When Alexander Van Schaick, a 23-year-old US Fulbright Scholar, arrived in Bolivia, he planned on studying land management issues among indigenous peoples in the eastern province of Santa Cruz. He wasn’t expecting to be asked to moonlight as a spy.
Yet, according to Van Schaick, that’s exactly what Vincent Cooper, Assistant Regional Security Advisor at US Embassy in La Paz, asked him to do during a briefing on the security situation in Bolivia on 5th November 2007.
“I was told to provide the names, addresses and activities of any Venezuelan or Cuban doctors or field workers I came across during my time here,” Van Schaick told ABC News. “I was in shock,” he added. “My immediate thought was ‘oh my God! Somebody from the US Embassy just asked me to basically spy for the US Embassy.”
For the two months following the incident, Van Schaick mulled his options, weighing a formal complaint to the embassy with going public with his story. In the end, he decided to talk with La Paz-based freelance writer Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, saying, “I feel like the Bolivian people have a right to know.”
After hearing Van Schaick’s story, Friedman-Rudovsky discovered that it had not been an isolated incident. In her 8th February report for ABC News, she cited a meeting on 29th July 2007, when Cooper made a similar request of a group of 30 Peace Corps volunteers who had recently arrived in Bolivia.
That incident had prompted Doreen Salazar, the Peace Corps deputy director in Bolivia, to interrupt Cooper’s presentation, telling the assembled volunteers that they were not obligated to follow the embassy’s suggestions. Salazar then issued a formal complaint to the embassy, which promptly assured her that Cooper’s request had been an error and that he would be disciplined appropriately.
Yet, four months later Cooper was back giving the same kinds of briefings. “If it was such a big error and they reprimanded Vincent Cooper as they say they did after the July incident with the Peace Corps, why did they still have him giving security briefings to Fulbright students four months later?” Friedman-Rudosky asked in an interview with the US television and radio show ‘Democracy Now!’
The US Embassy in La Paz, through their spokesman Eric Watnik, addressed Cooper’s security briefings in a 11th February statement, saying that the July briefing ‘included incorrect information’, and that Cooper ‘mistakenly gave the security briefing for embassy employees to Peace Corps volunteers’.
The embassy, however, did not address what kind of, if any, disciplinary action had been taken against Cooper following the Peace Corps briefing, saying only that it ‘regrets any misunderstanding this isolated incident – which occurred more than seven months ago and was immediately corrected – may have caused’.
Regarding Van Schaick’s claims, the embassy said only that since it was a one-on-one meeting, it could not corroborate the Fulbright scholar’s story. The embassy did, however, add that it was ‘disappointed that [Van Schaick] did not voice his concerns to other embassy officers or to a member of the Fulbright Commission’.
In a separate statement, the US State Department asserted: “Any suggestion that any members of either [the Fulbright Program or the Peace Corps] provide information outside the scope of their work or positions was an error, and is not U.S. Government policy.” However, the State Department denied that Cooper’s actions amounted to a request to spy.
Following the ABC News story, Bolivian president Evo Morales demanded that the US remove Cooper from his diplomatic post, saying: “This man has not only violated the rights of those who he instructed; he has violated, offended and attacked our nation.”
By the time of Morales’ statement, Cooper had already been called back to Washington by the State Department for a debriefing on his actions. On 14th February, the State Department announced the Cooper would not be returning to his post in Bolivia.
Friedman-Rudovsky’s report has prompted concerns that Fulbright scholars and Peace Corps volunteers in Bolivia may face a far frostier reception in the future.
“Any connection between the Peace Corps and the intelligence community would seriously compromise the ability of the Peace Corps to develop and maintain the trust and confidence of the people in the host countries we serve,” said Peace Corps press director Amanda H. Beck.
The Peace Corps in Bolivia has seen this loss of trust and confidence before. After the release of the 1969 narrative film ‘Blood of the Condor’, which depicted scenes of Peace Corps volunteers sterilising indigenous women, an anti-Peace Corps movement began in the country. In 1971, in response to these sentiments, the Bolivian government expelled the Peace Corps, calling the organisation an infringement on the country’s sovereignty.
This incident, at least in its earlier stages, does not seem to threaten a similar response. So far, no reports have suggested that any Fulbright scholars or Peace Corps volunteers accepted Cooper’s offer, and, after all, it was a Fulbright scholar who came forward with the story of the embassy official’s impropriety.
Bolivian confidence in the US Embassy in La Paz, however, appears to be waning. The alleged spying requests come amid a growing belief in Bolivia that the US has been funding political groups opposed to the populist government of Evo Morales, a charge the US State Department vehemently denies. Cooper’s dismissal from Bolivia may quell this particular political firestorm, but after two years of Morales’ leftist presidency, allegations of spying and the funding opposition groups are punctuating an increasingly contentious relationship between the US and Bolivia.