Thomas Field’s new book on the Alliance for Progress in Bolivia demonstrates just how comfortable America’s Cold War foreign policy establishment was with dictatorship as its preferred method of rule in Latin America. Assuming that Latin America needed American-driven development more than anything else and that communists were both anathema to American foreign policy and the biggest obstacle in the way of developmentalism, dictatorship and development became the twin pillars of the Alliance for Progress, as Field’s important book demonstrates.
The 1952 revolution in Bolivia was a landmark moment in that nation’s history, when a broad revolution brought Victor Paz to power and the reign of the military seemed to end in favor of a government that would reflect the people’s needs. That movement included a lot of support from the left and in his early years, Paz repaid that support, or at least tolerated its existence. The new government nationalized the tin mines and radical leftist union members worked in them. Agrarian reform was undertaken and forced labor abolished. Despite its tin industry, the nation was not particularly important to U.S. policymakers in 1952. That would change with the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
Much of the American foreign policy establishment originally saw Paz as suspicious and a potential communist. But the Kennedy administration viewed him as a key bulwark in holding the line against communism in South America. The Alliance for Progress wasn’t founded to support dictatorship per se. Rather, it intended to bring middle-class modernity to the unaligned states of the region. But as Field usefully points out, that middle-class modernity meant, from the perspective of U.S. economic advisers, the firing of thousands of miners in the nationalized tin mines that were leftist strongholds of communist unions. The stated reason was economic efficiency, but the Kennedy administration also hoped to undermine the communists who not only threatened American hegemony in the region but through their desire to stay employed were keeping nations like Bolivian economically-backwards. Union-busting and labor rationalizations therefore were central to the Alliance for Progress from its beginning. Or as Field states, Kennedy’s foreign policy toward Bolivia was “a program of politicized, authoritarian development that took dead aim at the country’s leftist miners (24).”
Paz was a committed nationalist but he also began to see the nation and himself as one, moving to eliminate rivals and consolidate power. He became increasingly brutal, using ex-Nazis to run his secret security services. None of this bothered Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger, or any of the other major figures creating Latin American foreign policy. USAID trained indigenous militias (who remained Paz supporters until the end) to attack the miners, eliminate their threat to Paz, and bring modernization to Bolivia. Although Paz long held out against alienating the Communist Party and Cuba, he finally did move against the tin miners and arrested their communist leaders, leading to the miners taking several American government officials hostage in early 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s first foreign policy crisis. His hard moves against the left just endeared him to Washington, who rewarded him with more cash and more military assistance. This just alienated the left even more, continuing the polarization and militarization of Bolivia with U.S. assistance. Vice-President Juan Lechín, the leftists’ man in the government, was increasingly isolated and replaced as VP. For good measure, Paz’s thugs beat Lechín to a pulp so he could not engage in his last official function in office during the new inauguration and thus could not make a speech denouncing the president.
By 1964, the U.S. still held onto Paz as their man in La Paz, but the blind faith in him meant they could not see the cards falling around him. By that year, Paz had not only alienated the left, but the grassroots right and the military. Messing with the nation’s constitution to allow himself to run for a third term helped consolidate opposition to him, with fighters and activists on both sides looking to the military as a solution. General René Barrientos became the center of the military opposition. Originally, a Paz acolyte, the president’s disdain for him finally took its toll. Barrientos created alliances with the communists and was a military solution acceptable to the falangists. With both right and left wing rebellion and a military also alienated from Paz, finally Barrientos led the coup that solved the nation’s Paz problem.
And yet even after Barrientos took power, it wasn’t as if the CIA or Johnson administration lost influence in La Paz. Rather, Barrientos became just as much a tool of Washington as Paz, relying on the U.S. government for the entirety of his five years in power, a period that included the killing of Che Guevara by Barrientos’ troops and the continued repression of the left despite their hopes in him. U.S. influence with Bolivian presidents remained generally pretty strong up until Evo Morales, including once again with Paz, who won a fourth term as president in 1985 where he committed to the country to neoliberalism and helped set the groundwork for Morales’ Bolivarian Revolution.
And while most general readers are unlikely to come to this book with much interest in Bolivia per se, to relate this to another key foreign policy question of the era, this story just reinforces the reality that there is just no reason to believe that Vietnam under Kennedy’s presidency would have come appreciably different than it did under Johnson. For Kennedy, authoritarianism, development, and anticommunism went hand in hand and that meant large infusions of U.S. military aid to ensure that friendly leaders stayed in power. That Johnson would continue Kennedy’s policies in both Bolivia and Vietnam does not exonerate those terrible decisions, but it does suggest that those decisions were not LBJ’s alone and rather the entire U.S. establishment was willing to get the U.S. involved in any number of foreign excursions to defend the world against communism.
Field has definitely written a monograph here and the intricate detail of the Paz administration and his interactions with American officials may not be for all readers. But then that’s the power of such a book, leaving no question in the reader’s mind just how easy it was for Kennedy administration officials–who genuinely thought they were doing the right thing–to slip into supporting a leader using ever more cruelty by the year. These sorts of historical narratives are also necessary for modern readers to understand the roots of American foreign policy problems today. I stress to my students the need to understand the CIA led coup in Iran in 1953 in order to understand the problems between the U.S. and Iran today, noting that while the average American’s attention to a foreign crisis ends at the next episode of American Idol, in other nations who feel the brunt of American power, hostile memories linger for decades. America’s relations with Bolivia are not as geopolitically important as with Iran but hostility lingers much the same. Evo Morales kicking Peace Corps and USAID out of Bolivia comes back to the long-term repressive policies the U.S. has supported in that nation going back to the Paz years.