Bolivia: Senator's asylum bid embarrasses Morales

AP News
Posted: May 31, 2012 8:21 PM
Bolivia: Senator's asylum bid embarrasses Morales

An opposition senator's decision to seek exile in the Brazilian Embassy aims to embarrass President Evo Morales ahead of an Organization of American States' meeting in the Andean country, Bolivia's government said Thursday.

But Sen. Roger Pinto of Bolivia's small right-wing opposition bloc in congress said he has sought political asylum because of political persecution that made him fear for his life, including death threats against him and his family.

Bolivia's OAS ambassador, Diego Pari, called Pinto's asylum bid part of an opposition smear campaign timed to coincide with the annual assembly of foreign ministers that begins Sunday in the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba.

"The opposition is looking to create a climate of discontent with the government. It takes advantage of any opportunity to show a negative image," Pari told The Associated Press.

Pinto, from the lowlands state of Pando, is a longtime foe of the Morales government.

He was allied with four lowlands opposition governors who rebelled against Morales in 2008. But Morales won a referendum the following year that quashed the rebellion and the government began to prosecute opposition leaders for alleged corruption.

Of those four governors, two now live in exile and one, Leopoldo Fernandez, has been in jail pending trial for more than three years, charged with instigating a crackdown in September 2008 that claimed the lives of nine indigenous Morales supporters.

Pinto is a close political ally of Fernandez.

On Monday, he entered the Brazilian Embassy and his allies published a letter he signed saying that he was seeking asylum due to political persecution and claiming that he had evidence of involvement in drug trafficking by government officials. The letter did make specific allegations or provide evidence.

"I have been a victim of constant death threats, and my family has also been threatened," the letter read. Pinto did not offer details, though his daughters have said there were anonymous calls they believed came from people affiliated with the government.

Brazil has not yet decided on Pinto's asylum request. Oddly, it includes Pinto's expressed desire to be granted asylum not in Brazil but in its embassy in La Paz.

Government prosecutors, meanwhile, are accusing Pinto of corruption. Anticorruption Minister Nardy Suxo said there are four cases against him for "economic damage to the state."

An ally of Pinto, opposition Sen. Marcelo Antezana, belittled the government cases against Pinto. One, he said, is for cutting down two almond trees on Pinto's ranch in Pando.

Analyst Kathryn Ledebur of the Cochabamba-based Andean Information Network said the asylum bid looked like an attempt to sour Bolivian-Brazilian relations ahead of the summit.

"They may be going after him (Pinto) politically with all these charges. At the same time, he may have done two- thirds of what they are accusing him," said Ledebur.

The case comes at a delicate moment in Bolivia's relations with Brazil over Morales' canceling of a contract with the Brazilian company to build a road across a reserve known as TIPNIS. The project, which would link Bolivia's highlands with Brazil, faces fierce opposition from Amazon indigenous groups, former Morales allies who split with him over it.

Bolivia is the world's No. 3 cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru.

Its police forces have been plagued by corruption scandals, including a cocaine-smuggling case that ended in the sentencing last September in a U.S. federal court of Bolivia's former top anti-narcotics police chief, Rene Sanabria, to 14 years in prison.


Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.