On November 4, 1964, a military junta led by General Rene Barrientos overthrew Bolivian President Victor Paz Estenssoro, ending the 12 year governance of the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR). The coup surprised many foreign observers. Robert Alexander, an early academic observer of the MNR, had written in 1963 that the party seemed well on its way to setting up a one party state similar to Mexico's Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which had ruled that country continuously since 1920. To Alexander, Paz's landslide electoral victory in early 1964 confirmed that the MNR would continue its domination of Bolivian politics well into the future. Equally surprising to Alexander and others was the armed forces' involvement in the coup. Their institution had Paz's unqualified support and had been rebuilt with the assistance of the United States over the previous half-decade, becoming a central pillar of the MNR regime. Yet, only eight months after the presidential election, the country had a military government and Paz was in exile.
Most Bolivian specialists attribute the MNR's demise primarily to fissures within its political structure and have seen the influence of the United States as a contributing factor in the coup, but not the cause.(2) Cole Blasier regards the coup as primarily a "domestic matter," but acknowledges that the U.S. played an important role in bringing the armed forces to power. He notes that "critics have ... written so much against U.S. involvement (in the rebuilding of the military) and they have been so widely believed" that the U.S. is assumed to have a greater role than it did.(3) So what was the U.S. role in the rebuilding of the Bolivian military?
This paper examines what Blasier rightly calls a "contributing factor" in the MNR's demise: the United States involvement in the reconstitution of the Bolivian military. By using sources previously unavailable to scholars: records of the State Department, Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), I hope to cast new light on the U.S. role in the military buildup and subsequent coup. The goal here is to move beyond Blaiser's conclusions to provide a richer portrait of the unfolding of the policy. I will argue that United States officials, in the context of intruding Cold War conflicts into Latin America in the late 1950s and early 1960s, early on came to regard the MNR government as vulnerable to outside subversion and placed its bets--despite reservations from various quarters--on a rebuilt Bolivian military in order to forestall escalation of social and political tensions or "Communization" of the Bolivian Revolution. In Washington's judgment, the MNR's moderate elements, such as Paz, had neither the will nor the capacity to undertake the creation and maintenance of a rule of law in which property and other rights necessary to advance economic growth would be protected. Nor would Paz and his supporters check the claims-making (the acquisition of power by formal or informal means) by various social and political groups, especially those aligned with the left. Over time, U.S. officials convinced themselves that reconstituting the military would help Bolivia achieve economic stability, the rule of law, and limit challenges to the political order.
On one level, then, the 1964 coup can be seen as a culmination of a military rebuilding process that began under U.S. supervision in 1958. While not directly sanctioning the coup, Washington's avid support of Bolivia's military most likely sent a message to its leaders that the U.S. would at least look away and possibly give full support to the military coup. Combined with other factors such as the MNR split and the loss of support of the middle classes and miners, Washington's avid support gave the military great confidence that the coup would succeed and the new military regime would be quickly recognized by the United States--which it was.
The essay has two sections. …