Reporting from Santa Cruz, Bolivia — Bolivian President Evo Morales on Monday accused the United States of undermining democratic government in Latin America in a speech about purported plots and conspiracies originating in Washington, as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates listened only a few feet away.
Gates showed no noticeable reaction as Morales opened a conference of defense ministers with a rambling, hourlong address that condemned the U.S. military, several former American ambassadors to Bolivia, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the International Monetary Fund and two members of the U.S. Congress.
All of them, Morales said, are or have been engaged in secret plans to overthrow the government in Bolivia or its Latin American neighbors. He provided few details and no evidence, though he said there were documents showing a former U.S. envoy to Bolivia had conspired with Morales' opponents to overthrow him.
"There have always been coups, but there are never any coups in the United States because there is no embassy of the United States in the United States," Morales said.
U.S. officials were expecting fiery rhetoric from Morales, who has built his popularity in part on defiance of Washington and has made similar charges in the past. But the setting — a conference dedicated to promoting cooperation among militaries in the region — made the scene especially strange.
Morales rose to prominence as a leader of a loose confederation of coca leaf growers and unions opposed to a U.S. effort to limit coca production. As president he has expelled the American ambassador and the DEA, which once oversaw a large counter-narcotics effort in Bolivia, moves that have made him wildly popular among rural workers.
Most of the senior military officers and defense officials in the audience listened quietly to Morales' remarks. But a small contingent of his supporters broke into applause twice, including when he asserted that Bolivia would not participate in training exercises with the U.S. military, which he described as a threat to democracy.
"Of course Bolivia doesn't participate anymore and it won't participate anymore and go against democracy," Morales said to cheers from the rear of the room.
The U.S. Embassy in La Paz said in a statement that Bolivia had missed an opportunity to make progress on the themes of the conference. "We remain committed to working with Bolivia and the other countries of the hemisphere at the conference on these important challenges," the statement said.
Morales may have been trying to tamp down a controversy caused by his defense minister, Ruben Saavedra, who was quoted in the local news media in recent days as saying that Bolivia was seeking better cooperation with the Pentagon. Saavedra later said he meant only that Bolivia wanted assistance maintaining its fleet of U.S. military aircraft.
Throughout a four-day trip to Latin America, Gates has tried to avoid giving more ammunition to Morales and to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, another Latin American leader whose popularity stems in part from his opposition to Washington.
Gates' prepared remarks at the conference did not mention Morales, and he did not refer to the long history of U.S. intervention in Latin America, often on behalf of authoritarian regimes. He focused instead on the need for greater military cooperation to address drug trafficking, natural disasters and criminal networks.
When he was asked by a local reporter whether Washington had a problem with Bolivia receiving civilian nuclear power assistance from Iran, a country the U.S. has sought to isolate, Gates responded that Bolivia is a sovereign nation that can have relations with any country it chooses.
"I think that Bolivia needs to be mindful of the number of United Nations Security Council resolutions that have been passed with respect to Iran's behavior," Gates said, "but many countries have relationships with Iran and that's purely up to the Bolivian government."
But Morales also earned cheers from his backers when he implied that Washington was trying to dictate his country's foreign relations. "Bolivia under my government will have an alliance with anyone in the world," he said. "We have the right."
Morales described a number of alleged Washington-based conspiracies and plots. He accused Rep. Connie Mack, a Republican from Florida who is taking over as head of the House subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere next year, of being "a confessed assassin" and "conspiratorial agent against our brother Hugo Chavez." Mack once described Morales and Chavez as "thugo-crats."
Morales saw the makings of a conspiracy: "If something happens to Hugo Chavez, the one responsible will be this U.S. congressman."