WASHINGTON -- The State Department has sent a forceful complaint to the Bolivian government, telling it to stop attacking the U.S. ambassador in La Paz in a shift away from the policy of mostly ignoring the increasingly heated anti-American rhetoric of Bolivian President Evo Morales.
State Department officials say the complaint was delivered last Friday, when Bolivia's ambassador to the United States, Gustavo Guzmán, was summoned to a meeting with the Western Hemisphere bureau's No. 2 diplomat, Craig Kelly.
Kelly told Guzmán the Bolivian government had to stop accusing the U.S. ambassador in La Paz, Philip Goldberg, of trying to destabilize the left-wing Bolivian government.
''The basic message is just stop it, knock it off,'' State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Thursday. ``The allegations are untrue, they're unfounded and they're just not helpful in nurturing relations between the U.S. and Bolivia.''
Summoning the Bolivian ambassador to the State Department for a rare rebuke reflects the deterioration of relations between the two countries over matters that range from counter-drug policy to trade negotiations.
Bolivian officials have accused the U.S. Agency for International Development of political meddling in their country and even alleged that the U.S. government was linked to recent bombing attacks against a Venezuelan consulate in Santa Cruz.
Most of the allegations were ignored by the State Department in hopes of avoiding further deterioration in bilateral relations. But as Bolivians continued to press the allegations, the State Department felt it had no choice but to react, U.S. officials say.
As proof of U.S. meddling, Morales has circulated a photograph of Goldberg with John Jairo Venegas, a Colombian accused by Bolivia of being a member of the Colombian right-wing paramilitary squads, according to media reports. Venegas is in prison in Bolivia on charges of armed robbery.
The State Department initially planned to keep the Kelly-Guzmán meeting quiet, in the hope that a private warning would be enough, according to a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he had not been cleared to talk about the issue with the news media.
But a few days later, Morales circulated a copy of the photo to delegations at an Iberoamerican summit of leaders in Chile and reiterated his allegations in a speech, the official added.
That's when the State Department decided to make the meeting public, first through declarations in Bolivia by Goldberg and then by McCormack in Washington.
According to press reports, Goldberg attended a commercial fair in September in the city of Santa Cruz, an opposition bastion. Morales is in a bitter dispute over constitutional reforms with his conservative rivals, who accuse him of playing the anti-American card to cover policy mistakes at home.
After a speech, the ambassador mingled with the crowd and allowed himself to be photographed with, among others, Venegas, unaware of who the individual was, according to the U.S. official.
The photograph also included Gabriel Dabdoub, a powerful Bolivian businessman and Morales opponent.
The incident is the latest in a steady drumbeat of accusations against Washington by Bolivian officials. Morales had already threatened to eject Goldberg and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Juan Ramón Quintana, a top Morales aid, has said U.S. AID is running programs to help the opposition and may be ousted.
This would endanger about $90 million of the $120 million a year Bolivia receives in U.S. aid, and would also put a big question mark over the future of negotiations between Washington and La Paz for a big $600 million U.S. aid package under the Millennium Challenge Account program.
The Bush administration flatly denies it is interfering in Bolivia's internal affairs. But it has expressed concern that Morales, a leader of the coca-growers' union, is too soft on coca farmers, reversing gains made against cocaine trafficking in recent years.
The Bolivians have also stepped up their demands that Washington turn over former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who faces charges of mass killings in 2003 protests that brought down his government. Sánchez de Lozada, who says he is innocent, lives in Maryland.