Recently released United States embassy cables from Bolivia have provided additional insight to the events leading up to the September 2008 coup attempt against the Andean country’s first indigenous president.
On September 9, 2008, Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled then-US ambassador Philip Goldberg as evidence emerged that Goldberg and embassy officials had been meeting with several key civilian and military figures involved in an unfolding coup plot.
These meetings took place in the midst of “civic strikes” and roadblocks called by the right-wing opposition prefects (governors) of the eastern states. These actions were denounced by the government as an attempted coup.
The prefects announced their intentions to begin implementing “regional autonomy” statutes, which they claimed had been approved by illegal referendums held in the four eastern states between May and July.
These statutes were aimed at securing regional control over natural resources and state security bodies.
Taking over government buildings and cutting off food supplies, the right-wing insurgents carried out a reign of terror on the streets, mobilising paramilitary forces.
Soldiers and police officers were targets of their violence. The hope was to trigger an armed confrontation, banking on important sections of the military refusing to obey government orders.
The secret US cables released by WikiLeaks show how such a scenario was already envisaged months before by the US embassy.
A December 12, 2007 cable assessed the situation within the military. It said that, faced with conflict, the government could “at best” rely on only “sporadic and half-hearted compliance from a minority of commanders”.
Based on intelligence gathered from military officers, the cable concluded: “Although they can be expected to protect government infrastructure and transportation, most commanders are likely to sit out any violent confrontation with opposition forces.”
Field commanders were “prepared to stand down and confine their troops to barracks”, even if a written order was signed by Morales.
Evidence for this was provided by a source that “was on hand when a high-ranking civil defense officer told the commander in Tarija Department to demand a written order from President Morales if asked to take action against opposition leaders or demonstrators”.
“If they received such an order, the officer advised non-compliance and a post lock down to commanders from Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, and Tarija.”
The cable quoted another military official stationed in Santa Cruz as saying that commanders originally from the west were “unlikely” to unseat the same opposition leaders they were working with.
“As for the large minority of officers from the Media Luna [Bolivia's eastern states],” the official in question noted “there is ‘no way any of us are going to attack our own people.’ Rather, he said, they would side with the opposition if forced to take sides”.
Opposition figures also told the embassy they did not “believe the ‘divided’ military would repress them”.
Cables from the weeks immediately leading up to the coup attempt have yet to be released, but evidence of ongoing communication between the embassy and military commanders, right up until Goldberg’s expulsion, was provided in a report by former parliamentarian Walter Vasquez Michel published in La Epoca on September 28, 2008.
With coup plans well underway, the article reported that US embassy officials met with four retired generals and a security representative from the Santa Cruz prefecture on September 2.
Three days later, the US embassy’s head of military affairs spoke with high ranking active military officials based in Santa Cruz to “plan the handing over of military units to paramilitary groups”.
The aim was to “create the sensation that the government had lost control of the Armed Forces”, a scenario outlined in US embassy cables issued only months prior.
Instead, the plot backfired as government supporters and loyal troops moved into action.
With violence growing in the east, government supporters began marching on Santa Cruz. Residents in poor neighbourhoods of Santa Cruz set up self-defence groups to repel fascist attacks.
After the massacre of dozens of unarmed peasants in the eastern state of Pando on September 11, a wave of revulsion swept through the country. This included middle-class sectors in the east who had, until then, supported the autonomy protests.
This revulsion spread to the armed forces. Soldiers demanded the government send them in to crush the fascist uprising, even if it meant breaking the chain of command.
This allowed the government to overcome internal resistance within the military and to deploy soldiers onto the streets of Pando.
Within 24-hours, the paramilitary forces had been pushed back and calm was restored.
Fearing a similar scenario elsewhere, and with Santa Cruz now encircled by government supporters, the coup plotters were forced to back down.
There may be further evidence to come of US complicity in this violent attempt to bring down the elected Morales government brought to power on the back of an indigenous-led mass movement against neoliberalism.
The cables released so far reveal the US embassy was in communication with forces in the military working against the government.