Foreign minister says Buenos Aires refuses to stop ‘meddling’ despite complaint to UN
Michael Stott in London and Gideon Long in Bogotá SEPTEMBER 27 2020. Financial Times:
Bolivia’s interim government has accused neighbouring Argentina of repeatedly interfering in its long-awaited elections next month on behalf of former leftist leader Evo Morales, who is in exile in Buenos Aires.
Foreign minister Karen Longaric told the Financial Times that La Paz had not been able to stop Argentina’s Peronist president, Alberto Fernández, and his administration from “disagreeable meddling in Bolivia’s internal affairs” despite formal complaints to the UN and the Organization of American States.
Mr Fernández and his vice-president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, are both close to Mr Morales. Latin America’s most prominent indigenous politician, he fled Bolivia in November amid mass protests over his attempt to claim a fourth consecutive election win. EU and OAS election observers said his government had tried to fiddle the results.
The Argentine leader has been quick to adopt the Morales narrative that the turbulent events of last year, which led to a transitional government being sworn in to oversee fresh elections, amounted to a “racist coup d’état”.
Ms Longaric noted that one of Mr Fernández’s junior ministers, Edgardo Depetri, promised after meeting Mr Morales to help boost turnout among the 350,000 Bolivians living in Argentina to ensure victory for Mr Morales’s Movement to Socialism, or MAS, party in the presidential and congressional elections on October 18.
Another example was Mr Fernández’s reception of Luis Arce, the MAS candidate in the upcoming election, at the presidential palace earlier this year. Mr Arce wanted Mr Fernández’s help and said after the meeting he was “very satisfied” with the response he received, according to local media reports.
“Argentina, I think, has made a mistake in trying to get involved in our electoral process,” said Ms Longaric, a 63-year-old career diplomat and university lecturer in international law. She said a petition from Bolivian citizens asking the government to break off diplomatic relations with Argentina “had gone viral”.
The government in Buenos Aires declined to comment on the latest Bolivian accusations. “We are not going to say anything. We don’t recognise a de facto government,” one source said.
Bolivia’s interim leader, the conservative senator Jeanine Añez, has been criticised by some analysts for acting in a partisan fashion, attempting to erase the legacy of Mr Morales’s 14 years in power and pursuing vendettas against leading members of his MAS party.
Ms Longaric rejected any suggestion of one-sidedness in foreign policy, saying she was guided by her own experience as a career foreign ministry official. “I don’t have any party political position, so it has been easy for me to work solely and strictly for my country,” she said.
One example often cited is the sudden departure of more than 700 Cuban doctors and officials from Bolivia in the weeks after the interim government took power. Mr Morales’s government had paid an estimated $150m to Havana for medical services provided by the doctors over 13 years, giving Cuba a much-needed source of foreign exchange.
Ms Longaric denied that the exodus of Cubans was a partisan act, pointing to her own postgraduate studies in international law in Havana and saying she has always maintained cordial relations with Cuba’s communist government.
“The Bolivian people had a feeling of aversion to the Cuban doctors because the Evo Morales government displaced Bolivian doctors from their jobs to accommodate the Cuban doctors,” she said.
“The Cuban ambassador visited me and said . . . ‘Look, we have decided to withdraw our doctors because we don’t want them to be victims of aggression or contempt’. I said this was an excellent idea. But they were not expelled. It was a sovereign decision of the Cuban government.”
Last year Bolivia expelled Venezuelan diplomats representing President Nicolás Maduro’s government, after police detained a “significant number” for involvement in pro-MAS demonstrations.
“It was evident that the Venezuelan embassy was very involved in these events,” Ms Longaric said. Bolivian ministers said at the time that the Venezuelan diplomats were wearing police uniforms, carrying weapons and inciting demonstrations against the interim government.
Western diplomats who support Bolivia’s interim government have privately criticised some of its actions as inappropriate for an unelected administration whose main role is to hold fresh elections, but added that Ms Longaric stands out as one of its more professional officials.
“She is seen as outside party politics and commands quite a bit of respect,” one envoy said. “She is one of the few people from the Añez era that will come out looking pretty good.”
As for Mr Morales, the exiled former leader continues to rail against the interim government as “racist coup-mongers”, while campaigning for his former finance minister Mr Arce, who is leading the polls for next month’s election.
The former Bolivian president is also under investigation for alleged offences including terrorism and the rape of an underage girl — charges that he has denounced as part of a “dirty war” against him by the interim government.