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The Bolivian Insurgency of 1966-1967: Che Guevara’s Final Failure
On October 9th, 1967 at 1:45 PM, Colonel Joaquin Zetenento announced to the world that Che Guevara was dead.[i] Many were surprised to hear the news – and it was even more surprising that he died in Bolivia of all places. Questions began to swirl around his death while world leaders began to take sides concerning his legacy. Some, such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro, publicly mourned his death and vowed to continue Guevara’s vision of global revolution. Others, such as U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, made no such public statements but quietly celebrated the demise of what they saw as a global pest. But the public question remained, what happened to Che Guevara in Bolivia?
The answer to that was simple, Guevara was attempting to start a continent-wide communist revolution, with Bolivia at the center. To do that, Guevara decided to try and emulate the insurgent strategy that had been so successful in Cuba. Leading a small group of men, Che snuck into the Cordillera province of Bolivia, and attempted to overthrow the government through armed revolt. Not a year later Che was dead, and his revolution was broken. This led to a deeper question: how could Guevara, the supposed master guerilla be defeated by what many considered to be a third-world backwater? The was, for all his previous success in Cuba, Guevara was not as skilled in the art of combat as his reputation led many to believe. In Bolivia, Guevara was unprepared for the realities that lay before him. Despite all the social troubles and societal ills that Bolivia was experiencing at the time, it was not suitable for the type of insurgency that Guevara envisioned. Che also made a series of tactical and strategic errors that hurt his insurgency in the long run. And finally, the Bolivian government was not nearly as weak as Che thought it was, due in part to support from the United States. Because of this, Bolivia was able to defeat Che’s insurgency with a measured and rational military response in little under a year.
There were three main actors during the Bolivian insurgency: Che Guevara’s rebels, the Bolivian government, and the United States. A quick examination of each actor follows.
The eternal darling of the college communist, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara de la Serna was born to a rich Argentine family in 1928.[ii] He studied to become a doctor but never finished his education, instead choosing to travel the world to get in touch with the people. He traveled throughout South America, including a stop in Bolivia, to get to know the poor and marginalized of society. This trip, combined with the firsthand experience of the US coup in Guatemala, radicalized Che and made him an avowed communist.[iii]
In 1956, Che invaded Cuba alongside Fidel Castro to fight against the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. With a small force of just 82 initial soldiers, Che and his compatriots were able to overthrow Batista with careful planning and strong tactics.[iv]
While fighting in Cuba, Che developed his own set of theories on guerilla warfare and insurgencies in general. He viewed guerilla conflict as ‘the people's war’ and understood that a successful guerilla war would not be possible without the support of the population of the nation as a whole.[v] He developed three rules for conducting a guerilla warfare. First, and this plays into his understanding of the people’s war, popular forces can win against the army. Second, Che argues that revolutionary situations can be created by rebel forces, one doesn’t have to wait for them. And third, Che believed that the rural areas are the greatest source of strength for insurgent forces.[vi] Additionally, Che plots out his own three stages of Guerilla warfare:
- Establishment and adaption of the guerilla lifestyle for rebel forces
- Push out the local forces to establish territory for the guerillas, and
- Attack the enemy out in the open with special emphasis placed on communications and bases.[vii]
Che’s stages of guerilla conflict were similar to Mao’s but were much more in line with his own experiences in Cuba. Whereas Mao’s conflict was one that spanned decades, the Cuban revolution only took a few years.
After the Cuban revolution, Che worked under the Castro regime as the economic minister. He found however that the life of a government worker did not suit him, as he had difficulty compromising with others and was much more interested in furthering his cause of a global communist revolution. His first attempt in the Congo was a failure, so Che decided he would try again in Bolivia. He approached Fidel Castro with a plot for a South American Communist revolution.
The President of Bolivia at the time was Rene Barrientos. A military man, Barrientos had been in charge of the MNR ‘cell’ in the armed forces and had been tasked with organizing the Bolivian Air Force into a separate branch of the military.[viii] In 1964, the military overthrew ruling president Victor Paz Estenssoro, and replaced it with an all military cabinet. Barrientos was acting vice president/ co-president with Alfredo Ovando, until Barrientos stepped down to run for the presidency in 1966. Due to the fact that any legitimate opposition was exiled by the ‘64 coup, Barrientos was able to win the election with little trouble.
Barrientos proved himself to be incredibly popular amongst the peasantry. This was due to his dedication to reforms that were designed to improve their lives. Land reform, welfare programs and rural education were among the programs that his regime implemented to win their support.[ix] Barrientos reached out to the peasants, particularly the native Indians, who had been marginalized by previous regimes. Because of this focus on the peasants he was able to build a very strong political coalition composed of the rural peasantry, an urban anti-labor movement, the merchant class and the military.[x] Not everyone loved him however as Barrientos was hostile to unions, particularly the miners’ union, and other leftist organizations.[xi] But even though he was hated by some, he was loved by even more and soon earned the title ‘The General of the People’.
Even though he has been a military commander in the past, Barrientos was not in charge of the military campaign against Che. That responsibility fell upon General Ovando. Ovando and Barrientos had worked for many years including during the 1964 coup that established the government that was still operating in 1966. In fact, the two men had ruled together as co-presidents until Barrientos stepped down to legitimately run for president. After losing the position of chief executive, he was put in charge of Bolivia’s military. Ovanado was a moderate and loyal member of the MNR and was very anti-communist.[xii]
The United States
Compared to the other two groups, the United States role in the conflict was not as overt nor as involved. However, the United States had been assisting the Bolivians with a variety military support since 1962. They had been providing training, guns and other equipment to help keep the Bolivian government as stable as possible. As time passed, American assistance jumped to almost 3 million a year by 1967.[xiii] This was due in part to Douglas Henderson, the ambassador to Bolivia at the time, who had a fairly good relationship with both Barrientos and Ovanado.
During this time period though, the US was involved in a conflict of its own: Vietnam. By 1966, the United States was in the middle of the increasingly unpopular war and though it was still a couple of years away from the Tet Offensive, the US was devoting more and more resources and manpower into the war. As a result, the American public was becoming more resistant to the idea of US involvement in foreign conflicts.
After a consultation with Fidel Castro, Che decided that the time was right for a South American communist revolution. He and Castro settled on Bolivia for two main reasons. The first was that because Bolivia was of little strategic importance, the Americans wouldn’t concern themselves with their group until they were strong enough to be a threat. By that point, Che hoped, their military presence would be strong enough to drag the Americans into a second Vietnam. The second, is that the social conditions (mainly the divide between the racial groups and the mining unions) would, theoretically, make the people in Bolivia susceptible to communist ideology.[xiv]
Emulating the revolution in Cuba, Che Guevara snuck in with a small contingent of soldiers into the country on November 7th, 1966. They soon begin to try and set up camp within the country. They tried to place down a permanent base and had a meeting with locals who might have been sympathetic to their cause. On December 1st Che Guevara met with the Communist party leader of Bolivia, Mario Monje. The meeting was cordial if not a little tense as neither men could agree on what direction the resistance should take. Guevara insisted that he be the one to lead the rebels, even though Monje warned that Bolivians would not be welcoming to an outsider preaching a communist ideology.[xv]
The rebels continued to try and build supply caches and to chart out the region in which they were attempting to live. Unfortunately for the rebels, luck was not on their side as the Bolivian government soon became aware of their presence. Some careless reconnaissance by the rebels led to their presence being reported to the Bolivian army in late February/ early March.[xvi] Not long after, two members of the insurgency were captured and interrogated by local police officers. This confirmed to the Bolivians that they were dealing with a violent rebellion.[xvii]
Che knew that that Bolivians were now aware of their presence and was faced with a choice: either melt into the population and wait for the military’s attention to turn elsewhere, or announce their presence and begin combat with the military. Che chose the later option and ambushed the military in Nancahuazu and Iripiti. These ambushes were successful as the rebels killed 18 government soldiers and lost none of their own.[xviii] The war continued this way for several months as Che and his rebels played a cat and mouse game with government forces all throughout the region. But, the game was not to last.
In April of 1967, the US saw that the Bolivians were having trouble with an insurgency, so they sent in 16 American Green Berets to train the locals in counter insurgent tactics, creating the 2nd Ranger Battalion. The US forces provided the Bolivians with up to date equipment and the latest training on counter-insurgent tactics. [xix] And by May of 1967, the United States was fully aware that Che was in Bolivia.[xx] Unlike the conflict in Vietnam, the United States decided to take a much more measured approach to the Bolivian question. Instead of announcing a full blown invasion like Che would have hoped, the United States continued with its mission of training the Bolivian soldiers and providing them with the tools to accomplish their mission. The US also deployed several CIA operatives, including Felix Rodriguez and Eduardo Gonzales to assist the Bolivians in their training and intelligence gathering.[xxi]
As time went on, the rebels were having a more difficult time staying in the fight. The villages and towns, which under normal circumstances would be a source of strength for the insurgents, was turning into a liability as the locals would often report the movements of the rebels to the local authorities.[xxii] Unfortunately for the rebels, the Bolivians were able to use this information to their advantage, and on August 31st, the army successfully ambushed the insurgents and killed 12 of them.[xxiii] This was a significant win for the Bolivians and a huge blow to the insurgents as they were already short on men, and this ambush wiped out nearly a third of their force.
The situation would only continue to worsen for rebels as the army kept the pressure on. The already inhospitable terrain became a nightmare to navigate between dense jungles and raging rivers. In addition, the small urban support network that had been hastily built fell apart as the Bolivian government arrested its 14 members and leader, Loyola Guzman.[xxiv] The presence of foreign fighters was also a propaganda win for the Bolivian government as they were able to frame the conflict as foreign adversaries trying to overthrow the government of Bolivia.
In September of 1967, the American trained 2nd Battalion was deployed to devastating effect. With support from local intelligence the Rangers confronted the rebels in the Battle of La Higuera which effectively broke and scattered what remained of the Che’s insurgents. 17 insurgents remained with Che as the Army trapped him and his group in a jungle canyon. Soon after Che was captured by the Bolivian army, and interrogated by Felix Rodriguez and the other Bolivians. Fearing international attention and other problems arising from his captivity, Barrientos ordered Che’s execution. And so, on October 6th 1967, Che Guevara was executed by Bolivian military forces, thus bringing the attempted insurrection and revolution to an inglorious end.[xxv]
The Successes and Failures of Che Guevara
The question then becomes: what happened? Why was Che Guevara, the legendary guerilla leader unable to replicate his success in Cuba, and bring a glorious revolution to the people of Bolivia? It was because Che made a lot of mistakes in his campaign, and there are five issues that stick out above everything else.
The first and perhaps most important issue was that the people of Bolivia, or at least the territory that Che operated in, were not so keen on the idea of a revolution. If an insurgent is supposed to swim among the people like a fish in water, then Che’s fish started off in a dry river bed. The natives saw Che Guevara not as a glorious bringer of freedom, but as a foreign interloper. Combined with government propaganda, the result was that the natives in the region did not adopt the rebel forces. While there may have been some that were sympathetic to the cause, particularly in the larger cities, it was not enough to keep the locals from informing the Bolivian army about the whereabouts of the rebel forces.
Second, the territory that Guevara operated in was incredibly inhospitable. Insects were a constant problem in their camps. In the early days of the conflict Che’s diary documents the “torment” of the insect plague, or how on the 3rd day he ‘removed six ticks from his body’.[xxvi] Furthermore, the terrain that the guerillas operated in was not truly suited for long term survival of mobile combatants. Much of the vegetation in the region was poor in nutrients, and the places where food can be cultivated was already occupied by farmers.[xxvii] The same farmers who would routinely inform the military about the location of the guerillas.
Third, the rebels failed to coordinate with potential allies in the region, particularly with Communists inside of the cities of Bolivia. When Che and his group met with Monje, both men refused to budge on the most basic of ideas. Monje demanded that he be placed in charge of the rebel forces, which Che refused to allow.[xxviii] This failure of coordination left the rebels functionally alone in the middle of hostile territory.
The fourth mistake is that the guerillas were in the middle of Bolivian territory, and as a result he did not have any borders or safe havens that Che and his rebels could flee to. The rebels never had a secure base at any point in the conflict. They had no supply chain, no secure base of operations and no place where they could return to, to rest and resupply.[xxix] As a result, Che’s forces were constantly hounded by the army and they never had a point in which they could regroup and resupply. This was due to the location in which they operated in. The province was far from any border, making border crossings and foreign havens impossible, cutting the rebels off from a valuable resource: rest.
The final mistake that Che Guevara made was that he was unprepared and under equipped throughout the entire conflict. This is very apparent when through his journal of the conflict. During his first few days in Bolivia he seems to be surprised by the sheer amount of insects that are in the region. This surprise is compounded by the fact that out of the beginning group of rebels present, Guevara is the only one to have a mosquito net.[xxx] A more prepared group would have recognized the issues in the region and would have packed according to the threats. Mosquito nets ended up being some of the least of the rebels worries. Food, clothing, medicine and weapons became more and more scarce as the conflict went on. The rebel’s one outside source of supplies, Cuba, was too far away and did not have the resources to adequately supply them. Especially with the US involved in the conflict, it ensured that the rebels were on their own only a few months into the conflict.
The Successes and Failures of the Bolivian Army
While much of this victory for Bolivia was due to the failures of Che Guevara, that does not mean that Bolivians were completely hapless. On the contrary, the military performed adequately once the anti-insurgent units were deployed to the field. There were two main strengths that the Bolivians could draw upon in this conflict.
First, the Bolivian army took advantage of the local intelligence that the natives provided for them. The Bolivian government and military enjoyed strong support from the locals that Che was trying to infiltrate. Because Barrientos was so popular among the locals that Che was trying to hide among, they saw no reason to give him any sort of support. Perhaps the greatest benefit of this information is that the Bolivians received word of the revolutionaries so early into their infiltration. Che and his men had not been inside Bolivia for more than four months before they were already fighting the Bolivian army. This denied Che’s group key months of setting up support networks, supply lines and safe houses. This lack of infrastructure hastened the end of Che’s group and contributed to a Bolivian victory.
The second strength that Bolivia had was the outside support from the United States and the CIA. As stated previously, when the American government learned of the growing insurgency inside Bolivia, they took measured steps to take care of it. By providing the Bolivians with adequate resources and proper training, they were able to guide them through the frustrating prospects of counterinsurgency. Something to note about this support is that it was done correctly. The Americans did not try to push the Bolivians aside for the glory of killing Che. They allowed the Bolivians to fight their own battles while simultaneously denying Che and the other communists the potential propaganda of American soldiers in Bolivia.
Of course, the Bolivians did make some mistakes. Perhaps the most glaring one was the San Juan Massacre. A group of miners at the Sigo XX-Catavi mine declared that they may have been interested in supporting the rebels. The military heard about this potential issue, marched down to the mine and opened fire on the miners. Twenty miners died and over seventy had been wounded once the smoke had cleared.[xxxi] A better, or more well equipped guerilla leader would have been able to turn this into a propaganda victory but because Che did not have the infrastructure or supplies to spread the word, the incident became a footnote in the conflict instead of a rallying point.
Bolivia’s victory over Che Guevara was less of a success for their nation and more of a failure on Che’s part. While it is true that they did not over-react to Che’s presence in the region and they wisely used appropriate resources and intelligence to deal with the problems, the victory is built more on Che’s failures.
This was not an organic insurgency, that grew from the grievances of the local population. This was an attempt by an ideological and foreign interloper to force a revolution on a people that were not interested. This is part of the reason why this is less of a counter-insurgent victory and more of an insurgent failure. Whereas most counterinsurgency techniques require a balanced mixture of COIN operations and military force to achieve victory, that was not the case in Bolivia. The reason for this is that Barrientos was meeting much of the civil obligations for the people in the countryside, thus negating the reason for there to be an insurgency at all. Therefore, most of the operations that were required were simply military exercises.
This is all because Guevara failed to recognize the most fundamental aspects of any sort of insurgency: there needs to be a reason. His theory that an insurgency could be brought in by an outside force was brought upon by his experience in Cuba, but this viewpoint was limited. The reason why Cuba’s insurgency was so successful is because Batista’s regime was already hated by the population at large. When Castro and his forces came to the island, there was no ideological battle that had to be won because Batista was already incredibly unpopular. Additionally, Batista was abandoned by the United States, so any potential outside support for the regime was nonexistent. In Bolivia, the opposite was the case. Barrientos was ‘the people’s general’ and the United States increased aid to Bolivia when they were aware that Che Guevara was operating inside the country.
Che Guevara was far too interested in the idea of a global revolution to recognize the fact that the Bolivian region was not ideal for an insurgency. The failure of the Bolivian insurgency stems from the failure of its commander. Che chose to fight when they should have blended in with the population. His stubborn insistence to continue fighting beyond the point of victory makes his Bolivian adventure feel less like an actual attempt to begin an insurgency and more of a elaborate suicide in the hope of being martyred.
Alexander, Robert Jackson, and Eldon M. Parker. A History of Organized Labor in Bolivia. Praeger Publishers, 2005.
Guevara, Che, and Nguyen-van-Hieu. Guerilla Warfare; a Method. Normount Armament Co., 1966.
Guevara, Che. Bolivian Diary, November 7, 1966 - October 7, 1967. Réédition-Québec, 1969.
Klein, Herbert S. A Concise History of Bolivia. 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Kornbluh, Peter. “The Death of Che Guevara: Declassified.” National Security Archives, George Washington University, nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB5/index.html.
“Memorandum of Understanding Concerning the Activation, Organization and Training of the 2d Battalion - Bolivian Army.” US Army, 28 Apr. 1967.
Morales, Waltraud Q. A Brief History of Bolivia. Facts On File, 2010.
Rostow, Walt. “White House Memorandum.” National Security Archives, George Washington University, nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB5/docs/doc02.pdf.
Salmón Gary Prado. The Defeat of Che Guevara: Military Response to Guerrilla Challenge in Bolivia. Praeger, 1990.
Selser, Gregorio. La CIA En Bolivia. Hernandez Editor, 1970.
Sinclair, Andrew. Che Guevara. Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1972.
[i] Salmón Gary Prado. The Defeat of Che Guevara: Military Response to Guerrilla Challenge in Bolivia. Praeger, 1990. 189
[ii] Sinclair, Andrew. Che Guevara. Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1972,1
[iii] Sinclair, 14
[iv] Sinclair, 15
[v] Guevara, Che, and Nguyen-van-Hieu. Guerilla Warfare; a Method. Normount Armament Co., 1966, 2
[vi] Sinclair 32
[vii] Sinclair 34
[viii]Alexander, Robert Jackson, and Eldon M. Parker. A History of Organized Labor in Bolivia. Praeger Publishers, 2005,123
[ix] Klein, 222
[x] Klein, 224
[xi] Morales, 166
[xii] Klein, 226
[xiii] Morales 166
[xiv] Kornbluh, Peter. “The Death of Che Guevara: Declassified.” National Security Archives, George Washington University, nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB5/index.html.
[xv] Guevara, Che. Bolivian Diary, November 7, 1966 - October 7, 1967. Réédition-Québec, 1969., 59
[xvi] Salmón, 55
[xvii] Salmón, 67
[xviii] Salmón, 80
[xix] “Memorandum of Understanding Concerning the Activation, Organization and Training of the 2d Battalion - Bolivian Army.” US Army, 28 Apr. 1967.
[xx] Rostow, Walt. “White House Memorandum.” National Security Archives, George Washington University, nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB5/docs/doc02.pdf.
[xxi] Kornbluh, Peter. “The Death of Che Guevara: Declassified.” National Security Archives, George Washington University, nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB5/index.html.
[xxii] Salmón, 210
[xxiii] Salmón, 153
[xxiv] Salmón, 165
[xxv] Kornbluh, Peter. “The Death of Che Guevara: Declassified.” National Security Archives, George Washington University, nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB5/index.html.
[xxvi] The Bolivian Diary 37
[xxvii] Salmón, 32
[xxviii] Guevara, 59
[xxix] Salmón, 226
[xxx] Bolivian Diary Pg 37
[xxxi] Alexander, 130