Bolivia: Under the U.S. Boot

Thirty years after the death of Che Guevara, the RW examines the history of U.S. robbery and control in Bolivia

Revolutionary Worker #929, October 26, 1997

Thirty years ago, on October 8, 1967, the guerrilla group led by Ernesto "Che" Guevara was pinned down by Bolivian Army Rangers. Guevara and several other guerrillas were captured and coldly executed.

The Bolivian military claimed responsibility. A Bolivian finger may have pulled the trigger; but the U.S. government trained his executioners, provided the weapons, pointed them at Guevara, and gave the order to fire. The man in charge that day, in the tiny mountain village of La Higuera, was Felix Rodriguez, a veteran CIA agent who twenty years later would become a key operative in the CIA's secret cocaine-for-arms operations.

In RW #927, we sketched the story of Che Guevara's death and discussed some key issues surrounding the road he advocated for oppressed people. In future issues we will critique his political line and military strategy more closely.

In this article, we take a look at his killers--the U.S., its agents and its local Bolivian servants. When news reached Washington, DC, in the spring of 1966, that a new guerrilla force had been discovered in the Bolivian Andes, the U.S. government responded as if this distant region belonged to them. They sent new squads of CIA killers and Green Beret advisors to direct the pursuit of Guevara's forces. They airlifted new shipments of U.S. weapons, napalm and radio equipment. Then, as now, the U.S. power structure considered Bolivia and the rest of Latin America their "backyard"--as if the peoples and resources of these countries belong to U.S. corporations and the governments of these countries exist to serve the geo-political interests of the United States.


The U.S. ruling class declared early that all of Latin America was its "backyard." In the early 1800s, the U.S. went to war repeatedly to push European rivals, like the British and Spanish colonialists, from territories the U.S. power structure wanted for itself. In 1823, President Monroe declared his arrogant doctrine--that Latin America was "henceforth not to be considered as subjects for further colonization by any European powers." Powerful forces in the U.S. ruling class had visions of a great U.S. slave empire stretching south--to Haiti, Cuba, Mexico and beyond.

As the new century dawned, the United States seized the Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. By 1904, after the U.S. government had built itself an iron war fleet, President Theodore Roosevelt announced his "corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine. He declared that the U.S. had the right to intervene anywhere in the Americas--to run off "outside" powers and to install governments it liked.

During that same period, Bolivia's mineral wealth caught the eye of U.S. capitalists. Bolivia's silver was mostly gone by then. For three centuries Spanish colonialists had brutally enslaved hundreds of thousands of Indian people to blast silver ore from Potosi Mountain and other mines--leaving Europe richer and Bolivians poorer. But now the world market craved the ore in Bolivia's rich tin veins. In 1900, Bolivia produced 11 percent of the world's tin. Soon its share was twice that high. In 1906, U.S. banks financed the first major railroads in Bolivia.

In the 1920s, U.S. interests set up a national bank for Bolivia--so their profitmaking could be better organized. The U.S. demanded, and got, total control over Bolivia's tax collections. And in those same years, Bolivia's government opened up the country's rich oil reserves to exploitation by Standard Oil of New Jersey.

All this "development" left Bolivia dependent and dominated by foreign interests. The new railroads went straight from the mining centers of Potosi and Oruro to the harbors of the Pacific Ocean. As tin ore was rushed out of the country on shining rails--it still took people 12 months to travel the 500 miles, on horseback or on foot, between Bolivia's capital La Paz and the city of Santa Cruz. There wasn't even a road connecting Bolivia's three major cities until 1953.

Those who bought Bolivia's ore controlled the country. A tiny Bolivian ruling class grew wealthy from their deals with these foreign buyers. But the masses of people lived in extreme poverty--in peasant villages isolated from the outside world. Wealthy landowners owned over 80 percent of the land and kept the largely Indian peasantry in feudal bondage. About 5 percent of Bolivia's working people worked as miners--and they were often crippled by lung disease and over-work by the age of thirty-five.

Icing Their Rivals

From 1932 to 1935, Bolivia went to war with its neighbor Paraguay--Standard Oil had instigated this war to seize land for a pipeline. Paraguay was backed by Shell Oil, a British and Dutch corporation. A U.S. Senator said, "It was a quarrel between two corporations, enemies and at the same time partners within the cartel, but it was not they who shed their blood." Sixty thousand Bolivians died in this "Chaco War."

During the 1940s, the U.S. drove pro-German elements from power in Bolivia's government. Bolivia's Minister of Labor said his government conducted the purge because the U.S. was by then "the sole purchaser of our minerals."

The U.S. worked to develop a military presence to "protect" its economic interests--starting in 1941 with the establishment of a U.S. military "mission" in La Paz. A year later, in 1942, the Bolivian army gunned down rebellious miners in the famous "Massacre of Catavi." By 1945, the Bolivian army officers were being trained at the U.S. School of the Americas. U.S. military advisors organized a Bolivian air force. This was just the beginning.

Uprising and Counter-Revolution

At the end of World War 2 in 1945, a wave of struggle rose up around the world against colonialism and imperialism--and Bolivia's people were part of that. They staged an armed uprising in 1952 that toppled the government and shook all of Bolivian society. The uprising was based in hastily organized worker militias who defeated the regular army in three days of fighting. The regime that emerged nationalized the mines--saying that government-ownership of these industries meant that more wealth would stay in the country.

In the wake of the uprising the Bolivian army was shattered. And a year later in 1952, bourgeois forces in Bolivia took steps to reestablish a functioning military for themselves.

Stung by these developments, the U.S. moved to reassert control. In the decade following the uprising, the U.S. government paid a great deal of attention to rebuilding the Bolivian military. By 1956, U.S. instructors were teaching at Bolivia's military academy. In 1963, over 650 Bolivian officers were being trained at the School of the Americas. A third of Bolivia's government budget was paid by U.S. funds--including a military build-up. This build-up was for use inside Bolivia--maintaining stable conditions for U.S. exploitation.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents arrived in Bolivia in the early 1950s, soon after the agency was organized. And by the end of that decade, they had deeply penetrated the Bolivian state and were choosing government officials and setting government policy. In the late 1960s, a former Bolivian interior minister, Antonio Arguedas, revealed that he got his job after agreeing to work for the CIA. He described how the CIA and U.S. corporations manipulated Bolivian elections: "The CIA would evaluate the possibilities of each candidate and then recommend to trusted U.S. companies, or to companies connected with the CIA, to whom to make campaign contributions."

U.S. military-political control was directly connected to intensified economic exploitation. In exchange for new investments, the U.S. demanded influence over the new state-owned mining company and a "stabilization" program that included wage cuts. In 1953 Bolivia's new petroleum codes were written in English and, by the end of the 50s, ten U.S. oil companies, headed by Gulf Oil, were draining Bolivia's oil. Meanwhile, the nationalized mines of Bolivia were controlled by an "advisory group" drawn from the Inter-American Development Bank, the U.S.-controlled Alliance for Progress, and the foreign credit bank.

After the U.S. had infiltrated and trained the Bolivian officer corps, the U.S. government relied on that institution to directly run the country as a whole--starting in 1964, when General Barrientos staged a military coup with U.S. backing. This new Barrientos regime moved quickly: firing 6,000 miners, cutting miners' pay to 80 cents a day and disarming the miners' militias. In 1966, Gulf Oil gave General Rene Barrientos $800,000 and the use of a helicopter--so he could "legitimize" himself by winning that year's elections. Barrientos' government hunted down Che Guevara in 1967, and carried out a massacre of miners and their families at Catavi.

The next years were filled with massive resistance and struggle by the people. Meanwhile, official Bolivian politics was dominated by repeated U.S.-supported military coups. There were seven coups between 1978 and 1982 alone.

A New Rivalry

Starting in the 1960s, the U.S. was deeply concerned about a new imperialist rival--which was seeking to make inroads in Bolivia and other Latin American countries.

For decades after 1917, the Soviet Union had been a socialist society. But during the 1950s, capitalist-roaders led by Nikita Khrushchev took over the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and restored capitalism. Increasingly, the Soviet Union tried to develop its own imperialist ties throughout the world. Mao Tsetung called them "social-imperialists"--socialist in name, imperialist in reality.

In the early 1960s, a new alliance between Cuba and the Soviet Union, gave the Soviet social-imperialists a foothold in the U.S. "backyard." The U.S. ruling class saw this as a serious challenge. The U.S. launched an unsuccessful CIA invasion of Cuba--followed by military embargo and years of covert CIA operations. The U.S. military and CIA went on heightened alert throughout Latin America--training local military forces to hunt down armed guerrillas, some of whom were backed by Cuba.

In Bolivia, the U.S. had a double fear: They were worried about the growth of anti-U.S. movements among the masses of people. For example, powerful organized movements of peasants, miners and students were shaking Bolivia. And, at the same time, the U.S. was also afraid that their Soviet rivals would take advantage of such movements to widen their "beachhead" in Latin America. The U.S. ruling class understood the potential of such tactics well: they themselves had used anti-colonial rhetoric and exploited popular movements against Spanish colonialism in the 1800s--and then set themselves up as new masters in several Latin American countries.

These were the concerns that gripped official Washington. In March 1967, they received word of a new, Cuban-sponsored guerrilla movement in Bolivia's mountains. When Che Guevara was captured on October 8, 1967--the CIA agent, Felix Rodriguez, flew into the remote mountain village and personally oversaw Guevara's execution. It was intended as a bloody message to anyone thinking of challenging U.S. control in Latin America.

While the Soviet Union maintained ties with various guerrilla movements--they also explored other avenues of influence in Latin America. They worked hard to make inroads directly within the local ruling class and military of Bolivia (and of many other countries, including neighboring Peru.) The Soviet Union offered to invest in Bolivia's state-capitalist sector by financing Bolivia's first tin smelting complex. In exchange, the Bolivian government was expected to send a cut of tin profits to the Soviet Union.

In 1970, there were new attempts at armed uprising among the people of Bolivia. And, in 1971, Bolivia's new Soviet-financed tin smelting complex opened--and the Bolivian government rescinded an important steel agreement with the United States. None of these developments pleased the U.S., and in 1971, a U.S. sponsored coup brought Hugo Bánzer to power--with a program of privatization of industry and the brutal repression of the mass movement. A new Bolivian product appeared on the world market--coca.

Crisis and Cocaine

By the 1980s, coca leaves and paste emerged as Bolivia's main export. Coca leaves had been grown by Native peoples for thousands of years and used as a mild stimulant. But now, within a few years, imperialism turned coca into a cashcrop that, for the first time, drew peasants of Bolivia into production for the world market. Land devoted to growing coca in Bolivia went from 11,000 acres in 1977, to 130,000 acres ten years later. Coca production went from 1,800 tons to 50,000 tons over those same years--a 2,700 percent increase. By the late 1980s, many tens of thousands of day laborers were streaming into the coca regions to harvest the leaves and make paste. By the early 1990s, Bolivia was the second largest grower of coca in the world, exporting some $1.6 billion worth of leaf a year, supplying 15 percent of the U.S. cocaine market. By some accounts, one Bolivian in 5 worked in the industry.

The U.S. government insists that it strongly opposes cocaine production. New U.S. military penetration has taken place throughout the Andes, using the excuse of "fighting a war on drugs." But the truth is that imperialism made cocaine the main pillar of Bolivia's economy and various U.S. agents have been involved in every step of this process.

In the early 1980s, the CIA helped open new drug smuggling routes from Columbia into the U.S.--helping to make cheap cocaine widely available in the U.S. Funds from this trade financed the Contras--a CIA-backed army trying to destabilize Nicaragua's Sandinista government. This booming new cocaine trade transformed the Andean countrysides where most coca is grown--especially in Peru and Bolivia.

At the same time, a deep international economic crisis during the 1980s hit Bolivia hard because of its extreme dependence on world mineral markets. Between 1980 and 1985 Bolivia's economic output dropped 17 percent. Unemployment doubled and inflation shot up to 24,000 percent--the highest levels in the world. The standard of living of the people went into drastic decline. In 1985, the price of tin was cut in half. Eighty percent of the country's 28,000 tin miners were laid off--and the prices of basic goods were raised drastically to pay off debts to imperialist banks. One miner's wife said: "Even the mice are leaving because there's no food....All we have to eat each day is bread and sultana water (a drink made with coffee bean husks)."

The imperialist system ruined Bolivia's old tin economy, while it opened up opportunities in the lucrative new cocaine trade. Sections of the Bolivian ruling class saw the cocaine trade as a savior that would enable them to continue paying the country's debts.

In 1980, General Garcia Meza took over Bolivia's government. A former agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Michael Levine, reports that Meza's so-called "cocaine coup" was funded by some of Bolivia's biggest cocaine traffickers. In exchange, the coca traffickers chose the man to run Bolivia's police and intelligence services--a certain Colonel Luis Arce-Gomez. After 1980, the once fractured Bolivian coca economy came under the control of a small group of drug capitalists with high connections.

Officially, the U.S. State Department and DEA denounced these developments and broke off relations with the Meza government. But Levine charges that, behind the scenes, the CIA played a hand arranging this 1980 coup, hoping to stabilize Bolivia through a "drug boost." Levine suggests that U.S. banks also supported Meza by postponing Bolivia's loan repayments as the new government worked to consolidate power.

Military Intervention Through the So-called "War On Drugs"

In 1982, an elected government replaced General Meza, and in 1983, the U.S. restored aid after Bolivia's government signed an "anti-drug" agreement--all while the drug economy boomed.

A major new leap in U.S. military intervention took place--using the justification of "a war on drugs." In 1983 the U.S. funded and created a new military force known as the Rural Area Police (Umopar), which gained a reputation for brutality and corruption. As part of these new arrangements, U.S. combat troops were introduced into Bolivia for the first time--in the 1986 operation called "Blast Furnace." About two hundred U.S. combat-ready troops conducted several months of "anti-drug" operations--prompting a protest demonstration of 20,000 in La Paz.

In 1987, the U.S. began "Operation Snowcap" which supposedly aimed to cut cocaine production in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia in half. US Special Forces were sent to Bolivia to train police, help the DEA, and for intelligence gathering and mission planning. The U.S. also sent a Border Patrol special operations unit, US Coast Guard and Navy Seals for land and river searches. Across the border, in Peru, similar operations were set up.

A major target of these military moves was the peoples war led by the Communist Party of Peru. Conditions in Bolivia are quite similar to the areas of Peru where the guerrillas of the PCP were developing new forms of revolutionary power. The ruling class of the U.S. and Bolivia were afraid that revolutionary advances in Peru might "cross the border" and stimulate a Maoist revolution in Bolivia.

It has now been widely exposed that during the mid-1980s, the flow of cocaine into the U.S. was expanding--including often through channels associated with the CIA, its agents and allies. In 1992 a study commissioned by Bolivia's parliament documented that during the 1980s the CIA was deeply involved in cocaine production in Huanchaca, Bolivia. "The real king of cocaine is the U.S.," said Roberto Suarez, a top Bolivian drug dealer. "Here the trafficker is the government, there it's the system. Everybody's in it, from the State Department to the CIA."

In 1991, 56 US military advisors were sent to train two battalions of the Bolivian Army at the base 60 miles north of Santa Cruz--again in the name of "the war on drugs." Recently President Clinton has proposed $112 million worth of military equipment and training for Latin America. The result has been intensified police and military attacks on the people. One study showed that 60 percent of those detained during the massive "drug sweeps" carried out in Bolivia were threatened, 44 percent were tortured or beaten. One recent raid left 7 dead, including a 13-year-old girl and 6-month-old baby.

After a Century
Under the U.S. Boot

Coca production, like all previous imperialist operations, has left the masses of people deep in poverty. The peasants who grow the coca live in adobe shacks along narrow dirt roads. Only one family in six has running water or indoor plumbing. People live, on average, only into their 50s.

In Bolivia, the vast majority of the people are farmers--and yet the country depends on imported food--which means that many can't afford it. Eighty-five percent of the population live below the poverty line. According to UN studies, half of Bolivia's children between the ages of 2 and 5 have stunted growth because they don't get enough to eat. And most have little chance to go to school or get medical care.

Over and over again, the intense struggles of the people against these conditions have been shot down by guns that are stamped "made in the USA," carried by soldiers. In December 1996, police and army units attacked striking miners at the gold mines of Amayapampa and Capacirca in northern Potosi. They were trying to force out striking miners who had seized the mines. Twelve miners were killed and scores injured in a military siege that lasted several days. The miners' action was triggered by their struggle with the new mine owners, the Denver-based Vistagold Corporation.

Today, after a century under the U.S. boot, the masses of people live worse than they did 500 years ago when European colonialists first arrived.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)