Bolivia


Bolivia
(1971–1982)
   On 18–22 August 1971 Colonel Hugo Banzer Suárez overthrew the leftist General Juan José Torres González, establishing a dictatorship known as the Banzerato (1971–1978). There are no official estimates of the human-rights abuses committed under Banzer Suárez—Bolivia’s truth commission, created in 1982, had a restricted mandate and also never published a final report. But one source, Federico Aguiló’s “Nunca máspara Bolivia (Never Again for Bolivia) claims that there were 3,059 political prisoners, 65 disappeared persons (desaparecidos), 429 deaths at the hands of the military and police, 39 political assassinations, and 663 exiles. In addition, hundreds are believed to have been raped and tortured. At least 80 (or as many as 200) deaths occurred in the Cochabamba Valley in 1974, when the army attacked unarmed Indian peasants protesting food prices. Although the scale of human-rights abuse in Bolivia during this period was small compared with that in Argentina or Chile, Bolivia belonged to Operation Condor, a South American military network whose members tracked down one another’s exiled political opponents. According to human-rights groups, Bolivian security forces arrested six exiled Argentinians and sent them back to Argentina, where they disappeared; Argentine security forces arrested and executed 23 exiled Bolivians. One of Condor’s victims was General Torres González, murdered in Argentina in 1976. Banzer Suárez’s regime also knowingly sheltered the German Klaus Barbie-Altman, the “Butcher of Lyon,” who had been the Gestapo chief in Lyon, France. Under Banzer Suárez, who was known as “El carnicero de La Paz” (“the Butcher of La Paz”), Barbie-Altman held a post in the ministry of the interior.
   By the late 1970s, during the administration of Jimmy Carter, the United States began to pressure Banzer Suárez to return the country to democracy. But the transition was interrupted by the dictatorship of General Luis García Meza (July 1980–August 1981) and by other short-lived regimes, both military and civilian. The García Meza regime, coming to power after the so-called cocaine coup, brought another round of human-rights abuse, including thousands of torture victims. It used death squads trained by Argentine officers and led by neo-Nazis such as Barbie-Altman, Stefano delle Chiaie, and Pierluigi Pagliai. Barbie-Altman’s squad was known as the “Bridegrooms of Death.”
   BACKGROUND TO THE “DIRTY WAR”:
   Following the Chaco Wars (1928–1930, 1932–1935), in which Bolivia was soundly defeated by Paraguay, many Bolivians placed responsibility for the debacle on the traditional political parties, which were dominated by the Spanishspeaking elite. New parties emerged, promising economic, political, and social reform. The one with the broadest support to challenge the status quo was the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR, Movement for National Revolution), a popular, middle-class reformist party that would turn increasingly militant and radical. In the elections of May 1951, the MNR’s candidate for president was Víctor Paz Estenssoro, then in exile in Argentina. He won a plurality of the vote, but since he failed to win an outright majority, constitutional procedure called for Congress to elect the president from the top three candidates. Instead, the outgoing president resigned, transferring power to an army junta. The junta nullified the election and banned the MNR, labeling it a communist organization. Now committed to taking power by force, the MNR distributed arms to civilians. A popular uprising began on 9 April 1952, and after three days of fighting, in which 600 people died, the junta was defeated, and Paz Estenssoro returned to Bolivia and became president. Thus began a 12-year period that came to be known as the National Revolution. Arms were in the hands of urban and rural militias, the military had surrendered, and the MNR embarked on a course of profound change. During Paz Estenssoro’s first term (1952–1956), the government enacted universal suffrage, abolishing the literacy requirement and thus enfranchising hundreds of thousands of Indian peasants. It reduced the military from 20,000 to 5,000 members and cut its budget in half. It also approved the creation, by miners, of the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB, Bolivian Workers’ Central), a federation of trade unions. Although Paz Estenssoro and his vice president, Hernán Siles Zuazo, preferred a moderate course, the COB and the party’s left wing, led by Juan Lechín, pressured them into enacting more radical changes. In October 1952 the government nationalized the three biggest tin mines (though promising compensation) and put them under the control of the newly created Corporación Minera de Bolivia (COMIBOL, Bolivian Mining Corporation). Then, in August 1953, it enacted agrarian reform, freeing peasants from indentured labor and expropriating landholdings for redistribution. Although the Agrarian Reform Law affected only the largest landholdings, smaller ones were seized by peasants.
   These reforms, however—combined with the post–World War II decline in tin prices—destabilized the economy. Agricultural production fell, and the mines suffered losses. Increased social spending contributed to high inflation—the cost of living rose twentyfold between 1952 and 1956. The bankrupt economy increased tension within the MNR. The left wing, led by the COB and Juan Lechín, called for socializing the economy; the center-right wing, led by Siles Zuazo, opted for another solution—aid from the United States. As early as mid-1953, the government, facing food shortages, sought U.S. financial aid. The United States, in turn, gained access to Bolivia’s economy. In October 1953, for example, Bolivia drew up a new petroleum code, which allowed private U.S. investment in Bolivian oil. Under the presidency of Siles Zuazo (1956–1960), U.S. aid would reach an all-time high, and in late 1956 Siles Zuazo accepted a plan, drawn up by the United States and approved by the International Monetary Fund, to stabilize the economy. The plan worked—the budget deficit was cut and inflation brought under control. Yet some of its measures, such as freezing wages and ending food subsidies for miners, alienated the left. By the last two years of his term, Siles Zuazo, facing opposition to MNR policies, reluctantly decided to rebuild the military. Divisions within the MNR widened during the second term of Paz Estenssoro (1960–1964). He moved to the right, encouraging foreign investment and opposing the COB. He continued rebuilding the military and allowed the United States to train Bolivian officers. In 1964 Paz Estenssoro ran for president a third time—the constitution had been revised to allow a consecutive term. By then, Paz Estenssoro found himself supported by only two major groups: the peasants, who, after receiving land titles, became staunchly conservative; and the military, now back to its former strength. He picked René Barrientos Ortuño, a general, to be his vice presidential running mate. He won the election, but a few months later, on 4 November 1964, the military removed him from office, establishing a junta led by Barrientos Ortuño.
   From then until 1982, the government would remain largely in the hands of the military. Unlike its counterparts in most other Latin American countries, Bolivia’s military never developed a common ideology. Rather, the regimes that followed one another during the period were shaped by their leading officers, whose politics ranged from radical left to reactionary right. Still, Barrientos Ortuño set a basic pattern for all the regimes—he supported agrarian reform and allied the military with the peasants. This alliance, combined with a growing economy—COMIBOL made its first profit in 1966—helped him legitimize his position by winning the presidential election in 1966. At the same time, he was hostile to the left, suppressing trade unions, firing miners, and lowering wages. He posted soldiers at the mines, which became scenes of daily conflict, and in June 1967 the army massacred striking miners and their families. The left responded to the repression by forming guerrilla groups, though the group that drew the most attention came from outside the country. In 1966 the Argentine-born guerrilla leader Che Guevara entered Bolivia and established a base camp in the southeast. By October 1967, however, Barrientos Ortuño, supported by U.S. advisors, had routed the insurgents, capturing and executing Guevara.
   In April 1969 Barrientos Ortuño died in a helicopter crash and was succeeded by his civilian vice president, Luis Adolfo Siles Salinas, who was then ousted on 26 September in a coup led by the commander in chief of the army, General Alfredo Ovando Candia. Espousing a program called “revolutionary nationalism,” Ovando Candia attempted to build a working relationship with the left, expropriating the U.S.-owned Gulf Oil Company of Bolivia, reinstating the COB, and withdrawing soldiers from the mines. He also tried to revive the left wing of the MNR. On 6 October 1970 conservatives in the military, led by General Rogelio Miranda, the army chief of staff, forced Ovando Candia from office, naming a three-man junta to succeed him. But the following day, a left-wing military countercoup, supported by workers and students, handed the presidency to General Juan José Torres González.
   Although he had helped plan the campaign against Guevara, Torres González would become the most radical military leader in Bolivian history. He accepted aid for COMIBOL from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, expropriated U.S.-owned mines and companies without compensation, and expelled the Peace Corps. He also reached out to Salvador Allende Gossens, the newly elected Marxist president of Chile. In addition, he allowed the formation of the Asamblea Popular (People’s Assembly), which represented trade unionists and peasants, though the former predominated. Led by Juan Lechín, it aimed at becoming a people’s congress. It failed to do so—the trade unionists and peasants never came to terms. It did, however, support workers who seized small mines and who took over the newspaper El Diario, actions that frightened moderates and conservatives and helped create a climate favorable for a coup. After the Asamblea Popular called for Bolivia to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, and left-wing officers proposed the creation of a people’s army, the military intervened against what it perceived to be the country’s move toward communism.
   THE “DIRTY WAR” (1971-1982):
   The military coup of 18–22 August 1971, led by Colonel Hugo Banzer Suárez, was backed by the MNR and the Falange Socialista Boliviana (FSB, Bolivian Socialist Falange), parties that were then anticommunist and middle class. Both parties formed militias that fought alongside rebel military units. Their opponents were student and unionist militias and the Presidential Guard Battalion. On 23 August rebels crushed the last of the opposition. In the end, 120 people were dead and 700 wounded. Banzer Suárez modeled his military government after Brazil’s, instituting authoritarian rule and limiting civilian participation. He moved quickly to ban trade unions and abolish any party to the left of Paz Estenssoro’s MNR. Despite its authoritarianism, his government (1971–1978) had wide support during its first four years, owing largely to a booming economy. Rising prices for oil and tin exports, as well as the beginning of exports of agricultural products and natural gas, allowed him to build skyscrapers, paved roads, and an international airport. A paved road in the Chapare region increased cocaine trafficking, which added to the boom. In late 1974, following the example of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, who had come to power in Chile in September 1973, Banzer Suárez established a militaryonly government. After this autogolpe, or “self-coup,” all cabinet positions were occupied by the military; all political parties, including the MNR and the FSB, were abolished; and Paz Estenssoro was exiled.
   By the time of Banzer Suárez, Bolivia had had a long history of political repression. Since its independence from Spain in 1825, it had witnessed 185 coups—including the one in 1971—and opposition leaders would often be imprisoned, exiled, or killed by those taking power. Banzer Suárez widened the scope of repression. Within the first two years of his regime, over 2,000 Bolivians were arrested without charge and held in secret “houses of security.” By the end of his rule, the figure would exceed 3,000. His opponents, whom he labeled “leftists” or “subversives,” were largely trade unionists at first but came to include peasants, students, and progressive members of the Catholic Church. The use of torture during interrogations was common. And although far fewer political prisoners died in Bolivia than in Argentina or Chile during the period, Bolivia was one of six original members of Operation Condor, a South American military network that tracked down and eliminated one another’s opponents. One case linked to Condor was that of Graciela Rutilo Artes, an Argentine citizen living in Bolivia and married to a Uruguayan man who was a Tupamaro guerrilla. In April 1976 she and her nine-month-old daughter were seized by Bolivian and Argentine federal police. Graciela was transferred to Argentina and disappeared; her husband was captured, tortured, and killed in Bolivia; and her daughter was adopted by an Argentine torturer, though in 1985 she was united with her maternal grandmother. Another case linked to Condor was that of General Torres González, who in June 1976 was abducted and killed in Buenos Aires.
   By 1974 Banzer Suárez faced political instability, exacerbated by a slumping economy. Even the military’s traditional ally, the peasants, confronted the regime. In January 1974, for example, unarmed peasants blocked highways in Cochabamba Valley in protest over rising food prices. Soldiers removed them, killing at least 80 and possibly as many as 200. In the mines, workers carried out strikes and acts of violence despite the regime’s efforts against organized labor. And in June 1976, students and miners mounted a national protest over Banzer Suárez’s decision not to allow General Torres’s body to be returned to Bolivia. In late 1977 the unrest, combined with pressure from the Jimmy Carter administration in the United States, led Banzer Suárez to announce that elections would be held the following year. He also repealed his authoritarian decrees and declared he would not be a presidential candidate.
   The transition to democracy, however, would take five tumultuous years. In late December 1977 a group of activists, led by Domitila Barrios de Chungara and three other miners’ wives, began a hunger strike in the offices of the journal Presencia, demanding a complete amnesty for some 340 labor and political leaders in exile. Twenty days later, supported by the Catholic Church and joined by thousands across the country, they won their demands. One of the returning exiles was Siles Zuazo, who ran for president representing a loose coalition of parties from the left and center. His main opponent was the military’s candidate, General Juan Pereda Asbъn. In the election of July 1978, Pereda Asbún claimed victory, but the results were nullified amid charges of vote fraud. He then seized power in a coup, calling Siles Zuazo a tool of international communism. In November Pereda Asbún was himself overthrown by the commander in chief of the army, General David Padilla, who had the support of the left. Pereda not only called for elections but also promised that the military would take no part in them whatsoever.
   In the elections held in July 1979, the main presidential candidates were Siles Zuazo, Paz Estenssoro, and Banzer Suárez. Siles Zuazo led the MNR’s left faction; Paz Estenssoro led the MNR’s center faction; and Banzer Suárez, now a civilian, led a conservative political party, Acción Democrática Nacionalista (ADN, National Democratic Action). Paz Estenssoro won a plurality, though his margin of victory over Siles Zuazo was small. Because no candidate won at least 50 percent of the vote, Congress was given the task of choosing a new president. It decided to call for new elections within a year and to name as interim president Walter Guevara Arce, a longtime MNR member and the head of the Senate. On 1 November 1979, however, Colonel Alberto Natusch Busch staged a right-wing coup, claiming that Guevara Arce’s government lacked legitimacy. On the first day of the coup, known as the Massacre of Todos Santos (All Saints’ Day Massacre), the rebels killed 100 and disappeared 140. After two weeks of fighting, in which 500 died, Natusch Busch withdrew, having failed to win popular support or even the full support of the military. Congress then named a new interim president to serve until the elections: Lydia Gueiler Tejada, the head of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress.
   In the elections of June 1980, the main presidential candidates were the same as the year before: Siles Zuazo, Paz Estenssoro, and Banzer Suárez. This time, Siles Zuazo won a plurality, helped by allegations that Paz Estenssoro had backed the coup in 1979. Siles Zuazo was most likely to be declared the winner in August, when Congress was scheduled to meet. But on 17 July General Luis García Meza, commander in chief of the army, took control of the government, arresting Gueiler Tejada and nullifying the election results. Although García Meza intervened on the pretext of saving the country from communism, his intervention became known as the cocaine coup because it was financed by Bolivian drug traffickers. “Coca dollars” also paid for the participation of the Argentine military, which used the money to spread its “dirty war” to El Salvador. During García Meza’s rule (July 1980–August 1981), the value of Bolivia’s cocaine exports was estimated at $1.5 billion, far more than the value of its official exports. García Meza received millions of dollars in kickbacks, and he used some of the money to buy the cooperation of other officers.
   In addition to corruption, the regime was characterized by violence. García Meza targeted trade-union and political leaders and journalists for abduction, torture, and killing. Much of the repression was carried out by paramilitary death squads established by Argentine advisors and neofascists such as Klaus Barbie-Altman and Pierluigi Pagliai. One of the death squads, the Servicio Especial de Seguridad (SES, Special Security Service), was trained by Argentine military officers from the Escuela Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA, Navy Mechanics School). The Argentineans taught the Bolivians how to prolong torture—how to inflict the most pain without killing the victims. On the first day of the coup, some 700 people were arrested. Avoiding arrest were Siles Zuazo and Paz Estenssoro, who went into hiding. Gueiler Tejada received asylum in the papal nunciature and, in October, was permitted to leave the country. One of those arrested was Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz, a socialist leader who had testified before the U.S. Senate against the Banzer Suárez administration and who had documented the existence of Operation Condor. He was tortured during interrogation and murdered. On 15 January 1981 the SES carried out a mass murder, machine-gunning eight leaders of the Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR, Leftist Revolutionary Movement).
   Under García Meza, the country was sunk in economic disarray and international isolation. On 4 August 1981 a military junta overthrew him and named General Celso Torrelio Villa president. Facing civil unrest, Torrelio Villa restored trade unions, allowed the return of those exiled by García Meza, and ended the curfew that had been in place since 18 July 1980. He also promised to return the country to democratic rule within three years. But unable to right the economy, he resigned in July 1982, handing over the reins of government to General Guido Vildoso Calderón.
   Pressure began to mount for a return to civilian rule. This came not only from peasant organizations, trade unions, and leftist political parties but also from business leaders who had been staunch supporters of military dictatorship. Still, the military was reluctant to hand power back to civilians, fearing punishment for its corruption and violence. Although repression had eased considerably since the end of the García Meza regime, paramilitary units still roamed the streets—the SES had been renamed the Departamento de Investigación Especial (DIE, Special Investigation Department)—and Bolivia continued to shelter Barbie-Altman. Nevertheless, Vildoso Calderón agreed to hold elections in April 1983. Events, however, forced him to act sooner. On 17 September 1982 trade-union leaders staged a nationwide strike, during which Vildoso Calderón resigned, turning power over to the Congress that had been elected in 1980. Congress, charged with electing a new president, chose Siles Zuazo, who was inaugurated in October 1982 for a four-year term.
   AFTERMATH OF THE “DIRTY WAR”:
   Soon after taking office, Siles Zuazo abolished the death squads, banished their Argentine advisors, and purged the military of authoritarian officers. He extradited Barbie-Altman to France, and Pierluigi Pagliai to Italy. He also established the Comisión Nacional de Investigación de Desaparecidos (CNID, National Commission of Inquiry into Disappearances), an eight-member truth commission. As the name suggests, the CNID’s mandate was limited—it was charged to investigate disappearances but not other abuses such as illegal detention and torture. The commission collected information on 155 cases of disappearance dating from 1967 to 1982 and managed to recover some remains. But it received little financial or political backing and dissolved three years later, never issuing a final report. Despite the CNID’s dissolution, the search for truth and justice moved forward. In 1986, in Sucre, Bolivia, García Meza and his former minister of the interior, Colonel Luis Arce Gómez, were put on trial in absentia for human-rights violations. Supreme Court judges heard the case, which would last seven years and which was known as the Trial of Responsibilities. The two had since gone into hiding. In December 1989 Arce Gómez was discovered on his ranch in the south of Bolivia, arrested, and extradited to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges. The extradition caused a political uproar—no extradition treaty existed between Bolivia and the United States, and Bolivian law stated that no Bolivian could be extradited while on trial in Bolivia. But the extradition was allowed to stand, and in January 1991 Arce Gómez was convicted by a federal court in Miami, Florida, and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
   As for García Meza, in April 1993 he was convicted on 36 charges and sentenced to 234 years in prison, though the maximum he could serve under Bolivian law would be 30 years without any chance of pardon. Also convicted were 44 (out of 58) collaborators, who received sentences ranging from one to 30 years. He and Arce Gómez were convicted, along with four paramilitary agents, of the murder of the socialist Quiroga Santa Cruz, a trade unionist, and a member of Congress. He and Arce Gómez were also convicted, along with 12 paramilitary agents, of genocide for the murder of the eight MIR leaders on 15 January 1981. García Meza was arrested in Brazil in 1994 and extradited to Bolivia. His 30-year sentence began in March 1995.
   The human-rights abuses of García Meza’s regime largely overshadowed those of Banzer Suárez, who, unique among former dictators of the period, improved his image and became a successful civilian politician. Beginning in 1979, Banzer Suárez ran for president six times, his ADN party consistently garnering 20 percent of the votes. In 1997, allied with the MIR and other parties, he won the congressional runoff election and was named president. But he could not escape his past. In October 1998 General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, Chile’s former dictator, was arrested in Britain at the request of the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, who sought his extradition to Spain to face charges in connection with Operation Condor, which had recently been exposed. Bolivian human-rights groups accused Banzer Suárez of being connected as well. In November 1998 the Chamber of Deputies asked a commission to investigate Bolivia’s connection with Condor and to pass any evidence on to Judge Garzón. The evidence was found but, under government pressure, never handed over. In the end, Banzer Suárez never faced charges. He resigned in 2001 because of ill health and died the following year.

Historical Dictionary of the “Dirty Wars” . . 2010.

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