Bolivia 1964-1975

...The United States was not a disinterested observer. In February 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, presenting his department’s regular “Assessment of the International Situation”, told a congressional committee: “Violence in the mining areas and in the cities of Bolivia has continued to occur intermittently, and we are assisting this country to improve the training and equipping of its military forces.”

This was all that the Defense Secretary had to report about Bolivia - a routine report, routinely written by some faceless Pentagon researcher, routinely delivered by the quintessential technocrat, as if the American action was the most natural and innocuous thing in the world.

As natural as American financial contributions to Barrientos. Antonio Arguedas, Minister of the Interior under Barrientos, later disclosed that the CIA contributed $600,000 to the Bolivian leader in 1966 when he decided to hold an election. Several right-wing parties received lesser sums. Arguedas, an admitted agent of the CIA who, in 1968, gave the world Che Guevara’s diary, claiming that the Agency had pushed him too hard, also revealed that Gulf Oil Corp. donated $200,000 to Barrientos’s campaign as well as a helicopter for his tours around the provinces. Gulf subsequently admitted that it had paid Bolivian officials, mainly Barrientos, a total of $460,000 in “political contributions” during the period 1966-69 at the ClA’s recommendation, although the company may have needed but little prodding, for the Bolivian president had opened up the economy to multinationals to a greater degree than his predecessors, bestowing upon Gulf especially generous concessions.

Following the death of Rene Barrientos in April 1969 (crashing in Gulf’s helicopter), Bolivia’s statesmen soon reverted to their normal Byzantine convolutions. For a start, the vice-president who succeeded Barrientos lasted but five months before being ousted by General Alfredo Ovando Candia.
Ovando’s long-held nationalist sentiments came to the fore. In his first month, he nationalized the Gulf Oil Corporation. The prevailing attitude toward the multinational, said Bolivian leaders, was that Gulf “constituted itself as a shadow government of vast powers over a poor land”. The nationalization left Bolivia open, as the New York Times expressed it in December, to “the wrath of the United States”.

“Since the seizure, the United States, which has been the mainstay of Bolivia’s economy for years, has indicated that further aid will not be forthcoming ... Washington has not been impressed by Bolivia’s offer to compensate Gulf for the property, which is valued at $140 million, about 50 per cent more than Bolivia’s annual budget ... Two Bolivian cabinet ministers interviewed this week said privately that the United States and Argentina were aware, as were most educated people in this capital, that well financed groups were plotting to overthrow the new Bolivian regime.” (New York Times, 14 Dec 1969)

This was followed by a dispatch from La Paz of Interpress Service (a major Latin American news agency) reporting that the United States was planning to bring down the Ovando government through economic strangulation. Then, two days later, the government alerted the public about a conspiracy “that was being organized by the CIA in close collaboration with Gulf Oil and some Bolivian rightists.”

But then ... it seems ... someone got to Ovando with an offer he couldn’t refuse. Slowly but surely, the president drifted to the right; amongst other indications: several anti-US student demonstrations were firmly put down by the police, nothing more was heard about Cuba, and Ovando removed General Juan Jose Torres as commander of the armed forces, a man highly regarded by most of the Bolivian left. By September, matters had progressed to the point that State Department officials were publicly expressing concern that a deepening split between the Ovando government and its former leftist allies was on the brink of open showdown and might result in a “communist” government.
By whatever label, there was indeed fresh political conflict in Bolivia. Two weeks later, the power struggle erupted into a military revolt. General Ovando was out. General Torres was in. Ovando had lasted one year.

Juan Jose Torres’s ten months in office produced the archetypical Latin American political drama. In the opening act, Torres did all the things which make Washington officials see Red: He made overtures of friendship to Allende’s Chile and Castro’s Cuba; increased commercial ties with the Soviet Union; nationalized tin mines owned by American interests (leading the US to threaten to release large amounts of its tin stockpile onto the world market to deflate the international price); expelled the Peace Corps; and closed down the Inter-American Regional Labor Organization (ORIT, an important vehicle for CIA labor operations in Latin America); on top of all this, Torres indulged at times in Marxist rhetoric, talking of workers’ and peasants’ power and the like.

Act Two brought on stage one Hugo Banzer, a Bolivian colonel with long and close ties to the American military establishment. He too had attended the escuela de golpes in Panama. Later there was further military training at Fort Hood in Texas; eventually, a posting to Washington as Bolivian military attache. Along the way he picked up the Order of Military Merit from the United States government. Banzer was also reported to be one of the beneficiaries of Gulf Oil’s largesse when he served in Barrientos’s cabinet.
In January 1971, Col. Banzer led a coup attempt which came to nothing except his own exile to Argentina. The CIA in La Paz had known of Banzer’s plan at least two weeks earlier, and had advised Washington of it. Over the next six months, as Banzer and his military cohorts diligently plotted their next attempt to oust Torres, Banzer regularly crossed over the Argentine border into Bolivia where he was in close contact with US Major Robert Lundin, an adviser to the Bolivian Air Force School in Santa Cruz.

Act Three, or the coup that succeeded, took place in August, a few days after Torres had announced an agreement with the Soviet Union for a major development of the Bolivian iron industry, a few days before he was to meet with Salvador Allende to re-establish diplomatic relations with Chile.
When the plotters were in military control of Santa Cruz, a breakdown in their radio communications network caused a delay in rallying other Bolivian military units to their side. At this moment. Major Lundin stepped in to fill the breach by placing the US Air Force radio system at the rebels’ disposal. How important this aid was to the success of the coup, which turned out to be very bloody, or what Lundin’s role was otherwise, has not been determined.
One week later, the San Francisco Chronicle reported: “Although it has been officially denied, CIA money, training and advice was liberally given to the rebel strategists who masterminded [the] overthrow of Bolivia’s leftist President Juan Jose Torres.”

In the finale, we find that the military-political coalition that took power was so far to the right that one of its member parties called itself by the customary fascist designation “Falange”, and that Banzer immediately announced that: his government would maintain very close relations with the United States, efforts to restore ties with Cuba and Chile would be abandoned, the trend toward nationalizations would halt, some already-completed nationalizations would be rescinded, the government would welcome private foreign investment, and all schools would be closed for at least four months because they were hotbeds of “political subversive agitation provoked by anarchists opposed to the new institutional order”. Before long, the government ordered the entire Soviet Embassy to leave the country, and Banzer eventually raised a foreign loan to pay Gulf Oil greatly increased compensation.

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Bolivia 1964-1975
by William Blum

Killing Hope,
U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II.