A political action program for Bolivia, approved by the 303 Committee on 5 February 1965, culminated approximately 18 months later in an orderly transfer of power via elections to a civilian, constitutional government and inauguration of President Rene Barrientos on 6 August 1966. The CIA gave assistance to Bolivian soldiers in 1967 in their successful effort to track down and capture Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the revolutionery who was stirring up rebellion against the government. Guevara was captured on October 8, 1967 by CIA-advised Bolivian rangers. He was executed shortly thereafter.
When he took office in November 1963 President Johnson inherited a longstanding U.S. Government policy of providing financial support for Bolivian political leaders. The policy was intended to promote stability in Bolivia by strengthening moderate forces, especially within the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) itself, which had a strong left wing under the leadership of Juan Lechin Oquendo, General Secretary of the Mine Workers' Federation. In August 1963 the 5412 Special Group approved a covert subsidy to assist the MNR to prepare for the presidential elections scheduled for May 1964. The Special Group agreed in March 1964 that the MNR receive additional financial support. Paz won the election; Lechin (who had been Vice President under Paz) left the government and founded a rival leftist party.
On November 4, 1964, the new Vice President, General René Barrientos Ortuño (MNR), led a successful military coup d'état, forcing Paz into exile. In February 1965 the 303 Committee authorized a financial subsidy to the MNR under Barrientos (who was aware of U.S. financial support to the MNR) to help establish an organizational base for the presidential election scheduled for September. In May 1965 Barrientos responded to growing labor unrest by arresting and deporting Lechin and postponing the election.
The 303 Committee, which considered a recommendation to support Barrientos as the best available candidate, agreed in July 1965 and March 1966 to authorize additional funds for MNR propaganda and political action in support of the ruling Junta's plans to pacify the country and hold elections to establish a civilian, constitutional government. Covert financial assistance was a key element of U.S. foreign policy toward Bolivia during the Johnson Presidency. CIA documents have characterized the overall goals of the U.S. Government's covert action programs in Bolivia during this period as follows:
"The basic covert action goals in Bolivia are to foster democratic solutions to critical and social, economic, and political problems; to check Communist and Cuban subversion; to encourage a stable government favorably inclined toward the United States; and to encourage Bolivian participation in the Alliance for Progress. The main direction and emphasis of C[overt] A[ction] operations is to force Communists, leftists, and pro-Castroites out of influential positions in government, and to try to break Communist and ultra-leftist control over certain trade union, student groups, and campesino organizations."
Covert action expenditures in Bolivia between fiscal year 1963 and fiscal year 1965 were as follows: FY 63-$337,063; FY 64-$545,342; and FY 65-$287,978. The figure for FY 65 included funds to influence the campesino movement, for propaganda, to support labor organizations, and to support youth and student groups. The FY 66 program also allocated funds to support moderate political groups and individuals backing General Barrientos for President.
On 29 March 1967, CIA reported that two guerrillas captured by the Bolivian Army had furnished information that the guerrilla movement "is an independent, international operation under Cuban direction and is not affiliated with any Bolivian political party. The Agency had received information about the development of other guerrilla groups in Bolivia. "Should these other groups decide to go into action at this time, the Bolivian Government would be sorely taxed to cope with them" in addition to the Cuban-backed group.
As the training of the Bolivian Ranger battalion progressed, weaknesses in its intelligence-collecting capability emerged. The CIA was formally given responsibility for developing a plan to provide such a capability on 14 July 1967. This effort which was responsive to the IRG/ARA/COIN Action Memorandum number one dated 20 July 1967, entailed the dispatch to the area of guerrilla operations, by the Agency, of a highly professional and well equipped team using Bolivian Government cover. A team of two instructors arrived in La Paz on 02 August 1967. In addition to training the Bolivians in intelligence-collection techniques, the instructors planned to accompany the Second Ranger battalion into the field. Although the team was assigned in an advisory capacity, CIA "expected that they will actually help in directing operations." It so effectively improved the intelligence capability of the Bolivian Second Ranger Battalion that elements of that unit acting on field acquired intelligence were able within a matter of days to establish contact with the main force of guerrillas. Supported by these special troops, units of the Eighth Division closed in on Guevara's demoralized, ill-equipped, and poorly supplied band.
After a series of defeats at the hands of the guerrillas, the Bolivian armed forces on 30 August 1967 finally scored their first victory-and it seems to have been a big one. An army unit caught up with the rear-guard of the guerrillas and killed 10 and captured one, as against one soldier killed. Two of the dead guerrillas were Bolivians and the rest either Cubans or Argentines. CIA believed that several of the captured false passports may have been used by the Cubans to get to Bolivia. The Bolivians wanted to use the information on "Che" Guevara in the trial of Regis Debray, a young French Marxist intellectual, who is close to Fidel Castro and strongly suspected of being on a courier mission when he was caught in guerrilla territory in Bolivia the previous March [April ?]. CIA agents had participated in some of the Debray debriefings. Debray, echoed by the French press and the Communist propaganda mill, claimed CIA and FBI involvement.
Guevara was captured on 8 October as a result of the clash with the Cuban-led guerrillas. He had a wound in his leg, but was otherwise in fair condition. CIA contract personnel assigned to the Bolivian battalion as advisors unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the execution of Cuban leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara by the Bolivian military. These advisors provided on-scene reports of the execution to Washington. After Guevara's death and the end of the danger from Cuban-led insurgency, US officials responsible for coordinating covert activities took note of these actions in Bolivia as evidence of the excellent US-Bolivian cooperation which supported efforts to acquire detailed intelligence on Cuban-sponsored insurgency throughout Latin America.
By August 1968 President Barrientos faced the most serious political crisis of his two years in office, stemming from the publication of the "Che" Guevara diary, a copy of which was surreptitiously furnished to Fidel Castro by someone in Bolivia. Since the diary was kept under lock and key by the Army, the finger pointed there, bringing into question the loyalty and discipline of the Armed Forces. This produced a political chain reaction of protest by opposition groups, a police crackdown, threats of strikes and student disturbances, unrest in the Armed Forces, and finally, replacement of the civilian cabinet with a mediocre military one.
In the midst of all this, Barrientos' Interior Minister Antonio Arguedas took off for Chile where he announced that he had been the one that passed the Guevara diary to Castro. The circumstances of his "fleeing" Bolivia, his public statements, and his desire to come to the United States rather than go to Cuba which has been desperately trying to get him, all cast serious doubt on the bona fides of the Arguedas story. It sounded as though he agreed to be the scapegoat for his old friend Barrientos in order to take the heat off the restive Armed Forces. Arguedas arrived in the United States on August 4.
Former Bolivian Minister of Government Arguedas returned to La Paz on August 17. At press conferences held upon his arrival and again later in the day, Arguedas ascribed his action of providing the Guevara diary to Castro to his desire to rid Bolivia of "imperialism", as exemplified by the activities of the CIA. Arguedas claimed that he had been recruited by the CIA in 1965, and provided considerable information on names of CIA personnel and their alleged activities in recent years in Bolivia. But in an August 20 press conference, Barrientos defended Bolivia's relations with the US and condemned Cuba as the real threat.
In an 11 October 1967 memorandum informing President Johnson of the killing of Che Guevara, Walter Rostow remarked: "I regard this as stupid, but it is understandable from a Bolivian standpoint, given the problems which the sparing of French Communist and Castro courier Regis Debray has caused them." Rostow pointed out that the death of Che Guevara would have a strong impact in discouraging further guerrilla activity in Latin America. He also noted: "It shows the soundness of our 'preventive medicine' assistance to countries facing incipient insurgency-it was the Bolivian 2nd Ranger Battalion, trained by our Green Berets from June-September of this year, that cornered and got him."
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