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New Documents Bring to Light the U.S. Role in One of Bolivia’s Bloodiest Dictatorships


This week marks the anniversary in Bolivia (August 22, 1971) of the coming to power of one of the nation’s most brutal dictatorial regimes – the coup led by General Hugo Banzer. 

Abroad the coup is a little known event, a blip in a blurry history of a nation that famously suffered so many coups and counter coups for a time that some Presidents never finished out a whole day in office.  But it is important to remember that basically everyone here over the age of forty has a living memory of what it means to live under a brutal dictatorship marked by killings, disappearances, and torture.  It is impossible to truly understand the political currents that run through this country without understanding that.

Last year a friend of mine here, Ismael Saavedra, assembled a chilling re-creation of the torture facility where he had been held in agony as a student.  As I walked through the Cochabamba exhibit with another Bolivian friend, a respected academic, he haltingly revealed to me for the first time that he too had been treated to the inhumanities that took place under Banzer.

For years Bolivians have debated the specific role in that explosion of dictatorship played by the U.S. government at the time (the Nixon administration), in the face of decades of official U.S. denial.  A few months ago that debate became moot, with the declassification of new documents including official transcripts of conversations between Nixon and his chief foreign policy architect, Henry Kissinger.  The top leaders in the U.S. government provoked, supported, and financed the Banzer coup with no regard whatsoever for the suffering they would unleash on the Bolivian people.  Bolivia, as it turned out, would be a dry run for the more famous U.S. backed coup that brought the barbarous Pinochet regime to power in Chile two years later (The two dictators ushered into power by the U.S. are pictured together above).

To mark the anniversary and to draw attention to the newly declassified U.S. documents, the Democracy Center’s Jessica Camille Aguirre offers the extended Blog post.  This will be Jessica’s last Blog post as a member of the Democracy Center team, as she makes her way back to the U.S. after a year with us.  She has done tremendous work and will be missed.

Jim Shultz

New Documents Bring to Light the U.S. Role in One of Bolivia’s Bloodiest Dictatorships

By Jessica Camille Aguirre (with Assistance from Aldo Orellana)

By noon on July 17, 1980, Ismael Saavedra had walked through Bolivia’s biggest union headquarters in ramshackle and covered in bloody fingerprints.  He had seen paramilitaries jump out of ambulances on La Paz’s main street and open fire.  It was the second military coup in ten years and Ismael was on his way to a press conference at the Presidential Palace as a reporter with the student television network.  A block away from the Palace he was assaulted by paramilitaries and thrown in the back of a crowded Jeep. 

He was taken to a secret detention center and held in a stone cell with countless others.  They heard, through black hoods, screams, defiant growls and finally gunshots from the interrogation room next door.  They were beaten.

When he was taken into the interrogation chamber and lined up with others against the wall, he was told that he would die.  Hands on the wall, he heard shots and fell down.  He was taken and thrown on a pile of still-warm bodies.  He smelled excrement.  He felt breathing.  After a long time, he asked if there was anyone else there.  Yes, came replies.  Still alive.

When Ismael recounts the story now and describes his months of imprisonment, he doesn’t pause.  There is a pragmatic, perfunctory rhythm to his speech.  After being imprisoned under two military dictatorships in Bolivia, Ismael is primarily interested in preserving the living memory of the disappeared and tortured, and educating youth about the gruesome capacity of human nature.

One of the moments Ismael mentions occurred when he was in the Bolivian armed forces prior to his arrest – the moment he recognized the influence of the U.S. in the orchestration of the first coup in 1971.

Speculation about CIA involvement in establishing Hugo Banzer as dictator has circulated in Bolivia since his regime, under which 14,000 Bolivians were arrested without judicial order, 8,000 were tortured and 200 were executed or disappeared. 

The 11 years that followed the Banzer coup were extraordinary not only for their political upheaval but also for the ferocity of the oppression visited on the Bolivian people.  Notoriously draconian Luis Garcia Meza Tejada – who Ismael was tortured under – seized power during this period, making a blip in media when his minister of the interior announced that opponents of the regime should “walk with their wills under their arms.”

The U.S. Department of State categorically denounced accusations of U.S. involvement at the time of the coup, but recently declassified CIA documents indicate that the decision to intervene in Bolivia reached into the highest echelons of the U.S. administration. 

The declassified documents paint a riveting picture of power at play, and how history can be made in a small room thousands of miles from where its impact is felt.  An excerpt from a discussion nearly two months before the coup by the Committee of 40 (an executive branch group charged with covert operations, headed by Henry Kissinger) that weighed the elements of supporting Bolivian military insurgents:

Mr. Mitchell noted how often we had waited and waited and then frantically pumped money in at the last minute.

Mr. Meyer indicated that he did not have confidence in the people we would be dealing with.

Mr. Mitchell asked what is our alternative?

General Cushman felt there was no alternative to organizing the opposition. A covert effort could complement the overt aid.

Mr. Meyer repeated his desire to get the read-back from the country team first.

Mr. Johnson indicated he was uneasy.

The plan that received final approval – contrary to the recommendations of U.S. ambassador to Bolivia at the time, who Kissinger called a ‘softy’ – was to provide nearly half a million dollars in support of the coup.  

That may seem negligible, but it came implicitly coupled with aid promises and was enough to tilt an already wobbly democracy over to full-scale political violence. 

A particularly charming portrait emerges of U.S. foreign relations in a July, 1971 conversation of the situation between Nixon and Kissinger:

Nixon: What does Karamessines think we need? A coup?

Kissinger: We’ll see what we can, whether—in what context. They’re going to squeeze us out in another two months. They’ve already gotten rid of the Peace Corps, which is an asset, but now they want to get rid of USIA and military people. And I don’t know whether we can even think of a coup, but we have to find out what the lay of the land is there. I mean, before they do a coup, we would—

Nixon: Remember, we gave those goddamn Bolivians that tin.

Kissinger: Well, we can always reverse that. Then we—

Nixon: Reverse that.

With U.S./Bolivia relations once again on the rough, the scourges of history bear reconsideration.  There are tangible reasons why Bolivians continue to hold deep suspicion towards U.S. gestures of support.

The declassified documents may barely raise an eyebrow in Washington now, but the testimonies of the human suffering they occasioned continue to shape the collective memory of a country struggling to negotiate its present with its past.

“Physically, we can see the scars; we still observe consequences that torture left on people,” says Zulema Callejas of ITE, a Cochabamba-based non-profit that works with torture victims.  “But what has mostly remained are the memories; the memories of what has happened and what has been lived.”

Ambassadors from the two countries have been expected to sign a diplomatic agreement for weeks now, but tensions continue to flair over drug policy, and recent domestic conflicts have driven Bolivia perilously closer to kicking USAID out of the country entirely.  There hasn’t been a U.S. ambassador in Bolivia since Morales threw Philip Goldberg out in 2008 on suspicions of supporting domestic opposition movements in the Eastern departments.  Though Morales’ rhetorical railing against the evils of imperial capitalism is frequently less than constructive in moving relations forward, U.S. involvement in the region is often surprisingly lacking of tact.

History lays bare the worst contradictions of a U.S. foreign policy that acts on stagnant ideas of political structure rather than allowing for dynamic and admittedly messy self-determination.  Those contradictions are still reverberating.  As one torture victim testifies, “you can’t defend democracy in a democracy, you can only deepen it.  We, the ones who suffered from the coup, we were the ones defending democracy.”

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