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ENTERED ON ACTIVE DUTY with the Foreign Service in September 1968. Like most first-tour, single officers of that era, my initial assignment was in Vietnam with the joint civilian-military operation CORDS. After a year I was transferred to the embassy in Saigon. Although there were nervous moments, particularly during my time as a district advisor in the Mekong Delta province of Ken Hoa, I was fortunate in never coming under fire during the eighteen months I was in Vietnam.

In those “good old days” State Department officers did not enjoy today’s “open assignments” system, as flawed as it might be. You put in your wish list of next assignments and the personnel system assigned you according to the “needs of the Service.” As my Vietnam tour neared an end, I ventured for the first time into the assignment process, expressing an interest in Brazil. I already spoke Spanish, but I had friends in Brazil and thought that broadening my languages to include Portuguese would be a good career move. Several months later I received my assignment — to Bolivia. As a new officer I was eager for any new experience, and Bolivia seemed likely to fill the bill. Anyway, it was right next to Brazil.

Before leaving Saigon I dutifully wrote to our ambassador in La Paz, Ernie Siracusa, expressing my pleasure in joining his staff. To my surprise, I got a response. In addition to welcoming me to post, the Ambassador invited me to stay in his residence while he was on leave or until my permanent housing became available. Flattered at what I took to be a very generous gesture to a junior officer, I accepted with alacrity. (Only later did I learn that, while a nice gesture, as the residence was much better than the local hotels, it was really intended to ensure a house sitter during his absence.) I arrived in La Paz in early August 1971 and moved into the ambassador’s residence, a comfortable large house located on a square in an older section of the city. The area was primarily residential, but with some government offices as well, including the ministry of defense, located kitty-cornered from the residence.

Politics in Bolivia in 1971 were, as usual, turbulent. General Juan Jose Torres (“Jota-Jota,” as he was familiarly known) had come to power in a coup less than a year earlier during a period of significant labor unrest. Considered by the U.S. Government to be a dangerous leftist, Torres had already expelled the Peace Corps on the grounds that it was a CIA front planning the extermination of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples. Torres had barely settled into the presidential palace when rumors began circulating that the right was preparing a counter-coup. And soon after my arrival, on Thursday, August 19, Colonel Hugo Banzer, who had been in exile in Argentina since Torres took power, returned to Santa Cruz in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands and launched his coup attempt.

The embassy immediately went to round-the-clock staffing in an effort to monitor the fast-changing situation. Most of our information came via short-wave radio from missionaries and others working in several eastern cities. As the coup forces advanced toward La Paz over the next several days, we rotated staff home to rest, shower, and change clothes, and eat. My turn came at mid-day on Saturday.

Later that afternoon the sound of gunfire intruded on my well-earned nap. The coup had arrived in La Paz!

I quickly dressed and went to find out from the staff and guards what was going on. To my surprise, I found the house deserted. The domestic staff and the local guards had fled. Looking out from upstairs windows onto the square I saw tracer rounds being fired at and from the ministry of defense, and several bodies lying in the square. I called the embassy on our emergency radio network to ask for help, only to learn that fighting was widespread in the city and it was not safe to send a vehicle to pick me up. I was advised to lie low and inform the embassy if any efforts were made to attack the residence. In that case, I was assured, we would insist that the government provide the protection for diplomatic premises that is required under the Vienna Convention. As green as I was, it was clear to me that we could hope for little help from a government hard-pressed to defend itself. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening with one ear turned toward the gate and the other glued to the emergency radio.

Around 9:00 p.m., the radio crackled with frantic calls from our Marine security guard quarters, located some six blocks from the ambassador’s residence. The Marines reported their house under attack by unknown gunmen who were firing automatic weapons on the lower floors. The Marines had scrambled to the top floor and were dropping tear gas grenades down the stairwell as their only means of defense. (Marine guard weapons are generally kept in embassies and the marines are unarmed when off-duty or at home.) By that time fighting had quieted down somewhat, and with a threat of this nature the Embassy took action. In addition to calling for police help, a group of embassy and defense attaché officers, armed with pistols and shotguns, piled into two of the Embassy’s vans and headed for the Marine House.

I broke into the radio conversation to ask whether the vehicles could stop to retrieve me from the residence en route to or from the Marine House. But by the time relief arrived there the attack had ended and the Marine House was once again secure. (It later turned out that the attack had not been politically motivated, but rather involved a few young men who — unhappy that their girl friends socialized at the Marine House — decided to take advantage of the confusion to exact some revenge.) A van screeched to a stop in front of the residence, I jumped in and we tore through the streets back to the embassy, shotguns jutting from every window. Happily we made it back safely, and there were no injuries or other problems among the embassy staff and families during the several days that the fighting continued.

The last event of the coup was an air attack by the Bolivian Air Force on the high-rise building of the university, which was held by last-ditch supporters of the ousted regime. The attack was carried out by two World War II-era P-51 prop fighters, undoubtedly one of the last combat sorties ever for that venerable aircraft.

Only in retrospect did it dawn on me that I had heard more gunfire in those several days than in eighteen months in Vietnam where a war was actually underway. I seemed to have left the frying pan only to land in the fire. But that’s life in the Foreign Service — never a dull moment and seldom do new posts turn out exactly like you imagine. The rest of my tour in La Paz was relatively calm, however, and Bolivia is certainly one of the most fascinating places in the world to live and work.  

*The author holds degrees from Georgetown University, the University of Michigan, and Stanford University. Aside from a variety of senior assignments in the Department of State, he served in Vietnam, Bolivia, Ecuador, Turkey, Zaire, and Chile and, during 1995-1998, as ambassador to Turkmenistan. Retired from the Foreign Service, he is now engaged in research, writing, and lecturing. His wife, Joanne Cotter, is a Foreign Service officer currently assigned in Washington.

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