Recently, I had the opportunity to correspond with the Fulbright student, Alex Van Schaick, who was in the news recently after he was approached by a representative of the U.S. embassy in Bolivia to spy on Venezuelans and Cubans there present in Bolivia on behalf of the United States government. Alex has appeared on Democracy Now and other news programs discussing his story. He agreed to conducting an interview via email with me. The following is what conspired.
1. What inspired you to become a Fulbright Scholar?
Alex: The Fulbright program represents an excellent opportunity for US students and scholars to live abroad and pursue their own research interests. As long as you have an undergraduate degree you can qualify for the program, whether or not you are in a Masters or PHD program. The program also isn’t too structured, so basically you get to follow your own research plan with little outside interference. In my case, I had done my undergraduate thesis on Bolivia, and I wanted to have an opportunity to get some on the ground research experience. Also, having the chance to live here for 10 months was a big draw.
2. Did you ever have an interest in the political movements in Latin America? What are your thoughts on Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian movement he is leading in Latin America?
Alex: Well, I’ve followed the developments in Venezuela relatively closely over the last few years. I think its positive that the majority of poor and working Venezuelans have an elected politician who seems to be making some positive changes on their behalf. I think they have made some strides in encouraging popular participation, creating workers’ cooperatives, and funnelling more money into social programs, for instance. Of course there are valid concerns one can have with Chavez’s personalistic style as well as corruption in the state bureaucracy, from what I have heard. I hope the loss in the recent constitutional referendum will give their movement a chance to do some self-reflection and renewal.
As for the influence of Bolivarianism in Bolivia, I don’t think there is too much influence on an ideological level. One of the major errors I think many reporters and commentators make, both in Bolivia and abroad, is in equating Evo Morales as a pawn or ideologue of Chavez. The situation here in Bolivia is a lot different, where the Morales government is held a lot more accountable to their bases than Chavez in Venezuela.
3. Explain what you were asked to do by the official at the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia.
Alex: Immediately upon arriving in Bolivia in late October with my Fulbright, I set up a date for my orientation with the Fulbright program director in Bolivia, Diego Ballivian, who works from the Cultural Affairs section of the US Embassy. I also was to receive a security briefing.
On November 5, 2007, I went in to do my orientation. I chatted with Diego for a bit in his office about my research, my academic future, and some precautions on living in Bolivia. Then he introduced me to someone from the Cultural Affairs office, a woman who advised me that the US’s relations with the Bolivian government are “sensitive” at the moment; “the smallest things can cause problems that we don't anticipate.” She and Diego warned me to be careful and not to "mess around in politics."
Diego then took me to a security floor for briefing by Vincent Cooper, who I now know was an assistant Regional Security Officer. He told me that the embassy had started doing security briefings for Fulbright scholars, even though we aren’t government employees, to keep us “under their wing” and “look out for us.” He said he was giving me a scaled down version of the briefing routinely given to US government employees. He reviewed a list of predictable, if unrealistic tips, including take radio taxis, don't use public transportation, and live in “safe” (expensive) neighborhoods. He also described the US Embassy Police, which is actually a sector of the Bolivian national police paid by the U.S. Embassy. This special unit receives better equipment, better training than their Bolivian counterparts, and develops loyalty to the U.S. In La Paz, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba members of this special section are always on call to assist US citizens. He told me to trust them if I needed any kind of help.
The crucial part was that Cooper also told me: "Alex, when you are out in the field, if you should encounter any Venezuelans or Cubans, field workers or doctors, we would like you to report their names and locations to the US Embassy." We "know that the they are out there," and we "want to keep tabs on them." I was stunned, and sat silently as he finished.
4. What went through your mind when you were asked to spy for the government?
Alex: Yeah, I don’t know if what they asked me would be considered in a strict sense spying, but certainly when he asked me to report political intelligence concerning foreign nationals working in Bolivia I felt like I was being asked to spy. Well at first I was shocked, because obviously I never expected as a Fulbright student to be asked something like that. I felt indignant at the arrogance that would allow someone to think that I would casually report political intelligence to the embassy. I also knew that it was clearly a violation of Bolivia’s sovereignty, the Fulbright program’s mission, as well as my personal code of ethics. So immediately after the incident I wrote down the relevant part of our conversation and began thinking about how I could make sure this never happened again. In the course of trying to find out more information about the situation, I learned that a similar thing had happened earlier with the Peace Corps.
So there are three reasons I eventually decided to go public. First and foremost, I believe national sovereignty should be respected. I think on a certain level it’s the right of the Bolivian people to know if the US embassy is asking people to spy on foreign nationals in their country.
Second, I thought that in order to really make a change I had to denounce this publicly – only with the scrutiny from the press and public would the Embassy be forced to act. I feel like the details of the situation that came out with the original exposé on ABCnews.com really justify my position. In June or July 2007, Vincent Cooper told a group of 30 new Peace Corps volunteers during a security briefing that they should report information they come across on Cubans working in Bolivia. In what seems to me to be a really positive act, the Peace Corps administrators apparently stopped the briefing and told the volunteers not to comply with Coopers request because it was inappropriate. They proceeded to use the “appropriate channels” to complain about the problem: they emailed the US Embassy to tell them that this was really not OK to ask Volunteers to report political intelligence. The embassy’s response was, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Oh, sorry. This is an error. It won’t happen again. We will discipline the officer involved.” Sound good, but four months later the same officer Vincent Cooper make virtually the same request of me, except this time including Venezuelans. For me, that means that the US Embassy was not taking this seriously.
Lastly, I feel like a strong statement needed to be made that you cannot improve mutual relations between the people of the USA and other countries, which is one of the missions of the Fulbright program, if you are being asked to spy. I felt like I needed to say publicly that that’s not what the Fulbright program is about or should be about.
5. Do you think the Bush administration has overstepped its bounds in its use of activities like wiretapping, torture, the abuses carried out at Guantanamo, and extraordinary rendition?
Alex: Short answer, yes.
6. What do you think the legacy of the Bush administration will be?
Alex: Besides what you just mentioned in the previous question, overwhelming arrogance. Now from a historical perspective one can make the argument that US foreign policy has been arrogant more often than not – I would tend to agree. But the Bush Administration really has pushed this to its logical extreme. The War in Iraq is the most obvious case and point, where the publicly stated “motive” for going to war has changed from saving the US from imminent nuclear attack, to “fighting the terrorists abroad so we wont have to fight them at home,” to “toppling a dictator” and implementing democracy. Of course we now know that Iraq had no nuclear weapons program, that there was no conspiracy between Saddam’s government and Al-Qaida, etc. We also know that the Bush Administration didn’t believe their own publicly stated reasons for going to war, but were just cynically manipulating public opinion. So in the Anti-war movement, which I was participating in a very modest way at the time, we staged the biggest day of protest in world history across dozens of countries. I feel like especially outside the United States, there was a pretty clear consensus that the US should not invade Iraq, both among people and among governments, that it was unjust, problematic, and being waged for unspoken political and economic reasons. Did this give Bush a moment of pause? Absolutely not. There are of course a million more examples of the current Administration’s arrogance that one could give both domestically and in terms of foreign policy.
7. What do you feel is an accurate assessment of where the U.S. is today -culturally, politically, economically?
Alex: I hope that the American people will take the initiative to change the future of our country, our environment, and our world. And that goes way beyond the ballot box. Beyond saying that, I’ll plead the fifth.
8. What do you think should be done to improve this country's position in the world and to improve the bleak economic outlook of the U.S.?
Alex: Well I think we need a humble foreign policy and changes that reorient our economy to benefit the people who make it run, not just the CEOs and shareholders. But I don’t feel like that’s going to come from above, like manna from heaven (or the White House). If there is one thing that my experience in Bolivia has reinforced for me, is that only after we have built powerful community, political, environmental, and economic grassroots organizations will we see serious positive changes in the USA. If we elect a democrat this year, running on the platform of reversing the harm the Bush Administration has done, who will keep them accountable once they are in office?
I’d definitively say that in my opinion neither Hillary Clinton nor Barak Obama are really going to make much of a change in Washington or in terms of economic policy. I don’t see either of them really taking on the corporate interests that dominate our political sphere. Regarding foreign policy, they might make nice with more countries than Bush did. But they still believe that protecting “American interests” abroad can justify anything. I reject that. I believe most foreign interventions justified in this fashion really only benefit the interests of small segments of US society. I would propose the same humble foreign policy that Senator William Fulbright, founder of the Fulbright program, proposed in his 1966 speech entitled “the Arrogance of Power.” Here is an excerpt:
“The attitude above all others which I feel sure is no longer valid is the arrogance of power, the tendency of great nations to equate power with virtue and major responsibilities with a universal mission. The dilemmas involved are preeminently American dilemmas, not because America has weaknesses that others do not have but because America is powerful as no nation has ever been before and the discrepancy between its power and the power of others appears to be increasing.
There are many respects in which America, if it can bring itself to act with the magnanimity and the empathy appropriate to its size and power, can be an intelligent example to the world. We have the opportunity to set an example of generous understanding in our relations with China, of practical cooperation for peace in our relations with Russia, of reliable and respectful partnership in our relations with Western Europe, of material helpfulness without moral presumption in our relations with the develop ing nations, of abstention from the temptations of hegemony in our relations with Latin America, and of the all- around advantages of minding one's own business in our relations with everybody. Most of all, we have the opportunity to serve as an example of democracy to the world by the way in which we run our own society; America, in the words of John Quincy Adams, should be "the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all" but "the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
9. Have you experienced any backlash for speaking out about the incident with the U.S. embassy official?
Alex: No. I’m sure the US embassy isn’t pleased that I went public with the information, they have said as much in public statements, but beyond that they haven’t said anything to me. No one else has bothered me either, except for the press the first week it all came out.
10. How has this experience affected you? Has this changed you in any way?
Alex: Luckily, it seems like this wont effect my research. In terms of the incident itself, I was certainly surprised to be asked something like that in my capacity as a Fulbright scholar although not surprised to learn that things like this are going on.