U.S. Operations in Bolivia: A Paradox of Policy

As was the case with the majority of the geopolitical proxy wars of the mid- to late-20th century, the case study of U.S. operations in Latin America throughout the cold war largely resemble neo-colonialism. This was the argument employed by Lawrence Whitehead (1969), a renowned scholar of Latin American democratization, who identified U.S.-Bolivian relations as a pure example of such; where the U.S. suborned the local regimes to protect its economic, ideological and national security interests through material aid. Such aid was used to keep sympathetic regimes in power and, further, the threat of curtailing this aid was a well-used manipulative tool that allowed the U.S. to bring regimes to heel.

In the particular instance of Bolivia, the economic and political factors underpinning U.S. operations were two-fold. For one, the nation was home to a considerable quantity of exportable tin that came to surpass silver as its most valuable commodity during World War II. However, it was the political turmoil that gripped Bolivia in the wake of the war that made it of significant concern to the U.S. government. Following a disputed election in 1951, in which the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) was denied victory, the group launched a successful revolution in April 1952. A large motivator of this was the abject socioeconomic conditions to be found in Bolivia after generations of laissez-faire government policies and exploitative capitalism. The severe inability for the MNR to combat these issues was seen as an opening for the spread of socialism, thus Bolivia became embroiled in the Cold War power dynamics of the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

As Whitehead states, the U.S. found the MNR to be a “reliable ally against the communist threat” and used conditional aid as a means to assert influence against any source of socialism. This resulted in a wholly oppressive regime under the MNR, which gave rise to socialist opposition. A primary leader to emerge in opposition to the MNR was Che Guevara. While Argentine by birth, Guevara was a prominent figure of the Cuban revolution and in Fidel Castro’s government, serving as Minister of Industries and becoming second in command. Guevara was a medical doctor by training, and had traveled extensively throughout the South American continent in his youth, and his introduction to the socioeconomic suffering resulting from the dictatorships propped up by Western powers served to radicalize him. With the resources of the Cuban, and by extension Soviet, government Guevara wanted to export revolution similar to what had been witnessed in Cuba.

In Bolivia, Guevara sought to establish a guerilla group that would be able to counter the U.S. influence over the nation’s affairs and eradicate the MNR. From 1964 – 1966, he and his men launched raids of MNR camps and industrial infrastructure in the attempts to bring about socialist revolution. However, unlike his efforts in Guatemala and Cuba, Guevara was largely unsuccessful in attaining his objectives in Bolivia. A relevant material from the Dodd Archives & Special Collections is the account of his death at American hands in 1967. Written by British journalist Richard Gott, who had followed Guevara from Cuba to Bolivia, this article is an interesting account of Guevara’s final weeks. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had been providing counter-insurgency assistance in the form of weapons as well as logistical “consultants”, many of whom were exiled Cubans, to combat Guevara. As part of U.S. Cold War policy, Guevara was hunted across Bolivia by the MNR government, and was captured and killed in October of 1967. Gott’s account of his death was interesting, as the journalist was among the few witnesses in Bolivia who were used to identify his body. While the MNR asserted that he had been shot 11 times and killed in the course of one of his raids in the Bolivian oil town of Camiri, Gott’s account determines that Che had been captured and was to face interrogation at the hands of the CIA in Panama, before he was executed by the Bolivian Military in a way to support the MNR account. Nevertheless, Che’s life and death was formative for the creation of such bodies as the Organization for Latin American Solidarity.

The sentiment of Latin American solidarity against the foreign policy interventions of the U.S.  can be gleaned even today, with regards to the execution of U.S. Drug Control Policies. Much in the same way that the political and military operations in the 1960s occurred in the context of the Cold War turning hot with the Cuban missile crisis, US Drug Control Policies, particularly with regards to foreign intervention, accelerated and grew in scope amid the renewed Cold War Tensions in the 1980s. These actions were initiated by President Reagan to combat the growing social concern posed by narcotics, in what was termed a “War on Drugs”. This “war” of policies and extrajudicial actions to combat the manufacture and distribution of narcotics in Latin America was framed as a corrective action taken by the victims of narcotics; the addict or user in the United States. Judy Claude’s The Political Economy of Cocaine (1990) is perhaps the most interesting material that I have encountered in the Archives and Special Collection to date for its examination of the vertically integrated supply chain of narcotics from Peru, Bolivia and Columbia, and the human rights implications of workers in that supply-chain outside the United States. With the collapse of its tin industry, Bolivia was among those nations that turned to coca cultivation out of economic desperation. So called “cartels” operate as a pseudo government in distributing money and social benefits to establish an effective regime of control over local governments and the relatively powerless federal governments, using violence and intimidation to protect what has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

However, as Claude writes, the United States Drug Policy is premised on the American consumer being the victim, and in addition to a domestic reformulation of sentencing guidelines for drug crimes, an emphasis was placed on “eradication and interdiction”. This very fact is interesting because, as Claude points out, the drug traffickers of Latin America are the very same military groups that had received CIA logistical and material assistance over the prior decades. This sad irony is explanatory of the ill-conceived action with regards to the failed interventionist polices throughout the latter half of the 20th century.  Most significant are the human rights implications of narco-oligarchical rule that was established and now is combated by the U.S. Drug cultivation remains an attractive option for the citizens in nations such as Bolivia because of the abject socioeconomic conditions encountered in the years succeeding the death of reformists and socialists such as Che Guevara. These regimes offered some measure of protection in exchange for oppression and dependency on the drug trade for their economic security. Claude argues that the necessary steps for reform include measures such as debt relief, trade, assistance and economic reinvestment with these Latin American countries to attack the underlying source of dependence on the Drug economy. Further, domestic actions to reduce the demand for drugs within the United States, as well as policies to combat the laundering of drug money in the Miami Banking system would be a much more effective campaign in the “war on drugs”.

— Michael Piersall

Further Readings at Dodd Archives and Special Collections:

Call, Charles, and Washington Office on Latin America. 1991. Clear and present dangers: The U.S. military and the war on drugs in the andes. Washington, DC: Washington Office on Latin America.

International Fund for Agricultural Development. 1993. The state of world rural poverty: A profile of latin america and the caribbean. Rome, Italy: IFAD, .

Pettersson, Björn, and Lesley Mackay. 1993. Human rights violations stemming from the “war on drugs” in bolivia. Cochabamba, Bolivia: Andean Information Network.

Youngers, Coletta, and Washington Office on Latin America. 1991. A fundamentally flawed strategy: The U.S. war on drugs in bolivia. Vol. issue brief #4. Washington, D.C: Washington Office on Latin America.

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About Graham Stinnett

Curator of Human Rights Collections and Alternative Press Collections, Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut. Stinnett holds a Master’s degree in Archival Studies from the History Department at the University of Manitoba, where he also earned a Bachelor’s degree in Latin American History. Stinnett's graduate work focused on human rights non-governmental organizations and their importance to archives and the role of archivist as activist. He has published in the Progressive Librarian on the subject. Stinnett has worked in University Archives with human rights collections at UC Boulder, Manitoba and UConn. His involvement with the Manitoba Gay and Lesbian Archives collection project and the LGBTTQ Oral History Initiative, the El Salvador Human Rights Archive at Boulder and the extensive AltPress & Human Rights Archives at UConn have resulted in a multitude of engagement and outreach activities. He also briefly served as the Archivist for the Vancouver Whitecaps Football Club in British Columbia.

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