78. Intelligence Note 520 from the Director of Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hughes) to Secretary of State Rogers1 2

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  • BOLIVIA: Coup Preparations Under Way—but not yet Inevitable

Recent statements of high Bolivian military officials to US representatives in La Paz have made it clear that the stage for a coup against President Siles is being set. Nevertheless, the principal player, Armed Forces Chief General Alfredo Ovando, still appears to be a somewhat reluctant actor. Heir apparent during the tenure of recently deceased President Rene Barrientos, Ovando has been clearly determined to be Bolivia’s next president. His plans began to go awry when Vice President Luis Adolfo Siles moved up to the presidency following Barrientos’ death. Since then, the difficulties of the Siles-Ovando relationship, the potential presidential candidacy of La Paz Mayor General Armando Escobar, and military dismay at Siles’ activities have all served to keep coup rumors alive. The normally prudent and cautious Ovando, however, has not yet betrayed a determination to move soon; and he may still go to some lengths to opt for constitutional accession in next year’s election rather than risk possible adverse reaction to a military coup.

Lack of rapport between Siles and Ovando. As prime mover in the November 1964 coup, Ovando cannot be considered a passionate defender of the constitution. Following that event, however, he became the evident heir apparent and was generally seen as preferring to succeed Barrientos by constitutional means. It seems clear that he hoped to work out a similar arrangement with Siles following Barrientos’ death. However, Siles’ ambitions, fears, and general [Page 2] political ineptitude have clashed with Ovando’s determination to keep the new president on a short rein. And the less Ovando feels that he can count on Siles’ cooperation in the elections now expected in May 1970, the more he will feel driven to seize the office by force. The potential candidacy of the popular and effective Escobar could also make Ovando fear that he can only achieve the presidency by force.

Military also apprehensive about Siles. While some portion of the military has apparently enjoyed leaving politics to the politicians, others, including the higher echelons, have been troubled by Siles’ attempts to expand his limited political base by playing up to such traditionally oppositionist sectors as the miners and the students. Now claiming to foresee that Siles will be unable to control irresponsible congressional pressures when that body next meets in August, Ovando supporters, specifically Armed Forces Chief of Staff Ruiz and Defense Minister Gallardo, are clearly making plans for a coup.

Pressure may yet subside—but possibility remains real. Should military leaders be successful in their planned attempts to persuade Escobar to remove himself from contention, one major motive for a coup will have been eliminated. Military fears of political turmoil, however, may prove more difficult to dispel. We expect Ovando to continue to try to ensure his accession by constitutional means: but should Escobar persist in his plans, or military pressure for a coup become irresistible, Ovando’s hand would be forced.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 15–1 BOL. Secret; No Foreign Dissem; Limdis.
  2. The Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) reported that the Bolivian military feared Siles’s attempt to build his political base amongst miners and students, and began preparing a coup against the President. Despite his desire to become President, Ovando seemed to be reluctant to take power by military force.