155. Editorial Note
On May 24, 1965, the Department of State reported to the White House that the military junta headed by General Barrientos had committed Bolivian armed forces against the miners in the state-owned tin [Page 349] mining enterprise, COMIBOL. The purpose of this action was to remove labor union leaders, “who are to a large extent either communist or far leftist, and practically all of whom are opposed to the Government of Barrientos,” and who “have resisted reform and sabotaged the rehabilitation program” initiated by the junta to reduce labor costs and improve the ability of the government to manage the mines in order to ensure further U.S. assistance to COMIBOL. The report noted that although the junta “undertook its action without U.S. commitments for assistance, it has hoped for such aid.” (Department of State Background and Situation Report, as of 1400, May 24, attached to memorandum from Read to McGeorge Bundy, May 24; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, POL 23–9 BOL)
ARA and CIA representatives. According to ARA’s record of this meeting, prepared on May 20, FitzGerald asserted that providing arms to Barrientos to move into the mines “would make us ‘strike breakers,’ and ‘this we can’t do.’” Sayre responded: “I think you’re right on the arms question. I think we’re really not going to finance it.” A handwritten note in the margin, apparently made by Denney, said: “but we did!” (Memorandum from Carter to Hughes, Denney, and Evans, May 20; Department of State INR/IL Historical Files, ARA/CIA Weekly Meetings, 1964–1965)
The Department informed Ambassador Henderson that AID had authorized approximately $1.8 million in “special financial support for planned military intervention in COMIBOL mines.” (Telegram 644 to La Paz, May 26; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, POL 23–9 BOL) The Department authorized Ambassador Henderson “to commit all funds requested and communicate this to GOB.” In addition, the Department instructed Henderson to look into arranging for emergency military supplies and equipment, including ammunition and planes. (Telegram 624 to La Paz, May 24; ibid.)
Also on May 24 General Ovando signed, on his own initiative, cease-fire agreements with student and labor leaders representing the tin miners. Under the terms of the agreements, Ovando would halt troop movements on the mines and withdraw troops from the mines already occupied, while the workers agreed to return to work. The government and the miners were to negotiate their differences. This action, according to a Central Intelligence Agency report of May 26 ([document number not declassified]), “was a direct violation of junta policy and determination to follow through with military operations to gain control over the tin mines.” As a result, the report indicated, “the military government of General Rene Barrientos is in serious danger [Page 350] of collapse.” The report continued, “an assessment of those forces attempting to oust him reveals that a successor government would probably permit Communists and extreme leftists to consolidate and increase their power.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Bolivia, Vol. III, Memoranda, December 1964–September 1965) The report was forwarded on May 26 to McGeorge Bundy by CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Ray Cline.
On May 27, with indications that Barrientos and Ovando were near an open split, Ovando became co-President of the junta along with Barrientos with both men having the right to exercise authority of commander-in-chief over the armed forces. According to a May 28 Department of State Situation Report, “Barrientos earlier had told our Ambassador that he intended to elevate Ovando to the co-Presidency in order to ‘keep an eye on him.’” The report continued:
“We believe that relations between Ovando and Barrientos, never notably good, have now reached their nadir, though their differences are again momentarily plastered over. A split between the two would divide the Armed Forces, whose ability to act as a stabilizing anticommunist influence over the near and longer term would be drastically diminished. We have instructed our Embassy to continue exerting every reasonable effort to prevent such a split, and that such efforts should be from a posture of neutrality as between the two men. A senior United States officer, who served in Bolivia for four years and is closely acquainted with both Barrientos and Ovando, will leave the United States for Bolivia Friday evening [May 28]. He will emphasize to both men the paramount importance which the highest levels of the United States Government attach to the preservation of the unity of the Bolivian Armed Forces.”
The report was forward to the White House under cover of a memorandum from Read to McGeorge Bundy on May 28. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, POL 23–9 BOL)