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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Bolivia

November 29, 1982
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Thousands of Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution made their way to the remote, mountainous and landlocked country of Bolivia. The Jewish population of 250 swelled to almost 30,000 in the years prior to World War II, because Bolivia was the first country in Latin America to open its doors to Jewish refugees.

The vast majority came with the intention of moving from there to neighboring Argentina or other countries. Others who hoped to sink roots in the land found it too difficult. Thus, for these and other reasons, there are little more than 1,000 Jews in Bolivia today, mainly in the capital of La Paz and in Cachabamba.

The tranquility which marked life for the 250 Jews in Cochabamba was terminated abruptly in mid-October by threatening phone calls and physical attacks on Jewish institutions A few members of the community received anonymous calls demanding huge sums of money to insure that their synagogue would not suffer the same fate as the synagogue in Rome. Subsequently, many members of the community received phone calls threatening the lives of their children. Bolivian police were unable to identify those responsible for the telephoned threats.

The unprecedented bombing of the Circulo Israelita, a Jewish community center, on October 16 sent tremors of concern throughout the small community. Two Molotov cocktail bombs were detonated in the kitchen of that institution, fortunately causing little damage. Four days later, the bushes and trees surrounding the synagogue were drenched with gasoline and set afire. Once again, the damage was minimal and the flames were extinguished before the fire penetrated into the interior of the synagogue.


Although the extortionist demanded money in the name of the PLO, it is generally believed that the PLO is not involved in the plat. However, the PLO is very much a source of concern for the Jews of Bolivia. Among those who came to La Paz for the October 10 inauguration of President Heman Siles Zuazo was the PLO representative in Peru, Issam Besseiso, who was warmly welcomed by many members of the Congress. The warm reception for Besseiso and the new government’s political orientation have stirred concern that the PLO will receive permission to open a PLO office in La Paz; previous governments have firmly opposed this, despite intense PLO lobbying. The fact that leftist governments in Latin America have generally been supportive of the PLO lends credence to these concerns.

President Siles Zuazo came to power by means of a coalition of three parties — his National Revolutionary Movement of the Left (MNRI), the Revolutionary Movement of the Left (MIR) led by Vice President Jaime Paz Zamora, and the Bolivian Communist Party. Moreover, the Bolivian press has carried recently an increasing number of articles supportive of the PLO.


The Jewish community is also concerned about the continuing threat posed by the extreme right in Bolivia. Pro-Nazi elements were permitted to operate paramilitary training camps and publish anti-Semitic articles while the country was ruled by the previous military government of Gen. Luis Garcia Meza. The most visible symbol at Nazi power in Bolivia is Klaus Barbie, a convicted war criminal whom the French government unsuccessfully sought to extradite after his true identity became known in 1979.

Many Latin American observers feel that President Siles could assuage the anxieties of Bolivian Jews by clearly signalling the extremists of Left and Right that attacks upon Jews will not be tolerated. Although it is not known who was responsible for the anti-Semitic bombings, the timing — just days after the inauguration — may reflect the belief of extremists that they had a green light. Denial of permission for a PLO office would indicate that the country does not wish to become a center of terrorism.

The extradition of Barbie, these observers also point out, would send a strong message to Nazis in Bolivia. The Bolivian government has yet to act upon the request for Barbie’s extradition filed by the German government in May, 1982. Although recent press reports state that government officials have made it known they consider Barbie’s presence a disgrace, Barbie and his lawyer are confident that he will not be extradited. “He has no reasons to hide, leave or fear for his security in Bolivia,” attorney Constantine Carrion told the press on October 15.

While in exile, President Siles Zuazo, speaking at a press conference in New York in 1980, denounced Barbie’s open appearances in government offices and his influential role as a source of weapons and a link to the paramilitary groups. In the view of many who follow events in Bolivia, the extradition of Barbie to Germany, or to France, where “The Butcher of Lyons” was sentenced to death in absentia for the murder of French citizens, could be the prelude to a housecleaning of Nazis in Bolivia.

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