On Sunday, May 4, 2008 I joined two dozen progressive activists marching in a circle in front of the Bolivian embassy. Thanks to our spirited presence 150 or so right-wing Bolivians from the province of Santa Cruz were unable to get in front of the embassy to demonstrate in favor of the autonomy referendum being held by their fellow Santa Cruzians that day. I call them Santa Cruzians rather than Bolivians because they carried only one Bolivian flag (and two US flags!) while waving dozens of Santa Cruz provincial flags. They continued to chant during the playing of the Bolivian national anthem while we stood in respectful silence. One cannot deny that it is racism and economic selfishness that drives the Santa Cruz autonomy campaign. It is without doubt a home grown campaign. An International Republican Institute spokesperson told a June 2006 delegation I led to Nicaragua that "We created the Movement for Nicaragua" (a supposedly non-partisan but anti-Sandinista civil organization). This isn’t like that. The European descended Santa Cruzians have been exploiting Bolivia’s indigenous population for over 500 years on their own.

However, we must also realize, and act upon the fact, that the neo-cons who make US foreign policy, and their collaborators in the corporate media such as Washington Post editorial page editor Jackson Diehl, see Santa Cruz as the lynchpin without which the progressive changes in Latin America would fly apart. Diehl had the gall to write in a Washington Post editorial that Bolivian President Evo Morales was dividing the country because he was "privileging" his own people. Morales is the first indigenous president elected in a South American country. It is hard to conceive what degree of "privileging" it would take to compensate for 500 years of oppression and exploitation.

If the autonomy campaign in Santa Cruz and some of the other European-settled, resource-rich provinces succeeds, it will not be long before similar campaigns are underway in the oil rich Zulia province of Venezuela and the Guayaquil and Guayas provinces in Ecuador. Training and funding for these autonomy campaigns will be funneled through National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and US Agency for International Development (USAID) democracy building programs as they so eloquently call their election manipulation programs. Bolivia is currently the largest recipient of USAID funding in Latin America and USAID’s programs are disproportionately located in Santa Cruz and the other provinces settled by European immigrants. Bolivia has recently demanded greater oversight and transparency of USAID programs within its borders.

The US spent $26 million in 2006 on the Venezuelan presidential election; $3 million through NED and $23 million through USAID. The Associated Press filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the USAID grants and got a list with the recipients blacked out. About all we know is that there were no pro-Chavez groups on the list. Venezuela and Nicaragua both have municipal elections coming up this year and NED and USAID are spending an as yet unknown number of millions of greenbacks to support right-wing opposition parties. El Salvador is likely to elect its first leftist president from the FMLN leaving the US "coalition of the willing" in Iraq shy one more member and the US government reduced to having Colombia as its only reliable ally in Latin America.

US democracy manipulation has been remarkably unsuccessful in Latin America recently and the neighbors across our backyard are beginning to resist our raiding of their strawberry patch. As a matter of fact, they are setting up a neighborhood watch program to keep the bully to the North in line. Henry Kissinger must be having a fit. His doctrine that the left in Latin America should be allowed to participate electorally but never allowed to win resulted in the death of the first elected socialist, Salvador Allende of Chile, but the current growth of participatory democracy and election of one leftist government after another in Latin America are indications that the Iraq quagmire has damaged the US foreign policy machine’s ability to multi-task.

The neocons are getting nervous. Not a day goes by that at least one major corporate media outlet doesn’t vilify President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in a textbook example of the "Big Lie" technique. Tried and true tactics of election manipulation, phony exit polls, and faux "student movement" tactics have failed them. The autonomy campaign in Santa Cruz gives them a horse to ride in the race to save Latin America for free trade and savage capitalism.

Activists in the US need to watch this carefully and demand Congressional oversight of the pseudo-private NED which operates nearly 100% with our tax money. (Actually, we should demand that NED be abolished altogether.) We need to demand that USAID return to its "bricks and mortar" mission and get out of the democracy manipulation business. And, above all we need to demand that sovereign countries be free to determine their own futures and to right historical economic inequalities.

Santa Cruz says it wants to control the natural gas wealth and not share it with the poorer parts of Bolivia. Imagine if Texas and Alaska said they didn’t want to share their oil wealth with Mississippi and Alabama. Neither US residents nor the government would tolerate their autonomy and we fought a civil war to prove it. Bolivia will have to solve its own history of exploitation and injustice. There is no positive role that the United States government can play in that process. We need to demand that our government stay out and we need to demand that our government not spread instability to other countries in the region. Check out the Alliance for Global Justice’s "Respect for Democracy" campaign at www.Respect4Democracy.org for one tool for local organizing.

(Chuck Kaufman has been on the national staff of the Nicaragua Network, a project of the Alliance for Global Justice, for over 20 years. He is also a founding member of the Venezuela Solidarity Network.)