143. Telegram From the Embassy in Bolivia to the Department of State1

3679. Subject: (U) Ambassador’s Meeting With President Padilla. Ref: State 89616.2

1. C–Entire text

2. Summary. In an April 26 meeting with the Ambassador, President Padilla said his health had now stabilized after a scare earlier this week, he projected full confidence that he was in control, that he would finish his term and that he could not be frustrated in his objective to hold elections on July 1. He anticipated a delicate period after July 1 if no candidate wins direct election by an absolute majority and indicated, for the first time, that he might in this case remain in power for an additional 30 days after the convening of the congress, Aug 6, to give it more time to elect the next president. Padilla said he intended to hand over the government in respectable shape and therefore would tighten up his Administration. He foresaw some increase in petroleum product prices in May, more pressure from the palace on weak minister, and an end to arms buying after the military uses its $100 million authorization (which it has). End summary.

3. I met with President Padilla on April 26 to review problems entailed in keeping the Bolivian economy and electoral process on an even keel until the civilian government takes over.

4. Padilla’s Health

I found Padilla alert, decisive and showing no signs of discomfort, other than his usual limp when he rose to greet me. In general, he looked no worse than when I last saw him on April 16.3 He continues to gain weight—in fact, has become quite obese since assuming the presidency. His face and hands were slightly puffy. I told Padilla that we had had everything ready for his examination at Walter Reed and would try to set this up again when he was ready to travel.4 Padilla said he had now decided to postpone his medical check-up and treat [Page 441] ment until after he leaves office in August, because his presence was required here and his medical situation did not now appear to be an emergency. He confided that he had some disturbing moments on April 22 and 23. He said that on finishing his visit to Uyuni (which he said was higher than La Paz) he, for the frst time in his life, felt severe effects of “altitude” in the form of heart beat irregularities and difficult breathing. On his return to La Paz he suffered severe hemorrhaging from the nose three times during the night of April 22. Padilla ascribed these symptoms to exhaustion and felt his situation was now stabilized.

5. Politics

Padilla reaffirmed his single-minded determination to preside over successful elections on July 1 and said nothing could turn him from this purpose. While still concerned about the number of candidates, Padilla expected the field to narrow in effect to a two-horse, Paz-Siles, race with only two or three other candidates finishing far behind.5

6. Padilla said he expected several more candidates to withdraw from the race in the next few days—as the government would clarify that the financial sanctions against candidates receiving fewer than 50,000 votes would be rigidly enforced. Hugo Banzer, Padilla said, would unfortunately persist in his candidacy—against his word given earlier to Padilla and armed forces colleagues.6 Padilla was not very concerned about the effects of Banzer’s candidacy on the electoral process, but he did consider it a humiliation and disgrace to the armed forces to have an ex-president and distinguished general holding poorly attended rallies in dingy movie theaters in the slums of La Paz—in a hopeless quest that would result in Banzer’s repudiation by 95 percent of the electorate. Padilla was clearly relieved that General Miranda had withdrawn his candidacy and was deeply upset that Banzer’s ill-starred candidacy might be viewed as a referendum on military government.

7. Rene Bernal, Padilla thought, had hurt his candidacy badly by joining with Mario Gutierrez and the right-wing FSB, but Padilla thought Bernal still had some chance to be the king-maker between Victor Pazestenssoro and Hernan Siles Suazo if the election went into the congress.

8. Padilla anticipated a two-way race between Paz and Siles, with three possible outcomes.

Paz eeks out an absolute majority, and gains direct election.

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Paz gets a plurality, or runs a very close second, and forms a government in the congress with Bernal.

—Siles wins a clear plurality and forms a government in the congress with Paz.

Padilla confided that a Paz government was “probably preferable,” although some in the military have little stomach for Paz. A Siles victory would cause problems within the military, although Padilla insisted that his personal position was “win whoever may.” The problem with Siles, Padilla said, was not the man, whom Padilla professed to consider a good and strong figure, but the internationalist loyalities and financial support of his leftist coalition partners, the Bolivian communist party (Moscow line) and the MIR (leftist revolutionary movement). These elements were hard for the military to swallow—although Padilla again insisted that he will push through the electoral process.

9. If no one gained an absolute majority, and thus direct election, on July 1 (and he thought only Victor Paz had a shot at this), Padilla foresaw a turbulent period between July 1 elections and inauguration, scheduled for August 6. Padilla—as usual viewing himself as the rock surrounded by shifting sands—said that if the parties could not promptly form a “reasonable” coalition government, he would have to call them on the carpet and tell them their responsibilities. These clearly included “respecting the role of the armed forces.”

10. For the first time, Padilla said that if no candidate wins direct election, he may have to delay inauguration, and prolong his government, 30 days beyond the traditional (but not constitutional) August 6 date to give the congress adequate time to form a coaltion government and elect his successor.

11. I reiterated to Padilla the strong interest of the US in the integrity and full completion of the democratization process in Bolivia, begun by the government of the armed forces and now very much as well the personal mission and responsibility of General Padilla. I said we were anxious to be helpful where appropriate and possible, particularly in consolidating the position of the civilian government. Padilla said he had some ideas on this question, but wanted to defer this discussion with me until after the election process and advanced and clarified further.

12. Economics

I explained our concern that the current “transitional” government was, in some key areas, particularly economic policy, arms purchases, and the quality of public administration, not running a sufficiently tight ship to meet Padilla’s own objective of handing over the government in reasonable shape. Padilla protested that he had no intention of turning over an unsustainable economic situation to the next govern [Page 443] ment. He said he was reluctantly coming to the conclusion that petroleum product prices would have to be raised in May, although he had not yet decided how much. I added that another important area, in terms of handing over an orderly economic situation, was “de-dollarization,” along the lines suggested by the IMF. When Padilla looked blankly over my head I explained to him how the existing widespread system of dollar-value guarantees for peso deposits denied Bolivia necessary use of exchange rate movement, since the guarantees led to massive automatic monetary expansion whenever the exchange rate moved. It would take time and skill to pare away this system of guarantees and the job should be begun as soon as possible if a new government were to have all the flexibility needed to stabilize the economy. Padilla said he would look into this (but clearly his finance minister has not gotten very far in educating him on this problem).

13. Padilla defended his arms purchases as the minimum needed to keep a professional army occupied in its traditional national security mission. He said he would turn off the tap at $100 million and said almost all of this sum would be accounted for by 25,000 automatic rifles, ammunition, infantry weapon spare parts, six F–27 transport aircraft and some old Austrian “tanks.” (Comment: It is a sad commentary on the Bolivian military’s purchasing methods—but probably accurate—that it can spend close to $100 million on these items.)7

14. Padilla said he was contemplating other actions to tighten up the ship. He said he would continue to turn down all wage increases. (Comment: which he cannot really do, especially in the context of higher petroleum product prices.) He said he also had to do something about the weak sisters in his cabinet. (He mentioned the ministers of education and foreign affairs, by example). Padilla, with his usual directness, asked me what I thought about firing some of his ministers. I responded that this obviously was not my business, but I had noticed that “cabinet crises” in Bolivia were usually associated with a public perception of weakness in the government, so one would have to make sure there were benefits to compensate for this cost. Padilla said this was probably right and with so little time remaining for his government, he would probably do better to sit harder on the weak sisters rather than to replace them.

15. I told Padilla I was upset about the amount of pressure the Soviet Ambassador was putting on the foreign minister to have Bolivia [Page 444] abstain on any UN security council vote on continued deployment of the UNEF in the Sinai.8 The government should have no illusions about how strongly the US felt about implementation of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, which Bolivia had up to now consistently supported.9 I suggested Padilla might want to review this issue with the foreign minister to make sure Bolivia’s interests were being calculated accurately. Padilla nodded energetically and said he would review this personally.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790192-0159. Confidential; Immediate; Exdis. Sent for information to Lima and Quito.
  2. See Document 142.
  3. No record of Boeker’s April 16 meeting with Padilla has been found.
  4. In telegram 3553 from La Paz, April 23, the Embassy reported that Padilla had requested admission to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for a general check-up. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790186-0864) In telegram 103479 to La Paz, April 24, the Department informed the Embassy that the request was approved. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790188-0329)
  5. In telegram 3545 from La Paz, April 23, the Embassy reported that eleven political groups had petitioned for inclusion on the ballot. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790186-0840)
  6. In telegram 3497 from La Paz, April 20, the Embassy reported on Banzer’s decision to enter the presidential race. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790182-0894)
  7. In telegram 87295 to La Paz, April 8, the Department approved a request for FMS funds to purchase an antitank weapons system. The Department noted, “Approval is granted because intended acquisition is modest in cost, limited in number, and consistent with US conventional arms transfer policy.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790161-0045)
  8. Bolivia was a member of the UN Security Council in 1978 and 1979. For the UNEF in this period, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. IX: Arab-Israeli Dispute, August 1978–December 1980, Document 270 and footnote 2 thereto.
  9. For the negotiation and implementation of the March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli treaty, see chapters 2-4, Ibid.