the U.S. ambassador to his country, accusing him of fostering divisions in the deeply fractured Andean nation.
The move comes as tensions rise and violence increases in states opposed to the leftist policies of Morales. The president has regularly accused Washington and its ambassador of plotting against him.
“The one who conspires against democracy and above all seeks the division of Bolivia is the ambassador of the United States,” Morales said during a speech at the presidential palace.
Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg, a veteran diplomat who has served more than two years in La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital, was declared persona non grata and will have to leave the country, probably within 48 to 72 hours.
“We don’t want people who are separatists, who foment divisions, who conspire against unity,” Morales said, referring to Goldberg.
U.S. officials in La Paz said that Goldberg was surprised by the decision and that the embassy was awaiting an official statement from the Bolivian government.
The expulsion order is the culmination of tension between Morales and Goldberg that mirrors the deteriorating state of U.S.-Bolivian relations.
Morales, who took office in January 2006 as Bolivia’s first Indian president, is an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the region’s preeminent critic of Washington.
Despite Morales’ frequent assaults on U.S. policy, Bolivia receives more than $100 million a year in U.S. aid, much of it to fight the drug trade. Bolivia is the world’s third-largest producer of the coca leaf, the raw ingredient in cocaine.
Even though he is president, Morales still heads a major federation of coca producers. He has defended farmers’ right to plant coca, but has also cooperated with U.S.-backed efforts to block trafficking.
Goldberg heard of Morales’ decision Wednesday during a meeting with Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, the U.S. Embassy said. Goldberg had requested the meeting to discuss Bolivia’s decision to expel agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from the Chapare, a major coca-producing zone and Morales’ home base.
State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid called the accusations against Goldberg “baseless,” the Associated Press reported from Washington. There was no immediate word on what reciprocal steps Washington might take.
Violent protests have convulsed Bolivia in recent days. Demonstrators on Tuesday sacked and burned government offices in the city of Santa Cruz, the epicenter of opposition to Morales.
A pipeline blast reportedly forced the country to reduce exports of natural gas to Brazil. What caused the blast remained unclear. Bolivia has South America’s second-largest natural gas reserves, after Venezuela.
The governors of five of Bolivia’s nine states are aligned against Morales and his agenda of nationalization and empowering the poor Indian masses.
Morales has accused the rebellious states of plotting against him with the U.S. ambassador. Goldberg has repeatedly denied any interference in Bolivian affairs.