Editor's Note: Jean Friedman-Rudovksy is a freelance journalist based in La Paz, Bolivia, where she is the correspondent for TIME Magazine and Women's Enews. She has worked as an associate producer for ABC News in Bolivia and is a founding editor of Ukhampacha Bolivia, an online bilingual Web journal on Latin American social and political issues.
Government officials in Bolivia have filed espionage charges against a U.S. official who instructed Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar to provide information on Cubans and Venezuelans living in Bolivia, marking the first time in history that the Bolivian government has charged a U.S. embassy official with a criminal offense -- let alone for one as serious espionage.
Officials from the two countries met for hours yesterday in La Paz in an attempt to quell the growing tension and called a truce last night. Both sides declared their intentions to better relations and made clear that the official in question -- Assistant Regional Security Advisor Vincent Cooper -- would not return to Bolivia.
"We accept the [U.S.] ambassador's explanations, and we want to get past the issue," said Foreign Relations Minister David Choquehuanca at the press conference that followed the more than three-hour-long meeting between himself, Bolivian Minister of Government Alfredo Rada and U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg.
It was the first time that government officials from both sides had met face-to-face since the Blotter on ABCNews.com published the allegations last Friday.
On Nov. 5, 2007, Fulbright scholar John Alexander van Schaick arrived at the U.S. Embassy for what was to be a routine orientation meeting before beginning his year-long research project. But he was taken aback when, during his one-on-one security briefing, he says security officer Cooper asked him provide information to the embassy on Cubans and Venezuelans he comes across during his field work. The incident matches accounts by Peace Corps volunteers and staff that on July 29, 2007, Cooper instructed 30 new volunteers to do the same, with respect to Cuban nationals.
The U.S. Embassy in La Paz acknowledges the July incident, having received complaints from Peace Corps staff last year about the matter. But both the embassy and the State Department claim it was "an error," emphasizing that it should not have been interpreted as a request for U.S. citizens to spy.
"This was not in the parameters of the kind of briefings that we give to Fulbright scholars or Peace Corps volunteers," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Monday's press briefing in Washington. The administration official reaffirmed that it was not U.S. policy to ask either programs' participants to have any relationship with U.S. intelligence operations. "These are guidelines, and anybody suggesting any modification or even playing close to those lines is themselves out of line," he concluded.
But until last night, the Bolivian government had not accepted such justifications and decided to charge Cooper with espionage. A guilty verdict in such a case brings 30 years in prison without the possibility of parole. The pressing of charges, however, may be a mute point now that U.S. officials have confirmed that Cooper is back in the U.S. and that he will not return to Bolivia. Government sources have also informed ABC News that given Cooper has a diplomatic passport, he could have claimed immunity against any penalty.
Foreign Relations Minister Choquehuanca noted that both sides' desire to move past the burgeoning scandal is in the interest of salvaging bilateral relations. It was made clear, however, that the investigation into the July and November incidents here would continue. The two sides plan to meet again over the coming days.