Bolivia’s Military: It’s a Difficult Life, but Certainly There Is No Sign of a Pending Military Coup

• As Morales accuses DEA agents of spying, Bolivia approaches Russia and Venezuela for military aid
• Admiral named interim governor of Pando amidst peasant massacre
• Is Bolivia’s military being increasingly used for internal peacekeeping/enforcement?
• The good news: no apparent interest by Bolivia’s military for another coup

Last September, Rear Admiral Landelino Bandeiras was sworn in as interim governor of the Bolivian province of Pando. His election came after its civilian governor was arrested by the military, and charged with orchestrating the murder of more than 18 Bolivian peasant supporters of President Morales, in the town of Porvenir. The designation of Admiral Bandeiras as Pando’s new ranking authority brings up issues surrounding the current role of Bolivia’s military vis-à-vis the country’s persistent internal security problems.

The protests and continuous tensions involving the autonomy issue have gained the attention of regional officials as well as the international media. Many local and national political figures have thrown themselves in the battle of whether Bolivia will remain one unified nation or break up into separate states. The recently created Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), called for an emergency meeting which resulted in all of South America rallying behind President Morales and the unity of Bolivia.

However, there is one factor in the ongoing confrontation, whose presence is not immediately apparent: the Bolivian military.

It is time that the tasks entrusted to the country’s armed forces increase: they continue to be the protectors of the country from outside threats (namely Chile’s continuous aggressive military purchases), and have all but become a domestic security force, entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining internal peace, as well as preserving the unity of the country. The positive side of things is that the military remains unlikely to carry out a coup against Morales in the near future, which is a feat in itself, as Bolivia is renowned for its history of military overthrows of its constitutional governments. Morales, should learn the lessons some of its predecessors to not overuse the military or force it to carry out missions that its high command is reluctant to perform. Nevertheless, the Bolivian armed forces are likely to be a critical player in Bolivia’s day-to-day political life in the future.

Highlights of a Troublesome Military History

Bolivia lost its province of Antofagasta, and hence its access to the sea, as a result of the 19th century’s War of the Pacific, in which Bolivia fought alongside Perú against British-backed Chilean forces. Bolivia has never quite overcome this trauma and to this day routinely demands the return of its lost territory. Proof of Bolivia’s national goal to regain its littoral zone is that this landlocked country continues to possess a navy, which is used to patrol Lake Titicaca (which it shares with Perú) as well as the country’s numerous other waterways. Bolivia and Chile do not have normal diplomatic relations. From 1932 to 1935, Bolivia fought the infamous Chaco War with Paraguay, which it also lost. That war was particularly bloody, with around 100,000 casualties, most of them Bolivian. In fact, most of the fatalities occurred as a result of diseases such as malaria rather than from actual combat.

During the 1960s, Bolivia turned its attention to domestic security threats, with Bolivia’s armed forces concentrated on domestic strife rather than outside threats from the country’s neighbors. The fear of leftist revolutions was at its peak and South America was essentially ruled by military juntas or strongmen. During this period, the country gained particular notoriety when its forces, with U.S. aid, killed the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Ché” Guevara on October 1967, after he had been captured on Bolivian soil.

Bolivia was a member of Operation Condor (along with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay); Operation Condor was a Washington-orchestrated intelligence scheme to exchange covert data among the region’s rightwing governments, which were mostly under military control during the 1960s and 1970s. Thousands of dissidents and leftists were murdered throughout the region as a result operation, which, through computer methodology, was able to monitor the movements of dissidents that had gained sanctuaries throughout the region.

The landlocked country is well known for its history of military coups. For example, during the Chaco War Bolivian generals, triggered a coup against President Salamanca in November 1934 and replaced him with Vice President Jose Luis Tejada. The decision to stage the coup was that the military was disenchanted by the way Salamanca was handling the war. A series of military coups occurred one after another in the 1970s. Coronel Hugo Banzer staged one against President Torres in 1971. In 1978, General Juan Pereda staged a coup against Banzer. In 1979, General Busch staged a successful coup against President Guevara. In 1980, it would be the turn for General Garcia Meza to overthrow the government and become head of state. In an interview with COHA, Jim Shultz, director of the Democracy Center, explained that the resignation of former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada had to do with placing an overload of duties on the military, which the armed forces were not prepared to bare. Shultz explains that “Sanchez de Lozada would visit army headquarters and bribe military commanders to ensure their loyalty, but when he pushed for more repressive measures towards the population, the commanders simply refused, that signed the end of his presidency.”

The President and the Military

Current Bolivian leader Evo Morales seems to have cannily asserted his influence over a wary officer corps as he presses forward with efforts to promote indigenous conscripts into the upper ranks of the Bolivian armed forces, where a light-skinned, Europeanized elite have remained dominant.

One of Morales’s first moves as president was to purge a number of senior generals and other officials from the army as a result of a scandal in which they were accused of allowing U.S. military technicians to dismantle more than two dozen antiquated Chinese-made shoulder-fired missiles, considered Bolivia’s sole antiaircraft defense.

Some of the deposed officials have been explicitly critical of Morales’s ties to Chávez and to the Cuban government. General Marcelo Antezana, who Morales had dismissed as army commander, said in September that there was discontent in the armed forces over what was viewed as subjugation to “Caribbean mulattos.”

The question then arises regarding how much confidence the military’s high command has in affecting Morales’s leadership capabilities. In May, prior to a vote on Santa Cruz’s autonomy, Bolivia’s Supreme National Defense Council issued a proclamation regarding what was widely considered by Morales as an illegal and unconstitutional vote: “We cannot dismiss that a serious danger exists as a threat to the territorial integrity and we urgently demand a process of dialogue,” the Defense Council’s permanent secretary, Mario Ayala Ferrufino, told reporters.

The Bolivian military’s role in the country’s growing crisis took a decisive turn in mid-September, when soldiers arrested the provincial governor of Pando (in the northern part of the country). Prefect Leopoldo Fernandez is being accused of staging a “massacre” in the village of Porvenir, when peasants and students were ambushed by hired killers. Over 15 people were killed and more than 30 others injured. The governor was flown in a military plane to La Paz, as the military took control of Cobija (the province’s capital) and arrested an additional 12 individuals on charges of politically-motivated violence. As a sign of the enlarging militarization of the situation, and the growing role of the military as a domestic peacekeeper (if not peace enforcer), Navy Rear Admiral Landelino Bandeiras was sworn in as interim governor of Pando.

It will be interesting to see what security related operations Bandeiras carries out, particularly as the region is known for being a drug trafficking corridor between Perú and Brazil. Regarding the increasing silhouette of the Bolivian armed forces, a senior Peruvian military officer, interviewed by the author on a condition of anonymity, explained that “this action exemplifies that the Bolivian armed forces will follow presidential orders, regardless of what they are; Morales certainly has the loyalty of the military’s high leadership.” Shultz agrees and adds “Morales has been wise so far by not demanding more than the military can carry out.” The Bolivian head of state has also placed individuals with military pasts in high positions, like Presidential Minister Juan Ramon Quintana, who is known for his past ties to the Banzer regime.

A Mission: Protect the country from threats, internal and external

When Evo Morales came to power on January 2006, championing his indigenous descent, he believed that having an indio in power would appease secessionist feelings, at least among part of the population. He has since been proven wrong. Attempts at secession by other sectors of the population continued, as did calls for referendums to provide greater autonomy to regions such as Santa Cruz, which had nothing but scorn for the indigenous. On May 2008, Ruben Costas, a prefect of Santa Cruz, proclaimed amidst an autonomy referendum, which had been labeled illegal by the central government, that “we have placed the first stones for a cathedral of liberty, democracy and a Bolivia of autonomous regions.” Parallel to this, Morales has carried out his own vision of what the country should look like, namely by forcibly nationalizing several industries owned by foreigners.

As servants and protectors of the state, the Bolivian armed forces have become a vehicle to maintain a fragile status quo, as well as to carry out Morales’ nationalist intent. For example, Bolivian soldiers were sent to take over the oil and natural gas installations of previously foreign-owned enterprises at his administration’s outset in 2006. The military continues to be used as an internal security force as it is deployed to quell protests and guard sensitive installations. In April 2007, around a thousand protesters seized the control of the gas installations of Shell’s subsidiary Transredes in Yacuiba, near the country’s border with Paraguay. Soldiers and police were sent to retake control of the facilities; one protester died.

In October 2007, military units were sent to take control of Santa Cruz’s Viru Viru airport. Their mission was to block hundreds of protesters from taking control of the airport, amid a dispute over landing fees. About 220 air force troops and military police stormed Viru Viru after airport workers detained an American Airlines plane on the runway, demanding the carrier pay them landing fees in cash. The plane was bound for Miami with 140 passengers aboard. The airport “has been stolen by the government using army troops,” insisted Omar Mustafa, one of the Santa Cruz protesters.

On November 2007, soldiers clashed with students who were protesting Bolivia’s constitutional assembly. A university student was killed during protests that took place in the southern city of Sucre. It was never made clear who fired the shot, with government officials insisting that neither the Bolivian police nor the military units sent to quell the protest were using “deadly weapons.”

This past September, a group of protesters went to the National Service of Taxes in Trinidad, capital of Beni province, where they attempted to seize the facilities of the Internal Taxes office. However, the building was guarded by military police who quelshed the effort. Military forces have since been reinforced in Trinidad.

Recently, troops were once again deployed to Pando, firing shots in the air to disperse protesters. Morales has issued a state of siege for the province, particularly the capital of Cobija. The move came at the time when Presidential Minister Juan Ramon Quintana, according to reports, “denounce[d] before the entire world” that the U.S. had “participated in the massacre” in Pando that ended with the arrest of Governor Fernandez and the installation of Admiral Bandeiras.

The Canadian Centre for Research on Globalization published a provocative story on September 13, stating that “amongst the military officers, many of whom are opposed to the government anyway, there is already talk of the need for a coup to restore law and order. From their point of view, the institution of the military has been humiliated, having been over-run by civilians, while carrying out their duties loyally.”

In spite of these events, Bolivia experts such as Shultz explain that the role of the military in the current internal tension should not be blown out of proportion. He states that “many people actually believe that Morales waited too long to use the military for internal use […] furthermore the times when the military has been deployed has been very specific and for relative short periods of time.” It would seem, thus, that Morales has learned from his predecessors, and even after putting friendly leaders at the top of military command, he remains reluctant to test the patience of the country’s armed forces.

Don’t Forget Chile, Drug Trafficking Etc.

As if internal policing of a country finding itself in a high degree of instability was not enough, the Bolivian military also has had to deal with the nation’s “normal” security problems. Chile’s military buildup in recent years is being seen as a security threat both by Bolivian and Peruvian military forces. While Santiago purchases Leopard II tanks from Germany and F-16 planes from the U.S. and Holland, the best La Paz can do is to build more military bases with Venezuelan economic assistance along its borders. An interesting development took place in December 2007, when Bolivia and Chile signed an agreement to promote military cooperation, an unprecedented move. At the signing ceremony, Chilean Defense Minister José Goni declared that “our armed forces have been tasked to start the thawing of our relationship.” Bolivia and Chile broke off diplomatic ties in 1978 over a territorial dispute dating back to the 19th century War of the Pacific.

Finally, there is the monumental problem of drug trafficking. Bolivia is the world’s third largest producer of cocaine, after Colombia and Perú. Numerous laboratories for processing cocaine have been found in the remote areas of the country. Insufficient checkpoints and outposts make it relatively easy not just for drug trafficking, but for other crimes, including transporting contraband, to routinely occur.

Hugo Chávez: Unsolicited Godfather of the Bolivian Military?

Evo Morales came under fire from Bolivian opposition groups as well as dissident members of the country’s security community in 2006, when 30 Venezuelan military personnel disembarked at Bolivia’s Trompillo Airport on December 26. Bolivian Defense Minister Walker San Miguel explained that the foreign troops were there to help train Bolivian military forces to provide maintenance for two Super Puma helicopters that Venezuela had authorized for use by Bolivia’s military. Venezuela’s Defense Minister General Raul Isaias Baduel said that “This could be qualified as humanitarian aid, with what we know of Bolivia’s economic limitations,” denying speculation that the Venezuelan troops were in any way guilty of violating Bolivia’s national sovereignty. It should be noted that the arrival of foreign military personnel on Bolivian territory did not have the formal approval of the Bolivian Congress.

This event would mark the beginning of a growing military alliance between Bolivia and Venezuela, with the axis being the personal friendship between Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez, and their mutual distrust of Washington. In 2006, both leaders signed a military cooperation pact. A second such treaty was signed in May of this year when Morales visited Caracas.

Venezuela is also financing a number of Bolivian military projects, including the construction of military bases along Bolivia’s borders, one in the northern city of Riberalta, and another in Puerto Quijarro, a river port on the border with Brazil.

Caracas also donated the two Super Puma helicopters to its ally, for the use of the Bolivian leader. On July 2008, one of the two Pumas assigned to Morales crashed, killing four Venezuelan military personnel and one Bolivian soldier. In June 2007, another helicopter, also donated by Venezuela, crashed in Cochabamba, killing three Bolivian soldiers and one Venezuelan.

On December 6, 2007, a number of Riberalta residents demonstrated their anger at having Venezuelan troops on their soil, even if it was only temporary. On that day, a Hercules aircraft, part of the Venezuelan air force, landed at the local airport for refueling. Reports indicate that up to 200 Bolivians showed up to protest the act. The place was forced to prematurely depart.

Due to the September protests that initially appeared aimed at overthrowing Morales from power, Chávez came forth with a declaration of intent, stating that “if they topple Evo, or kill him, those carrying out Bolivia’s coup should know they are giving me a green light to support any armed movement in Bolivia.”

The Bolivian military has not been particularly amused by Chávez’s declarations. According to the Bolivian daily La Razón, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, General Luis Trigo, declared at a press conference that the country’s armed forces will defend and preserve the independence and unity of the nation and that they will not allow any foreign military force to set foot on Bolivian territory, thereby transgressing Bolivia’s national sovereignty: “To the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, and to the international community we say that the [Bolivian] Armed Forces emphatically rejects external interference of any nature, no matter where that interference may come from,” the General stated. “Only in extreme cases will [the Bolivian military] be used to ensure internal order and in such cases they will respond with persistence and patriotism to any threat by those groups of vandals and criminals who have come to subvert our internal order,” he added.

Global Ties of Bolivia’s Military

In early October, Russia’s ambassador to Bolivia, Leonid Golubev, announced that the landlocked Andean country is contemplating the purchase of five Russian civil defense helicopters, and perhaps an additional two for anti-narcotics operations. The Russian envoy explained that “we also have interests in various spheres, including military ones.” He went on to add that “this creates a favorable opportunity for us to return to Latin America, to help and to cooperate.”

In recent years, Russia has attempted to restore its influence in the Western Hemisphere, particularly using arms trade negotiations to approach regional governments and their militaries. Apart from increasing weapon sales to Venezuela since 2006, it seems that Bolivia may be next with an order list to receive Russian military hardware. The purchase would be only a “first step: Buy the five helicopters and see how things go,” Golubev said. “You can’t do everything at once,” he added

Indeed, the hardware used by the Bolivian armed forces is in dire need of an upgrade. In January 2007, a “mechanical failure” occurred aboard a Cessna Centurion airplane used by the air force, forcing it to crash-land as it approached the airport of Tarija. All eight passengers aboard the plane were killed.

It would seem that Bolivia has focused on aircraft purchases in recent years. SIPRI Arms Transfer Database reports that the acquisitions made in the last ten years include trainer aircraft such as the Universal-1 from Brazil, transport aircraft like the C-212 from Spain and several types of light helicopters donated by Venezuela. The Bolivian army’s website reports that La Paz is in negotiations with Spain and EADS to acquire another transport plane type CASA C-212.

In March 2008, the governments of Bolivia and the Czech Republic announced that negotiations had failed for La Paz to purchase ten subsonic L-59 combat planes. The reason for the failure was that Bolivia did not have sufficient funds to pay for six of the ten planes that were being offered. The goal was to swap the combat planes for Bolivian medium-sized CASA transport planes, which the Czech military could use to move its own troops.

Regarding the Bolivian military’s training needs, Morales met with Argentine Defense Minister Nilda Garre in November 2006. During the meeting, they discussed defense-related cooperation between Argentina and Bolivia. Another issue addressed was the participation of Argentine instructors to train Bolivian military personnel in technical matters. Finally, the Argentine defense minister expressed Argentina’s “interest” in consolidating permanent military exchanges with Bolivia within the framework of goodwill and integration that exist between both nations.

In mid-September of this year, the Bolivian daily La Prensa announced an antinarcotics alliance between Russia and Bolivia. According to reports, Bolivian military and police narcotics personnel will receive training, advisory services on logistics, and necessary funds as a result of the pact. This announcement was made the day after the United States released a “blacklist” of countries, Bolivia among them, that have failed to carry out antidrug cooperative programs developed by Washington.

The Soul of Bolivia’s Armed Forces

Regarding the cadres that make up the rank and file of the Bolivian armed forces, it is essentially the same old story that can be found across the region. The foot soldiers are of Indian descent, poor young men who do not have the connections or the money to escape mandatory military service. “The armed forces remain the tool of the elite,” as Shultz explains, “the wealthy families of the country usually have military connections, it’s one of the few ways to advance and gain social status and economic wealth in an otherwise poor country.”

The Bolivian military also has had a tense history with the country’s police force. For example, in February 2003, protests and demands by the International Monetary Fund ended with the clash of military units against police officers in La Paz, an event known as “Black February.” The result of two days of fighting between security forces against protesters ended with 34 people dead and over 100 injured (see the Democracy Center’s upcoming book entitled “Desafiando la Globalización,” which explains this tragic event in greater detail.) “Black February” occurred during the final days of the Sanchez de Lozada administration, further adding to the general belief that the Bolivian military can be kept loyal and quiet, as long as it is not pushed to carry out actions that its leadership does not want.

Loyalty and mission

The Bolivian military is, at the present time, in an odd situation. Not only does it have a number of “external” security issues to face, such as that posed by Chile, but also internal security threats. Internal tensions between the country’s ethnic and political groups are nothing new, and the Bolivian military historically has been involved in recurrent conflicts posed by the nation’s ethnic makeup. It also has had to take control of the government on numerous occasions to maintain national unity.

Evo Morales has increased tension within the country as a result of his political vision. Radical political decisions, including the privatization of companies and the security alliance with Venezuela have continuously upset an already nervous and divided population.

In spite of Bolivia’s history of military interventions, the armed forces so far have not shown a willingness or interest to take any action against Morales. This may be because, in spite of the leader’s radicalism and political tension within the country, the military itself has not been affected, and has only been employed in a limited way. The decision to appoint an Admiral as interim governor of Pando may signal a growing role in internal security for the armed forces, a move which may not be advisable. Bolivia’s armed forces do not want to be assigned more responsibilities than they can handle, so Morales will have to be careful to not demand too much of his military, unless he wants to jeopardize its loyalty. The aforementioned Peruvian military official, under a condition of anonymity, remains optimistic, in any case, explaining that “the Bolivian military, in my view, has not demonstrated any intention to take control of the country, they are ok with following the orders of the civilian rulers…. as long as, of course, such decision is aimed to maintain the national integrity and sovereignty.”

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Fellow Alex Sanchez

Republished from COHA

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