158. Memorandum Prepared for the 303 Committee1


  • Expansion of Political Action Program in Bolivia


  • Memorandum dated 29 January 19652

1. Summary

It is proposed to expand up to [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] already approved on 5 February 1965, and [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] more to be used upon exhaustion of the original sum) for propaganda and political action in support of the ruling Bolivian military junta’s plans to pacify the country and eventually hold elections to establish a constitutional government. This support would be designed (a) to promote an eventual transfer of power to a [Page 357] government more stable than the present provisional military regime and potentially capable of meeting the country’s pressing problems;

(b) to bolster the junta’s unity and stability through discreet aid to political groups and key individuals who will support continuation of the regime and of the required power balance within it for as long as may be necessary or desirable, as instruments for the achievement of U.S. policy objectives in Bolivia, and (c) to provide levers with which the two co-presidents of the junta, Generals Rene Barrientos and Alfredo Ovando, can be restrained from ill-judged or precipitate action that might split the Bolivian armed forces and plunge the country into political and economic chaos. The present proposal has a much broader purpose than that presented last January as regards ultimate objectives, and differs chiefly in the amount of funds now required because of changed circumstances, the mechanisms to be used, and the variety and scope of activities to be funded. It is possible that further expenditures may later become necessary, but specific requirements cannot yet be accurately predicted in view of the highly fluid Bolivian situation. This proposal has the concurrence of Embassy La Paz, the Department of State, and CIA.3 Implementation will be [1 line of source text not declassified] in coordination with Ambassador Henderson in the field and with appropriate officers of the Department of State in Washington.

2. Problem

To help create the conditions for an orderly transfer of power to a constitutional government which would have reasonable prospects for stability.
To maintain in the meantime the stability of the junta government through aid to political groups and individuals who will support [Page 358] continuation of the present regime until the orderly transfer of power can take place, which may not occur for a year or two.

3. Factors Bearing on Problem

a. Background

(a) The present situation in Bolivia is different from that prevailing at the time the referenced memorandum was prepared and approved. The chief new developments have been (1) the failure of Barrientos’ effort to have himself elected president quickly and the indefinite postponement, announced on 7 May 1965, of the national elections previously scheduled for October of this year; (2) the mid-May decision of the junta to carry out drastic reforms in the operation of the state mining corporation known as COMIBOL, including the use of force to extend governmental authority to the mining areas; (3) the subsequent arrest and deportation to Paraguay of the extreme leftist labor leader and politician Juan Lechin and later of other troublemakers of the far left; (4) the ensuing increased tensions and stresses within governmental, military and political circles, heightened by public disturbances which occurred during the last half of May and (5) the naming on 26 May of Ovando as co-president of the junta.

The present co-presidential arrangement is regarded as essentially unstable over the long term. There appears to be strong sentiment within the junta in favor of keeping Ovando from ousting Barrientos and vice-versa, since any such move by either might irreparably damage the solidarity of the armed forces and split them into irreconcilable factions. This could in turn destroy both the junta’s ability to govern and public acceptance of the military establishment. The regime would rapidly collapse under those circumstances. The Embassy and the CIA [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] believe that such a collapse would entail passage of the political initiative to extremist groups of both the Right and the Left, with a high probability that a prolonged period of chaotic civil disturbance and/or civil war would ensue.
The Popular Christian Movement (MPC), regarded in January 1965 as the main vehicle for the promotion of Barrientos’ presidential candidacy, has come to play a definitely secondary role. It lacks political sophistication and good leadership, and has remained essentially a rural, peasant organization without substantial appeal to urban elements of the population. In view of this and of the indefinite postponement of elections, the MPC is no longer considered adequate as the primary focus of the political action program although it remains a useful instrument for mobilizing peasant support. Of the [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] approved on 5 February 1965, [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] had been expended as of the end of [Page 359] June 1965, directly for MPC organizational, propaganda, and administrative expenses and indirectly for related support to the regime.
The essential factors in the present situation lead to the conclusion that the present regime should continue, as the only apparent feasible alternative for the time being to chaos and the eventual dominance of extremist groups, pending the holding of elections and installation of a constitutional government. There are strong feelings among junta members as well as subordinate officers of the armed forces in favor of the indefinite maintenance of military pre-eminence in Bolivia, as insurance against a resurgence of the sentiment that resulted in the downgrading of the military establishment during the 12year tenure of the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR). Coupled with this is a realization that strong-arm tactics are not enough and that the military must work to establish broadly-based support—passive if not active—for its chosen role. There are political elements also which appear willing to back the military for the time being, by non-opposition if not by any overt act, lest a worse fate befall them. The U.S. Government’s role should accordingly be that of encouraging the emergence of a national consensus along these lines. It will be necessary to provide covert support to these individuals and groups that can be mobilized behind U.S. policy objectives, since overt action, or even inaction, on the part of the U.S. which appeared to favor one faction or another would imperil the unity of the regime.
The fluidity of the situation in the country makes it impossible at this time to identify all elements to be aided through covert channels. [11 lines of source text not declassified] There will necessarily be flexibility in the extent of the covert funding to be provided each of these and other groups, in view of the rapidity with which Bolivian events tend to move.

b. Origin of Requirement

[1 paragraph (6 lines of source text) not declassified]

c. Pertinent U.S. Policy Considerations

Bolivia needs a moderate and effective government. There is neither a single party nor a likely combination of parties capable of forming a viable government with which we could cooperate. Hence, for the present, there is no acceptable alternative to the junta, and there may be none for a year or more. The unity of the armed forces is the key factor in the continued strength of the government. The armed forces could be split by the rivalry of Barrientos and Ovando, both of whom desire to be the constitutional president. Meanwhile there is increased maneuvering among civilian parties and groups who are looking toward the time when they can play a more meaningful role in governmental affairs. In the long run there must be a civilian government, [Page 360] and we should encourage the growth of conditions which will make this possible. As the civilian political situation unfolds we should identify that group which gives promise of being most viable politically and most energetic in attacking developmental problems, and give it our support. Under present circumstances we must carefully assess the relative strengths of Barrientos and Ovando as well as other leaders. We are inclined to favor Barrientos at this time, but we must not antagonize Ovando, about whose orientation and motivations we should know more, by playing favorites in such a way as to set Ovando against us or to cause him to bring his differences with Barrientos to a head.

[Omitted here is additional discussion of the proposal.]

4. Coordination

This proposal has been coordinated with and approved by the U.S. Ambassador in La Paz and has been discussed in detail with appropriate officials of the Department of State.

5. Recommendation

That the 303 Committee approve the covert political action program outlined above. The total sum requested at this time is [less than 1 line of source text not declassified], of which [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] is covered by a previous approval. [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]4

  1. Source: Department of State, INR/IL Historical Files, 303 Committee Special Files, July–December 1965. Secret; Eyes Only. This is a revised version of a draft prepared in the CIA on June 7. (Ibid., 303 Committee Files, c. 21, June 25, 1965)
  2. Document 153.
  3. The June 7 draft proposal occasioned considerable discussion before and after its preparation. When FitzGerald stated at a June 2 meeting of representatives of the ARA and CIA that it might be an ideal time to “give [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] a little covert support,” Denney replied that “it seems like a waste of money to me.” (Memorandum from Carter to Hughes, Denney, and Evans, June 4; Department of State, INR/IL Historical Files, ARA/CIA Weekly Meetings, 1964–1965) At the June 25 meeting of the 303 Committee the draft proposal was criticized by the participants because it openly supported Barrientos. There was a difference of opinion expressed concerning the relative merits of Barrientos and Ovando and the risk, according to Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance, that supporting one over the other could cause a “ruinous civil war.” The 303 Committee agreed to postpone decision on the proposal pending further study. (Ibid., 303 Committee Files, c. 22, July 26) The revised July 13 proposal reflected a U.S. policy decision, according to Sayre, “to encourage moderate and responsible civilian political organizations looking to the time when pressure will greatly increase on the junta to make concessions to the desire of political groups to participate in the government or to hold elections.” (Memorandum by Sayre, July 7; National Security Council 303 Committee Files, Subject Files, Bolivia, 1962–1980) This memorandum was addressed to the Acting Deputy Under Secretary (Thompson) and was marked “not sent.”
  4. The recommendation was endorsed by Thompson on July 19. (Ibid., 303 Committee Files, c. 23, August 9, 1965) In a July 21 memorandum to McGeorge Bundy, Executive Secretary of the 303 Committee Peter Jessup indicated that “both State and Vance have approved” the proposal and wrote “I have no magic formula either and recommend working along with Barrientos as the only semi-competent available.” Bundy initialed his approval. (National Security Council, 303 Committee Files, Subject File, Bolivia) The 303 Committee approved the recommendation on July 26. (Memorandum for the Record, July 27; ibid.) At the request of Ambassador Henderson, the 303 Committee on March 28, 1966, approved a request for [text not declassified] additional funding to strengthen the political coalition backing Barrientos in the upcoming election, with the stipulation that such requests would “be frowned upon” in the future. (Memorandum from Koren to Gordon, March 28; Department of State, INR/IL Historical Files, 303 Committee Special Files, January–June 1966). The CIA paper, February 26, proposing the extension of the political action program is ibid., c. March 28, 1966)