Archive for October, 2007

Backing out

October 21, 2007

President Evo Morales 22-month old government had his most serious political setback Friday in Santa Cruz, the region that opposes his La Paz-controlled Indigenous Socialism and proclaims the virtues of free market instead. Less than 36 hours after deploying 400 soldiers from Altiplano garrisons to seize control of the Viru Viru international airport, he backed out.

 Soldiers were withdrawn and a peaceful crowd of thousands of Cruceños took the airport control. Authorities and technicians who had been dismissed by Morales were reinstated. Morales admitted he had ordered soldiers to be removed from their positions at the airport gates to prevent violence.

It was a massive response from Cruceños (as Santa Cruz people are called) to an attempt they saw as the beginning of a major attack on “decentralization,” a process started years ago by promoting greater fiscal and administrative autonomy thoughout the country. It was a way of overcoming traditional centralization that required approval from central government for every major decision. The Viru Viru airport, built in the early 1980s mainly under an agreement between the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and Cordecruz, a regional public corporation, became Bolivia´s central airport, a hub taking care of international and most domestic flights. Because of its geopolitical location in the center of South America, and the number of flights coming in from the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Chile, it was also the busiest airport. But in the 1990s it accumulated debts of up to Bs. 200 million (about $US 24 million), in pension contributions and other social obligations.

Sources said the shortly-sacked administration had started to payback the debt. “It was beginning to seriously respond to its payment commitments,” told me Gen. (r) Gary Prado, who took part of previous boards of directors. But Morales’ government found the situation of the airport was financially precarious.

Aasana, the name of the airport agency, has legal rules to appoint directors. Morales decided to ignore those rules and intervene militarily the institution. His government appointed new directors from his own political party, MAS (Movement Toward Socialism).

This enraged Cruceño leaders, who saw it as a major move to suffocate the region´s demand to win autonomy from the government. Other three departments (Beni, Pando and Tarija) share the same pro-autonomy campaign. Bolivia has nine departments, but the four ”autonomista” departments comprise more than a half of its territory and hold most of the country´s natural gas fields, iron ore and the growing agro-industrial sector ranging from soybeans and sugar cane to cattle.

The government asserts that of all of the airport income, 85 percent went to pay a payroll of about 200, including bloated fees to directors. But it did not elaborate. It also argues that the reinstated chairman had taken from Aasana up to $150,000 and deposited the money in a personal bank account.

It wasn´t clear why the government did not resort to a judicial process within the country’s court-system to quell and seek the corresponding legal punishment for the alleged corruption. It would have won wide public approval. But it might still pursue this matter, and if its case is proved, at least explain part of the blunder.

The government charges the demand for autonomy came from a movement of “oligarchs” and ”elites.” For what has been seen lately, including Thursday and Friday protests, that qualification hardly holds, or it is an arbitrary extrapolation. Otherwise Santa Cruz would have tens of thousands oligarchs and elites. The question now is if the political setback in Santa Cruz will bear any cost on Mr. Morales government. It may take some time to fully appreciate the magnitude of said cost.


A Winner’s View

October 3, 2007

Gen. Gary Prado Salmon remembers vividly the day in late August when he was entering the Bolivian university where he teaches International Relations and saw a student holding a red notebook with a black spot showing the face of Ernesto Che Guevara stamped on the cover. It is a universal icon among leftists you may see stamped on T-shirts worn by anti-globalization and anti-U.S. protesters, or at souvenir shops everywhere. Stung by curiosity, he said, he asked the young student: “What do you have there?” “It is a notebook with the image of Che Guevara,” the girl replied matter-of-factly.

The student realized who was she speaking with and blushed. “Don´t worry,” said reassuringly the retired Bolivian Army general, whose regiment fought and defeated Che´s guerrilla. “It doesn´t bother me at all. But let me ask you, Who was Che Guevara? “He was a revolutionary who came to Bolivia from Cuba,” she said. “Oh yes… he came to meddle in our affairs,” said Prado. And what have you been told about Che?, the general pushed on. “That he was an idealist…”

“And you think those fighting Che were not idealists too, since we were defending our country, your country? Idealist is too vague a definition. Idealist doesn´t tell you much…”

There was nothing else to say and both entered the classroom.

It wasn´t like this 40 years ago, when the government, then headed by a democratically elected Air Force general, jubilantly announced that the guerrilla expedition commanded by Che had been defeated and its leader was dead reportedly as a result of multiple wounds sustained in combat. That official version turned out a blatant lie. Guevara had been summarily executed Oct 9, after being captured alive, injured only slightly, the day before.

But militarily speaking, it was an undeniable victory over a legendary guerrilla champion by an army considered among the weakest in Latin America. And, overall, by a country Che and others, including Fidel Castro, considered ripe for a popular uprising that the Cuban-sponsored guerilla movement was supposed to set off. But defeat marked only the birth of Che Guevara´s myth. It has been growing exponentially whereas the Bolivian army´s victory has been dimming.

I tried to get an explanation for this turnabout from Gen. Prado, to whose soldiers on Oct 8, 1967 the Argentine-Cuban guerrilla surrendered shouting: “Don´t fire. I am Che.”

“Two elements converged to create the myth,” he told me in his home in Santa Cruz recently. He was sitting in the wheel chair, legs paralyzed after an obscure episode 1981 when he was shot in the back after restoring order in a convulsed area in the country´s east.

“There was a joint international effort to create the myth,” he went on. “Why? Just to compensate a political and military disaster. For it was a sweeping political and military setback for Castro’s followers. The myth was created as compensation.

“But another element came in, riding on the Bolivian government´s poor handling of the information about what really happened. Look, first they issued a release out of the blue, without asking for details to the captain who had commanded the operation that led to his capture. They briefly said, ´there was a combat yesterday, a number of guerrillas died, among them Che Guevara.´ But there was no way for the Bolivian government to hide the truth. A major factor they did not considered was that the country enjoyed freedom of the press. Journalists moved around freely. And they arrived to the gates of Pucara (a few kilometers from La Higuera) the next day. Journalists could not go further because still there was fighting in the area. But peasants the day before had helped us with the dead and the injured (I had a total of only 70 soldiers and help was needed). It took four people to carry a single body. Che was slightly injured, and walked helped by a soldier, soldier Montenegro. There were 300 or 400 people. In Pucara journalists began questioning peasants. Soon they found that Che had been seen walking. And the first question to the military authorities was: How come he died in combat if people saw him walking? Lacking a convincing answer to clear the embarrassing contradiction, a new version was issued: Che died as a consequence of injuries sustained in combat.

“This new version endured for two or three days. However, the government wanted to complete all legal procedures: there was an autopsy and its results were made public__ one bullet here, another one there, and also there too, etc. And one wonders: Was he still walking with all those bullets in his body? Give me a break!”

“Then the most disparaged versions began circulating, including one saying that Che had stood up and shouted at the lieutenant who broke into his room: “Aim well and shoot, you are going to kill a man!”

“This is absolutely false,” Prado said. “He was not given time to say hello. Lt. Mario Teran and Sgt. Bernardino Huanca entered and shot a barrage each. Che and Willy – another guerilla – were in contiguous rooms. Teran entered Che´s. Huanca entered Willy´s. It was simultaneous. Ra-ta-ta-ta-ta. No talk at all. Imagine, what are you going to say… Excuse, we are here to kill you?”


The decision to execute Che was taken by President Rene Barrientos, Armed Forces Commander Gen. Alfredo Ovando and Army commander Gen. Juan José Torres. Gen. Prado quotes Ovando as explaining to him the reasons for the decision as they met in Madrid, where both were living several years later. Ovando was Ambassador and Prado was attending an academic course.

“What shall we do?” This was the question biting all three (after they learned Che had been captured)”, Prado told me.

“The first idea was put him on trial,” Prado said, recalling what Ovando said. “But the trial of (Regis) Debray __the French writer who came to Bolivia along with Che and had been captured months earlier__ had already been a mess… Trying Che would prove ten times worse. But let´s assume we could have withstood the circus. He had to be convicted. He would not come innocent from it. What was the maximum penalty? Thirty years, since Bolivia has no capital punishment. And where would we have placed him, if there was no security prison in the whole country? Having him in a prison would have generated permanent trouble and street protests on his favor all over. Then we decided he had to be eliminated.”

Prado said he asked: “But why you didn´t you ask for our opinion, on how the news should be released?”

There was no answer from Ovando, Prado recalled.

In truth, Prado told me, nothing was clear those days. If the army had ordered, “no survivors,” even that would have been hard to hold. Prado himself had captured two guerillas and sent them away alive for trial. “There were no clear orders for anything. Hence Che asked me, as I wrote in my book (The Immolated Guerrilla), “what are you going to do with me?” to which I replied: “You will be tried in Santa Cruz.”

Prado said that a few years ago while digging in declassified documents he found a message from the US Ambassador to Bolivia stating that Che had been executed by a decision of the Bolivian government. There was also a report from President Johnson´s Security Assistant telling that Bolivians had captured and executed Che on their own. “There was no interference from the United States. It was a direct decision of our own commanders,” Prado said.

“The first time I met him in his room at the little school in La Higuera Che looked devastated. He told me, ‘it is over.’ Before leaving the room I replied: It is over for you, but not for me. I still have to fight. Then, when I came to see him again in the evening his spirits were much higher and he even showed concern about his future, about his trial. All this because we had treated him well. Nobody harmed him. We gave him food and cigarettes all the time. He felt more tranquil”, Prado said.

He said ever since Che was executed, he has been haunted by the question of why the Cuban-Argentine guerrilla had come to Bolivia in what turned out to be a military fiasco and a doubtful political achievement, at least in Bolivia. (President Evo Morales reportedly said this week he admires Che, but disagrees with his violent method.)

“After his failure in Congo he went to Prague, where during three months was a guest at the Cuban Embassy. He tried many times to contact Fidel, to no avail. In the end he was authorized to secretly return to Havana. Che was a man with power in Cuba. And his outspoken manners, typical of some Argentines, resented many. But above all, he was against the pacific coexistence Cuba had adopted under pressure from the Soviet Union. But Che wanted to keep trying to set the world on fire. He was inconvenient to Cuba, willing to preserve its relationship with the Soviets. Sending him to fight in Bolivia was a smart way of getting rid of him. If every thing went OK, Fidel would still be the great Comandante and revolutionary leader. If not, nothing would change.”

The Bolivian warfare was based on three information sources, Prado said. “Manuel Piñeiro, Cuba´s chief intelligence official, presented Che with a set of documents supposed to prove the viability of a guerrilla warfare. He was under direct orders of Castro. The second source was Debray, who had come to Bolivia for a short time. And the third source was made up of students in Cuba. There was a boy named Maymura, another one named Vaca, and also a Gutierrez. They were all from Beni who went to Havana directly without even knowing Cochabamba (then Bolivia´s second largest city). You can imagine what kind of precise information they could provide about Bolivia. But they came along with Che anyway, and also died. That was all the intelligence that made up Che´s the decision to come to Bolivia” Prado said.

Intelligence was neglected on crucial moments of the campaign, according to Prado. One of the biggest failures was the inability of contacting urban cadres. “Before going into the jungle, Che told his main contacts , ´don´t do anything till I tell you.´ So they sat waiting for instructions, which never came. Che had no means to contact his people in the cities, and vice versa. There was a Cuban contact under the name of Ariel in La Paz, but this contact vanished. Maybe he went back to Cuba. The guerrillas only listened to Radio Habana, which sent them messages the same way our people send radio messages: I will arrive tomorrow to such place. Wait for me with horses, pigs or food. There are three or four messages they received this way. Che recorded in his diary a message saying men were coming from Czechoslovakia. And he comments: “Where are they going to meet us…?”

“In truth, Prado said, our main problem was not to fight the guerrillas. It was to find them! They lost their camp base at the onset of their campaign, when the army, helped by peasants, seized it. Also, Che incurred a serious mistake when he split his group in two, never specifying a rendezvous point. They parted and never came together again. It was unconceivable for a guerrilla like Che. If you go to the stadium with your son, you will tell him, listen, just in case we lose each other, we will meet here. Actually, Che and his men wandered aimlessly in the forest.”

Prado´s Ranger Regiment, one of Bolivia´s best trained, moved into action Sep 26. The day he captured Che he had 70 men under his command. But the Che´s guerrilla was in agony since long before. Prado says some guerrillas suggested they dissolve the movement. “The problem was, he told me, he had no where to go. Put yourself in his shoes. I get out of here and where I would go? Back to Cuba he couldn´t, since he had resigned all his prerogatives, even to the Cuban citizenship. To Argentina even less. But overall, how to get out of Bolivia? He had no way out but sacrifice himself, and his men. It was an “inmolation.”

Prado has written a detailed account of his anti-guerrilla role: “The Guerrilla Inmolada” (literarily The Sacrificed Guerilla). The book, originally in Spanish, is on its third edition.