Bolivian Realpolitik of Hugo Banzer

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On August 19-22, 1971 a military coup occurred in Bolivia, one of the poorest countries of Latin America. After that the country was led by the colonel Hugo Banzer, an expert in logistics, and the military attaché and Minister of Education in the Right-wing conservative government of the ex-president Rene Barrientos. He overthrew the leftist dictatorship of Juan José Torres – an extremely leftist politician and a close ally of the USSR. Torres very closely cooperated with Juan Velasco Alvarado’s Peruvian socialist dictatorship and Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. He eventually became the president of Bolivia after moderately-left Ovando Candia retired from this post. The indecisive Candia dissatisfied the Soviets because of his attempts to balance the country’s relationships between the USA, the USSR and the regional political structures. The leftist radicals immediately strengthened their affiliations with USSR, Bulgaria, Cuba and DDR, established friendly relationships with Velasco Alvarado’s and Salvador Allende’s regimes, started randomly nationalizing the American enterprises, dispersed all the local pro-western organizations, created a network of the ‘voluntary people’s guards’ (youth militia) to clash with the oppositional mass media, and imposed strict policies of censorship — in short, he establish a branch of the cold-war-period USSR in his own country. The USSR immediately responded. On June 10, 1970 the Bolivian press reported that the Soviets purchased Bolivian tin at the cost of $8 000 000 dollars at much more favorable terms than their competitor (the British Williams, Harvey and Company). Moreover, the USSR granted Bolivia an extremely favorable loan of $27 500 000 dollars, and after that the two countries signed a trade agreement. Bolivians were delighted to see such generosity; La Ultima Hora posted a front page story titled «Favorable Conditions of the Russian Credit». The press and politicians outdid one another joyfully swearing their eternal devotion to socialism and the USSR. The Soviets strengthened its presence in the country; their experts participated in the creation of the national Bolivian TV, which penetrated the education system and the press. Subsequently, the foreign policy of the country changed dramatically. Bolivia contemplated its possible exit from the OAS. In January 1971, it expressed sharp criticism of the “Inter-American Convention against Terrorism”. This rhetoric, which hasn’t changed since the 70s, is heard even today, forty years later, from the left dictators, such as Nicolás Maduro, the late Hugo Chávez and the Bolivian president Evo Morales. Torres’s pro-Soviet policy led to a sharp deterioration of relations between Bolivia and the other Latin American «giants», such as Brazil and Argentina. Relations with Paraguay worsened too. Public anger with Torres’s tough policies, censorship and its intimidation of the opposition groups, swelled across the country. In January, 1971 there was the first serious attempt of a revolution. It should be noted that Hugo Bethlem, the former Brazilian ambassador in Bolivia, participated in it. He was an expert in geopolitics, business interaction and financial conglomerates, a supporter of Brazil’s absolute domination on the whole continent, and he considered Bolivia as a key strategic point for the elimination of communist influence in the region. The January revolution was not successful. The August revolution under the leadership of Hugo Banzer, however, was. The most diligent support came from the Santa Cruz department. Today, it remains the main focal point of the rightist resistance in Bolivia. Santa Cruz and its adjoining regions demanded autonomy from the socialist Bolivia in 2008. Torres ran to Argentina, lived in Buenos Aires for some time and was killed by the right militia fighters during the governance of the military junta. Hugo Bethlem dealt with the economic and trade integration issues, participated in and headed a few business structures on the international level. banzer_1999Hugo Banzer’s foreign policy can be described as absolutely unusual for the Latin America ‘Realpolitik‘, with an extremely efficient use of the already existing international relations and an active flexible policy in fence-mending. Banzer and Mario Gutierrez, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called this concept “universalism”. This internal political concept was close to the Brazilian one, and also to the Chilean from the time of the Junta. Its key points were: de-politicization of the population, raising of the standards of living and of the literacy of the population, simplification and reduction in the cost of the business operations, an open market and technocracy. It is important to note that during Banzer’s time, the illiteracy decreased from 55% to 37%, and the life expectancy grew from 43 to 51 years — although it still remained the lowest in the region. Banzer promoted the creation of a regional geopolitical axis with Brasilia, Asuncion and La Paz. It was to be directed against both the communists (Allende, Velasco Alvarado and Castro) and the left-fascist regimes of «the third way» (Peron). At the same time Banzer skillfully maintained ties with a social unit developed by Torres. The Foreign Minister of Bolivia Mario Gutierrez sent a note to the Soviet embassy expressing his hope for a continuation of «the warm relations of friendship» which existed between the two countries. During 1971-1973 Bolivia coaxed equipment and cars out of the USSR at the cost of 19 million dollars using credit lines obtained by the preceding Socialist government. Banzer also managed to procure from the USSR the equipment and the construction materials for tin ore processing. The USSR continued to buy the Bolivian tin and zinc at the overvalued prices that were set during Torres’s administration. The government of Bolivia signed agreements of economic cooperation with the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the People’s Republic of Poland and the People’s Republic of Hungary. Banzer, as a technocrat, put the issues of the scientific, industrial and infrastructural development before all else as he was all too aware of the importance of the scientific and cultural cooperation within a social unit. In 1972 an agreement for the creation of a Soviet-Bolivian astronomical station was signed. At the same time, in 1972 Bolivia expelled a large number of the Soviet embassy employees and the Soviet experts who tried to establish contacts with the leftist opposition in hopes of creating a pro-communistic movement. Banzer maintained a practical political stance in the relations with the regional partners. He consistently improved relations with Brazil and the Paraguayan leader Alfredo Stroessner. After Augusto Pinochet came into power, relations with Chile took a favorable turn. Bolivia laid some territorial claims to Allende’s Chile and the two countries broke off diplomatic relations in 1962. The Bolivian press constantly waged an information war against the Unidad Popular government. In 1973 a thaw in the relations between two countries began and in 1975 diplomatic relations were re-established. Bolivia tried to maintain an extreme right-wing policy towards the foreign companies from Chile on issues of liberalization of relations between the countries within the Andean region and the foreign capital. At the Andean community level, Bolivia received impressive privileges (a discount of 70% from the customs duties in trade with the partners of community). Those privileges were achieved by Banzer’s government, especially with the help of Mario Gutierrez, an extremely talented diplomat. Chile, by the way, left the Andean community in 1976. During Banzer’s presidency the Bolivia-Argentina gas pipeline (Yabog pipeline) was completed and brought into operation. Bolivia still remains the main supplier of gas to Argentina. Buenos Aires provided trade privileges to La Paz and a free export zone in Rosario port. At the same time Bolivia avoided radical decisions and unions. For example, Banzer repeatedly rejected Pinochet and Stroessner’s ideas about the creation of Major anti-communistic alliance within the territory of South America. However, the country always supported the right-wing and anti-communistic partners at the international level. Of some interest also is the Bolivian moderately pro-Israeli and pro- South Korean stance. The development of the relations with the USA was an important achievement in Banzer’s foreign policy. Here, again, he demonstrated a commitment to the principles of Realpolitik, as he developed cooperation, managed to get privileges and credits for his country, threatened on behalf of the regional «axis» (Brasilia, Asuncion and La Paz) when the USA planned to bring large volume of non-ferrous metals to the world market in 1973. He attracted loans and investments into the country. During August-October in 1971 the USA and international organizations provided Bolivia with credits for the value of about 120 million dollars. In 1972 the country got help, including military one, amounting to 50 million dollars. The extent of received military legal aid, by the way, was the highest in South America. All the while, Bolivia was paying reparations for the nationalization that had been carried out by the left-wing government — particularly, La Paz was covering the losses of the Bolivian Gulf Oil company. Banzer spoke out in favor of the open market and repeatedly criticized the USA for the protectionism and the mistrust of their Latin American partners. Banzer declared war on the production of cocaine. He repeatedly stressed this point for getting preferential treatment and help from the USA. The left-wing and fascist Bolivian governments (Evo Morales, García Mes) — always counted on the production of cocaine. Consequently these leaders wanted to be praised by the drug cartels and by the peasants who grew cocaine. Banzer started building a «dictatorship of the law » in the country. He considered cooperation with the drug cartels for the sake of any momentary benefits to be shameful and unacceptable. This policy caused strong discontent from the local left-wing supporters — in 1974 two assassination attempts on his life occurred. It is important to note that Banzer, and especially his assistants, such as Jorge Quiroga, didn’t oppose the medical use of cocaine — they only sought to kick out the drug mafia (who actually sponsored communists). Banzer was repeatedly called «the dictator who has created the Bolivian democracy». Many Bolivians didn’t view him as a tyrant but as a national leader, despite some negative aspects of Banzerism such as censorship, prosecution of «nonconformists», etc. His popularity was enough to get him reelected as the president of the country again in 1997. The vice-president Jorge Quiroga who has been working in a tandem with Banzer from the moment of his election until his death in 2001, is known for his right-wing point of view. He, like Banzer, repeatedly criticized the USA and Europe for protectionism and called them hypocrites. «They speak with us about greater openness, but tie our hand and foot at the same time» — this is how he characterized the policy of developed countries in relation to the developing capitalist states. After Hugo Banzer’s death, 30-days mourning was declared in Bolivia . In some way, it was a funeral of the whole Bolivia — it was facing a messy period of ludicrous half-year governments, and in 2005 the country lost its last chance by electing Evo Morales. Banzer’s death marked the beginning of a political instability, the left dictatorship, poverty, return of the drug cartels to big-time politics and the degradation of the social conditions to the level of the 1970s. Bolivia lost its high prestige on a regional level and turned into a political appendage of Venezuela and a source of raw materials for Argentina. The country, fated to become a strategic base for abolition of the left structures of the continent, was destroyed.

Kitty Sanders, 2014

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