MILITARY STANDDOWN MORE LIKELY THAN HEAVY HAND

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07LAPAZ3262 14 December 2007 Secreto Embassy La Paz

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SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/15/2027
TAGS: ASEC, PREL, PGOV, PINL, VN, CU, BL
SUBJECT: MILITARY STANDDOWN MORE LIKELY THAN HEAVY HAND

REF: A. LA PAZ 3261
B. LA PAZ 3119

Classified By: EcoPol Chief Mike Hammer for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

1. (S) Summary: Over the past couple of days statements from
military leaders have taken a conciliatory tone and moved
away from the confrontational rhetoric from Armed Forces
Commander General Wilfredo Vargas. Vargas relayed a message
to the Ambassador that his troops would only intervene in
"Media Luna" opposition states if leaders clearly break with
the constitution, for example by declaring independence. The
Vice President echoed a similar message in a December 14
meeting when he told the Ambassador that the government is
not planning a state of siege or military action unless it is
required to defend government offices or protect the people.
Although the military is making plans to deploy 70 additional
companies to opposition-led departments (states), military
planners have told us that President Evo Morales has given
them instructions not to incur civilian casualties. Field
commanders continue to tell us they will require a written
order from President Morales if asked to commit violence
against opposition demonstrators. Even with such an order,
commanders are prepared to stand down and confine their
troops to barracks. Imposing a police state on rebel
departments presents several difficulties: the military views
this as strictly a police function; the military does not
presently have the supplies or logistics in place to conduct
such an operation; many key officers have ties with the
opposition departments in the Media Luna; and the military
knows based on past history that they will be held
accountable. An influential senator told us the opposition
is not nearly as concerned with military heavy handedness as
they are with altiplano police and mysterious "foreign"
fighters. End Summary.

Vargas: With Evo or Against Evo?


2. (S) Armed Forces Commander Wilfredo Vargas asked Military
Group Commander on December 13 to tell the Ambassador that in
case of confrontations in opposition-led "Media Luna"
departments (states), troops would be deployed in the same
manner as during the violent November 23-24 Sucre
demonstrations: troops would protect military and government
property, but would not enforce a crackdown on civilians.
This contradicted Vargas’ December 7 public statement that
"the true cowards are in the (opposition-controlled) Media
Luna" and that the military would "defend the homeland" in
Santa Cruz to ensure "the security of all." Although he
called for increased political dialogue, Vargas laid the
blame for "any conflict in the future" squarely with the
opposition for provoking and misinforming Bolivians, without
offering "any substantive solutions." But now Vargas has
changed his tune, saying he would only use the military to
quell civil disorder if the opposition acted in a clearly
unconstitutional way, for example by declaring independence.
He did not consider the proposal of autonomy statutes to be a
clear violation of the constitution. Vargas did stress,
however, that he would not tolerate insubordination or coup
plotting within his ranks. The Ambassador was also assured
by Vice President Garcia Linera on December 14 that the
government would not declare a state of siege or use the
military unless it needed to defend government offices or
protect people.

3. (S) That Vargas made his highly-political comments at an
officer graduation ceremony December 7, rather than giving
the expected general advice to new officers, angered many
commanders. Many commanders were also critical of Vargas’
handling of the Sucre demonstrations, as they feared it
opened the military to charges of taking political sides
beyond its institutional role. Vargas was under "incredible
pressure" from Morales to make such comments, according to
General Gonzalo Suarez Selum (strictly protect), Head of
Foreign Relations for the Bolivian Armed Forces Joint Staff.
Morales also attended the ceremony and followed Vargas’
comments by explaining to cadets that democracy "is not a
coup" and "unity is not independence."

4. (C) Vargas had been, publicly and privately, a supporter
of U.S.-Bolivian military relations. Although he continues
to cooperate enthusiastically with us at a working level,
even giving awards to three MILGP officers December 13, his
public comments in the last few months have irritated
Bolivian military officers and raised eyebrows within the
Embassy. When given an opening to defend us regarding
conspiracy charges, he only said the charges should be
investigated. When given a chance to opine on Morales’
celebration of Che Guevara,s 1967 rebellion and criticism of
Bolivian troops, he said everyone has the right to their own
opinion.

Setting the Groundwork for Possible Military Action


------

5. (C) Government rhetoric calmed somewhat this week, with
officials including Morales making empty overtures about
dialogue and stressing that the opposition, not the
government, is pushing the country to conflict. But
government officials also warned that if dialogue failed and
opposition "sedition" continued, the government would have no
choice but to use force. "The state is disposed to use
institutions of force to preserve internal order and
democratic stability," said Government Minister Alfredo Rada.
Rada’s Vice-Minister Ruben Gamarra said the government would
not allow department or civic officials to "threaten the
unity of the country" as a matter of constitutional
obligation. Gamarra said the military also supports this
position. The Vice President also told the Ambassador that
"the president and I must guarantee the country’s integrity
and stability." The Ambassador made clear that the United
States supports a united and democratic Bolivia.

Military Leaders Stress Calm and Police Role


6. (C) On December 12, the military spoke for itself, backing
away from confrontational remarks. Minister of Defense
Walker San Miguel confirmed that the armed forces were on
alert, but said the motive was to protect public and private
property, not to quell unrest. San Miguel told the press the
police are responsible for maintaining civil order, not the
military. San Miguel discounted any possibility of declaring
a state of emergency in opposition departments and criticized
"paranoid" opposition leaders for asserting that President
Morales had ordered an imminent "militarization." (Note:
Opposition rumors include appointing military officers
temporarily to state and city civilian leadership positions.
End Note.) San Miguel explained although there had been no
troop mobilizations, the military remains "concerned." Army
Commander Freddy Bersatti said he hoped God would guide
opposition leaders to make good decisions "for the peace and
coexistence of all Bolivians."

Military to Retreat from Civilian Confrontations


---

7. (C) Planning of troop deployments to opposition
departments was conducted December 7 and 8 and continued to
be refined this week. Participating commanders told us the
deployment would involve 70 companies. Army Chief of Staff
Gen. Freddy Mackay, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel
Salazar, and Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Ernesto Roca are the
chief planners.

8. (S) A senior military planner told DAO December 13 that
President Morales wants the military to be careful to avoid
violent confrontations with demonstrators if called upon to
support Bolivian police. Despite public bravado, the planner
said Morales understands deaths will erode political support.
He confirmed some units have already deployed to key
locations throughout the Media Luna to secure gas lines,
public utilities, and government buildings. The planner said
the units would not be armed and would incorporate local
indigenous to minimize the potential for conflict. If the
opposition attempts to take these strategic locations by
force, the military would retreat.

Santa Chavez to Fund Bolivian Deployments


9. (S) Until recently, it was unclear how such a deployment
would be funded. However, military contacts said December 13
that $5 million became available this week to fund an
increased military presence in opposition-led departments and
another $1.3 million had been allocated for non-lethal
supplies, such as riot-control gas. The money was supposedly
freed up from Venezuelan sources, but this is not confirmed.
It will take time, at least two weeks, before the new funding
results in equipped troops on the ground in opposition
departments.

10. (C) Supply and logistics issues continue to be an
operational impediment to any proposed military crackdown,
and it may take months before the new funding resolves these
shortcomings at remote posts. Bolivia has not spent any
money on ammunition in two years, and the capacity to quickly
move troops remains in doubt. The Air Force Fourth Brigade
Commander in Tarija, for example, told MILGP Commander he had
only two trucks and enough fuel to send his single plane on
one reconnaissance mission.

Venezuelan Cash and Foreign Fighters


11. (S) General Suarez said Morales understands he risks
losing the military if he pushes them into a police force
role. Because of this, he felt Morales would rely on the
police from the altiplano and "volunteers from other
countries" to combat opposition forces should an open
conflict develop. Suarez said Cuban hospitals could easily
be "converted to barracks," but had no idea how many
Venezuelan and Cubans would be willing or available to fight
for Evo’s government.

12. (S) Military contacts are concerned a few rogue
commanders might obey orders to enforce a police state, their
loyalty greased with Venezuelan pay-offs. They asserted
Venezuelan money would also make it difficult for the
high-command to refuse such orders. Although Venezuelan
"bonuses" have cemented some loyalty, it has also created
much resentment in the mid- and lower-ranks and cost the high
command significant legitimacy. According Suarez and field
commanders, there is also a high degree of frustration with
the perceived meddling of Venezuelan advisors in the internal
functions of the military and of overtly political statements
and actions of the high command (such as Army Commander
Bersatti’s decision to wear a red poncho in solidarity with
the violent, pro-government Red Ponchos group a year ago).

Mixed Signals on Holiday Troop Strength


13. (C) Although planning and funding appear to be in place,
the military was sending out mixed signals as to its
intentions. There has been no order to extend assignments or
cancel leave, as would be expected prior to a major military
undertaking. About 70 percent of the army’s conscript force
will be rotating during the first two weeks of January.
Allowing inexperienced troops to transfer into the bulk of
Media Luna enlisted positions, rather than keeping its
existing troops in place, might signal that the government
does not anticipate a major conflict in the near-future.
However, a senior military planner told DATT that keeping the
conscripts from rotating would be "more trouble than it is
worth" and that new troops would be more motivated. He also
anticipated an order canceling leave before December 19.
Another potential tripwire: graduations at the military
academy in Cochabamba Department were moved up four days to
December 12.

Field Commanders Set to Stand Down


14. (S) Although Vargas and others in the high command may be
coy, many field commanders continue to tell us they will not
participate in violence against opposition demonstrations.
MILGP Commander 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 civil defense officer told MILGP
Commander he expects commanders will not use force.

15. (C) Vice-Admiral Ismael Schabib (ret.) told Emboff that
Minister of Government Rada contacted the Navy leadership
when violent protests broke out in Cobija, Pando on November
30 and asked the Navy to step in and enforce order (Note:
the Navy is the strongest military branch in the department
of Pando). Navy commanders said they would comply when
provided a signed order from Morales. Rada never called
back. Senator Roger Pinto told PolOffs the air force in
Cobija was similarly requested to take control of the
civilian airport, requested a written order, and never got
one.

X-Factors: Institutionalism, Regionalism, and Wives


------

16. (C) Suarez told us despite government and high-command
rhetoric about the military’s "constitutional role," most
commanders thought the government violated the law and the
constitution by excluding the opposition from key sessions of
Congress and the Constituent Assembly and, therefore, "have
no right to invoke the constitution." A strong commitment to
institutionalism would require a rock-solid constitutional
argument before commanders would participate in any action
that could be considered "political."

17. (C) Suarez said commanders ultimately place loyalty to
their region above all other considerations. Although most
commanders are originally from the altiplano, they have spent
most of their careers stationed in the Media Luna. He said
many officers worked with the same opposition leaders the
government might call on them to unseat, a prospect he found
"very unlikely." Many altiplano officers marry in the Media
Luna and have family there. As for the large minority of
officers from the Media Luna, including himself, Suarez said
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.

Senator Pinto: "Divided" Military Won,t Intervene


----

18. (C) Senator Roger Pinto (PODEMOS-Pando) told PolOff
December 14 the opposition did not believe the "divided"
military would repress them, but were more concerned about
irregular pro-government militias organized and financed by
Venezuelans and Cubans. Pinto, however, provided no details
on the supposed paramilitary organizations. Pinto said, in
any event, he expected no violent stand-off with the
government before January as both sides are "disorganized."

Comment:


19. (C) The best the government can hope for if it gives the
order to bust opposition heads is sporadic and half-hearted
compliance from a minority of commanders. Although they can
be expected to protect government infrastructure and
transportation, most commanders are likely to sit out any
violent confrontation with opposition forces. Consistent
with out November assessment (Reftel B), we continue to
believe the military will choose to ignore orders that are
not solidly linked to their constitutional role, in writing,
or that requires them to spill Bolivian blood.

20. (C) Despite bravado from field commanders, DAO expects
them to frame any potential insubordination as "selective
non-compliance" to their superiors. Although field
commanders may be anxious about day after scenarios if they
disobey orders, it would be difficult for the government to
replace "insubordinate" officers, particularly if officers
refused such orders en masse. It is unlikely the government
would find more loyal commanders in the lower ranks,
uncertain if rank and file troops would recognize them, and
unclear if such an overly political reorganization would be
tolerated by the high command. Unlike his erstwhile ally
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Evo does not have a network
of personal friends within the military (although his
Presidency Minister Juan Quintana does), and the military is
leery of taking on any role considered remotely political.
The military fears above all a repeat of the bloody
military-civilian conflicts in El Alto in 2003, which brought
down the Goni government. Many commanders are still bitter
about the fallout from those events and believe the military
took the risks and the blame for political decisions.

21. (C) Vargas remains an enigma. Some commanders suspected,
at least before his December 7 comments, that he might be
sympathetic to a coup. He is widely characterized as an
"opportunist" and is looking at moving out of his job in 2008
and into a potentially lucrative position as head of Bolivian
customs. Under intense pressure from both political sides,
he plays both sides. We cannot expect him to stand behind
his assurances. End Comment.

GOLDBERG