159. Letter From the Ambassador to Bolivia (Henderson) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Gordon)1

Dear Linc:

The short run Country Team objective in the domestic political field has been to foster the circumstances in which elections can be held. In this effort, we have held no brief for, and we have tried to avoid identification with any particular candidate.

The Armed Forces must eventually transfer power. This can be done by violence, or by elections.

The civilian political parties must eventually accept responsibility for governing the country, and for engaging in political activities, as contrasted with quasi-military activities. This can only come about by holding elections.

We have used our resources to further this objective of elections, both with the Junta, and with the leaders of the political parties (with the sole exception of the extreme left). We have encouraged the Junta to stand firm on the date of elections, once chosen; and have encouraged political leaders to take a positive attitude towards the elections.

Any slate of candidates for the Presidency must include Barrientos, both because he is willing to fight to be included, and because he has genuine popular support. He can be eliminated by physical violence, or by political chicanery, but as long as he lives, he will return to the fight. He could also lose at the polls, although at present writing this seems unlikely, but in that event, the new government would face a formidable opposition.

Since Barrientos is a necessary element to holding elections, but not because he is our “chosen candidate”, we have used some of our resources with him. He will not be an easy president to deal with, and his regime may not live out its term. Much will depend on his cabinet, and the degree of influence individual ministers are able to exercise. But if there are to be elections, he has to be there, and we have to deal with him.

Elections with Barrientos as the sole candidate, however, with the major traditional political parties abstaining, would increase the probabilities of post-election instability. The Falange would certainly abstain if their candidates were running only against Barrientos. We, [Page 362]therefore, encouraged Andrade to take a chance (he didn’t really need much persuasion) in order that the MNR (as still the major political force in the country, even though presently divided) would be represented at the polls. This has caused the Junta and the Armed Forces some serious doubts, since they regard the MNR, however represented, as their mortal enemy (shades of 1946 and 1952).

The Andrade candidacy, and some behind-the-scenes maneuvering, (and, modestly, our own conversations with Falange leaders) has now brought the Falange into the campaign. The conditions are therefore present for a (relatively) meaningful election.

Some flies, of course, remain in the ointment, this being Bolivia. If the Junta plays too many tricks on Andrade, he will either throw his support to a unified MNR, or be discredited. In either case, the hand of the more extreme elements of the MNR will be strengthened, and Bolivia will face a prolonged period of civil unrest.

It is one thing to win an election in Bolivia, it is quite another to govern this country. Any administration needs an organization with workers everywhere; a political philosophy responsive to popular demand however imperfectly expressed; and skill in the arts of government. The MNR, disregarding for the moment its present plight, could muster these elements. Barrientos’ present political coalition can not, although he has personal charisma and political flair. The Falange has few assets in this respect, and would quickly polarize the political scene.

This means to me that after the election will come a period of political jockeying for new, more meaningful alignments. We hope that this jockeying will be in purely political terms, and that violence can be avoided. But uncertainty and a certain amount of boiling and bubbling cannot be avoided.

Finally, there is always the enigma of Ovando. We know very little certainly about him. We do know that he is unlikely to precipitate a showdown; that he is a master of devious maneuver; that he puts the unity of the Armed Forces above everything else; that he avoids imposing a decision (which has resulted in vacillation and indecision on many trying occasions); and that he has told us on a number of occasions that Barrientos must be a candidate for the Presidency, against moderate opponents, naming Andrade of the MNR and Romero of the Falange.

This leads us to conclude that Ovando now wants elections, with Barrientos winning. He could then retire with glory, to command a unified Armed Forces, free from the divisive threat of Barrientos, and thus control the only real unified force in the country. If Barrientos succeeds in governing the country for four years, he will have resolved at least some of the sticky problems which now confront the government, and [Page 363] Ovando could easily succeed him. If Barrientos does not do what the Armed Forces thinks he should do, Ovando could remove him, although this would always be dangerous, both to the Armed Forces, and to the country.

If we are wrong, and Ovando intends to out-maneuver Barrientos, we will have little chance to anticipate his move. We have, therefore, been careful to keep a clear channel to Ovando, too.

I hope you concur, at least in major outline, in our strategy.2 I would be pleased to have your comments.


  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, ARA Files: Lot 70 D 443, Def 19, Military Assistance, 1966. Secret; Official–Informal.
  2. In a June 3 memorandum to Morris commenting on Henderson’s letter, Williams wrote that this strategy was approved months ago and confirmed more recently in a 303 Committee paper. He went on to indicate that he was “puzzled that at this late hour, thirty days before the elections in Bolivia, the Ambassador should ask Mr. Gordon if he approves a strategy which we have been pursuing for many months.” (Ibid.)