US Paid Money to Support Hugo Banzer’s 1971 Coup in Bolivia

Posted on May 30, 2010

0


banzer010408

 

 Kissinger noted, “In Bolivia there has been a coup. It has brought on a right-​wing government.”

Nixon’s response? “What about Chile?”

 

Real News: The U.S. Paid Money to Support Hugo Banzer’s 1971 Coup
By Robert P. Baird

For nearly four decades, there’s been an open ques­tion about the 1971 coup that brought dic­ta­tor Hugo Banzer Suárez to power in Bolivia: was the U.S. gov­ern­ment involved? Thanks to newly declas­si­fied doc­u­ments, we now have an answer.

Banzer was a dic­ta­tor of Bolivia from 1971-8 and a demo­c­ra­t­i­cally elected pres­i­dent from 1997-2001. His three-​day coup in August 1971 was sig­nif­i­cant not only for the fight­ing that accom­pa­nied it, which left 110 dead and 600 wounded, but for the seven-​year regime that fol­lowed, one of the most repres­sive in Bolivia’s his­tory. Under Banzer’s rule, more than 14,000 Boli­vians were arrested with­out a judi­cial order, more than 8,000 were tortured—with elec­tric­ity, water, beatings—and more than 200 were exe­cuted or dis­ap­peared. (I’m writ­ing a long arti­cle about the legacy of the regime for Nar­ra­tive Mag­a­zine. It will hope­fully be out by the end of the year.)

Amer­i­can sup­port for Banzer before and after the coup was never in doubt. He had trained at the School of the Amer­i­cas in Panama and the Armored Cav­alry School in Texas, and in the late 60s served as mil­i­tary attaché in Wash­ing­ton. In the five months after he ousted left-​wing dic­ta­tor Gen­eral Juan José Torres, Banzer was rewarded with $50 mil­lion in grants and aid from the Nixon Administration.

But while U.S. sup­port for Banzer during the coup has been widely assumed among Boli­vians and Latin Amer­i­can his­to­ri­ans, the only proof (until now) was been a Wash­ing­ton Post report pub­lished a week after the event, which said that U.S. Air Force Major Robert J. Lundin had advised the plot­ters and lent them a long-​range radio. The report was never sub­stan­ti­ated, how­ever, and the State Depart­ment denied it imme­di­ately, assert­ing unequiv­o­cally that the U.S. played no part in the over­throw of Torres.

A col­lec­tion of declas­si­fied doc­u­ments recently released* by the same State Depart­ment proves that this denial was not only incor­rect, but a lie: the Nixon Admin­is­tra­tion, acting with the full knowl­edge of the State Depart­ment, autho­rized nearly half a mil­lion dollars—”coup money,” accord­ing to the ambas­sador in La Paz—for the politi­cians and mil­i­tary offi­cers plot­ting against Torres. The CIA handed at least some of this money over to the coup’s lead­ers in the days lead­ing up to Banzer’s seizure of power.

Min­utes from a July 8, 1971 meet­ing of the 40 Com­mit­tee (an executive-​branch group chaired by Henry Kissinger and tasked with over­sight of covert oper­a­tions) included dis­cus­sion of a CIA pro­posal to give $410,000 to a group of oppo­si­tion politi­cians and mil­i­tary lead­ers, money that they knew would be used to over­throw Torres. (Under Sec­re­tary of State U. Alexis John­son: “what we are actu­ally orga­niz­ing is a coup in itself, isn’t it?”) Though the com­mit­tee decided to wait to hear from Ambas­sador Ernest Sir­a­cusa (he opposed the mea­sure) the plan was ulti­mately approved. The same day that the coup began in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, an NSC staffer reported to Kissinger that the CIA had trans­ferred money to two high-​ranking mem­bers of the opposition.

The CIA pro­posal had its roots in a June con­ver­sa­tion between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, when they decided that Torres’s over­tures to the Boli­vian left wing had gone too far:

Kissinger: We are having a major prob­lem in Bolivia, too. And—

Nixon: I got that. Con­nally men­tioned that. What do you want to do about that?

Kissinger: I’ve told [CIA Deputy Direc­tor of Plans Thomas] Karamessines to crank up an oper­a­tion, post-​haste. Even the Ambas­sador there, who’s been a softy, is now saying that we must start play­ing with the mil­i­tary there or the thing is going to go down the drain.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: That’s due in on Monday.

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.

The CIA was almost cer­tainly cor­rect that regard­less of U.S. involve­ment “an attempt to oust Torres in the next few months, if not sooner, [was] inevitable.” But even though they rec­og­nized that sup­port­ing the coup was “a high risk operation,” they decided they might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb:

The U.S. Gov­ern­ment will be the log­i­cal cul­prit in the minds of Boli­vians. More­over, we fully expect the CIA to come under fire and accu­sa­tions of CIA involve­ment seem inevitable. Since the CIA has been accused reg­u­larly (and falsely) of innu­mer­able plots and activ­i­ties in Bolivia, one more accu­sa­tion should not cause exces­sive public reaction.

On August 26, three days after Banzer claimed power, Kissinger and Nixon spoke on the tele­phone. Kissinger briefed the Pres­i­dent on his recent meet­ing with Viet­nam POW wives and the Pres­i­dent told Kissinger that “the trou­ble with Reagan is quite clear. He really is simplistic.” At the end of the con­ver­sa­tion, Kissinger noted, “In Bolivia there has been a coup. It has brought on a right-​wing government.”

Nixon’s response? “What about Chile?”

+++

*In July 2009 the State Depart­ment Released volume E-10 of For­eign Rela­tions of the United States 1968-1972, but with­held the Bolivia chap­ter until declas­si­fi­ca­tion could be com­pleted. The Bolivia doc­u­ments were released some­time between March 1 of this year (when I last checked the FRUS web­site) and now. As far as I can tell, no one else has noted the appear­ance or sig­nif­i­cance of the Bolivia documents.