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Bolivian president Evo Morales wants to know ...

November 8, 2007 |  5:53 pm

Just why is the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Philip S. Goldberg, pictured in a photo with an alleged armed thief from Colombia?

The ongoing U.S.-Bolivian cold war is getting personal between Bolivia's president and Washington's man in La Paz.

Last month, Morales demanded an apology when Goldberg seemed to make light of Morales' suggestion that the United Nations be yanked from New York as a gesture against imperialism. Would the Bolivian president like Disneyland moved as well? the ambassador mused.

Then the leftist Morales charged on a stop in the Dominican Republic that the ambassador was in cahoots with "Colombian paramilitaries'' — a right-wing faction — in a plot to topple Bolivia’s government, reports the Bolivian daily La Razón. Morales warned that the United States faced "a new Vietnam" if it intervened in Latin America, notes the Argentine daily Clarin.

Washington has denied any plot to oust Morales, a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Both Bolivia and Venezuela have forged new alliances with Iran, a development Washington views as troubling.

On a visit to Rome, Morales declared that Bolivia had acquired photos of Goldberg in the company of a Colombian paramilitary operative, reported the daily El Mundo.

Now Bolivian officials have publicly presented a recent photo showing Goldberg with an alleged criminal from Colombia. Morales is demanding to know why Goldberg mugged for the camera with a smiling John Jairo Venegas, a Colombian held in a Bolivian jail in connection with an alleged armed robbery ring. Also in the photo is Gabriel Dabdoub, a business leader in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, bastion of the anti-Morales opposition. The embassy says it was just one of many casual photos snapped at a trade fair.

U.S. officials say they can't vet every single person who approaches the ambassador in public spaces seeking a photo-op. According to the embassy, the ambassador doesn’t know the Colombian, who was arrested in Bolivia some days after the photo was taken.

Posted by Patrick J. McDonnell and Andrés D'Alessandro in Buenos Aires