History of Bolivia

PRELUDE TO REVOLUTION, 1935-52

Radical Military Government

On May 17, 1936, Colonel David Toro Ruilova (1936-37) overthrew Tejada in a military coup. Because the officer corps wanted to avoid a civilian investigation of the military's wartime leadership, military backing for the coup came from all ranks. The main backers, however, were a group of younger officers who wanted to bring profound change to Bolivia. Toro, the leader of this group, hoped to reform the country from the top down. His program of "military socialism" included social and economic justice and government control over natural resources. He also planned to set up a corporate-style political system to replace the democratic system established in 1825.

Toro attempted to get civilian support with far-reaching social legislation and nominated a print worker as the first labor secretary in Bolivia. He also nationalized the holdings of Standard Oil without compensation and called for the convening of a constitutional congress that would include the traditional parties, as well as new reformist groups and the labor movement.

Toro was unable, however, to enlist lasting popular support. A group of more radical officers resented his reluctance to challenge the rosca, and they supported a coup by Colonel Germán Busch Becerra (1937-39) in 1937. A new constitution, promulgated in 1938, stressed the primacy of the common good over private property and favored government intervention in social and economic relations. It also legally recognized the Indian communities and included a labor code. In 1939 Busch challenged the interests of the mine owners for the first time by issuing a decree that would prevent the mining companies from removing capital from the country. None of his policies, however, resulted in significant popular and military support, and they completely alienated the conservative forces. Frustrated by his inability to bring about change, Busch committed suicide in 1939.

Despite the weakness of the Toro and Busch regimes, their policies had a profound impact on Bolivia. Reformist decrees raised expectations among the middle class, but when they failed to be implemented, they contributed to the growth of the left. The constitutional convention gave the new forces for the first time a nationwide platform and the possibility of forming alliances. The military socialist regimes also prompted the conservatives to join forces to stem the growth of the left.

The Rise of New Political Groups

After a few months under the provisional presidency of General Carlos Quintanilla Quiroga (1939-40), the chief of staff during the Busch regime, the government changed hands again. General Enrique Peñaranda Castillo (1940-43) was elected president in the spring of 1940. Peñaranda's support came from the traditional parties, the Liberals, and the two wings of the Republicans, who had formed a concordancia to stem the growth of the movement toward reform.

The trend toward reform, however, could not be halted, and a number of new groups gained control of the Congress during Peñaranda's presidency. These groups, although very different in their ideological outlooks, agreed on the need to change the status quo. They included the Trotskyite Revolutionary Workers Party (Partido Obrero Revolucionario--POR), which had already been formed in 1934, as well as the Bolivian Socialist Falange (Falange Socialista Boliviana--FSB), founded in 1937 and patterned on the Spanish model. The Leftist Revolutionary Party (Partido de Izquierda Revolucionaria--PIR) was founded in 1940 by a coalition of radical Marxist groups.

The most important opposition to the concordancia came from the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario--MNR). The first party with widespread support in Bolivian history, the MNR had a membership that included intellectuals and both white-collar and blue-collar workers. It was founded in 1941 by a small group of intellectual dissidents from the middle and upper classes and represented persons from a wide range of political persuasions who were united by their discontent with the status quo. Among its leaders were Víctor Paz Estenssoro, a professor of economics; Hernán Siles Zuazo, the son of former President Siles Reyes; and several influential writers. The party's program included nationalization of all of Bolivia's natural resources and far-reaching social reforms. Its antiSemitic statements resulted not only in the imprisonment of MNR leaders but also in charges by the United States government that MNR was under the influence of Nazi fascism.

As the leader of the congressional opposition, the MNR denounced Peñaranda's close cooperation with the United States and was especially critical of his agreement to compensate Standard Oil for its nationalized holdings. The MNR members of the Congress also began an investigation of the massacre of striking miners and their families by government troops at one of the Patiño mines in Catavi in 1942. MNR influence with the miners increased when Paz Estenssoro led the congressional interrogation of government ministers.

The MNR had contacts with reformist military officers, who were organized in a secret military lodge named the Fatherland's Cause (Razón de Patria--Radepa). Radepa was founded in 1934 by Bolivian prisoners of war in Paraguay. It sought mass support, backed military intervention in politics, and hoped to prevent excessive foreign control over Bolivia's natural resources.

In December 1943, the Radepa-MNR alliance overthrew the Peñaranda regime. Major Gualberto Villarroel López (1943-46) became president, and three MNR members, including Paz Estenssoro, joined his cabinet. The MNR ministers resigned, however, when the United States refused recognition, repeating its charge of ties between the MNR and Nazi Germany. The ministers returned to their posts in 1944, after the party had won a majority in the election and the United States had recognized the government. Villarroel's government emphasized continuity with the reformist regimes of Toro and Busch. Paz Estenssoro, who served as minister of finance, hoped to get popular support with a budget that emphasized social spending over economic development. But the salary increase for miners did not bring about their consistent backing of the government and only managed to strengthen the ties between the MNR and miners.

The Villarroel government also tried for the first time to get the support of the campesinos. In 1945 it created the National Indigenous Congress to discuss the problems in the countryside and to improve the situation of the peasants. However, most of the social legislation, such as the abolition of the labor obligation of the campesinos to their landlords, was never put in effect.

Villarroel was overthrown in 1946. He had been unable to organize popular support and faced opposition from conservative groups and increasing political terrorism that included murders of the government's opponents. Rivalry between the MNR and the military in the governing coalition also contributed to his downfall. In 1946 mobs of students, teachers, and workers seized arms from the arsenal and moved to the presidential palace. They captured and shot Villarroel and suspended his body from a lamppost in the main square, while the army remained aloof in the barracks.

The "Sexenio," 1946-52

The six years preceding the 1952 Revolution are known as the sexenio. During this period, members of the Conservative Party tried to stem the growth of the left, but they ultimately failed because they could not halt the economic decline and control the growing social unrest. Enrique Hertzog Garaizabal (1947-49), who was elected president in 1947 after the interim rule of a provisional junta, formed a coalition cabinet that included not only the concordancia but also the PIR. He hoped to retain the backing of the Conservative Party forces by not increasing taxes, but he tried also to gain labor support, relying on the PIR to mobilize the workers.

The labor sector did not cooperate with the government, however, and the PIR became discredited because of its alliance with the conservative forces. In 1946 the workers endorsed the Thesis of Pulacayo, in which the miners called for permanent revolution and violent armed struggle for the working class. As the labor sector became more radical, the government resorted more and more to oppression, and confrontations increased. The dismissal of 7,000 miners and the brutal suppression of yet another uprising in Catavi in 1949 made any cooperation between the government and the workers impossible.

The MNR emerged as the dominant opposition group. Although most of its leaders, including Paz Estenssoro, were in exile in Argentina, the party continued to be represented in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. During the sexenio, the party, despite its predominantly middle-class background, repeatedly took the side of the workers and adopted their ideology. The MNR also came to support the defense of Indian rights, as violence in the countryside increased when the promises given at the National Indigenous Congress were not fulfilled.

The MNR's attempts to gain power during the sexenio were unsuccessful. Its 1949 coup attempt failed, although with the support of the workers and some military officers it succeeded in gaining control of most major cities except La Paz. The MNR's attempt to gain power by legal means in 1951 also failed. In the presidential election of May 1951, the MNR's Paz Estenssoro, who remained in exile in Argentina, ran for president and Siles Zuazo ran for vice president, both on a platform of nationalization and land reform. With the support of the POR and the newly formed Bolivian Communist Party (Partido Comunista de Bolivia -- PCB), the MNR won with a clear plurality. The outgoing president, however, persuaded the military to step in and prevent the MNR from taking power. Mamerto Urriolagoitia Harriague (1949-51), who had succeeded the ailing Hertzog in 1949, backed a military junta under General Hugo Ballivián Rojas (1951-52). Under Ballivián, the government made a last futile attempt to suppress the growing unrest throughout the country.

By 1952 the Bolivian economy had deteriorated even further. The governments of the sexenio had been reluctant to increase taxes for the upper class and to reduce social spending, resulting in high inflation. The tin industry had stagnated since the Great Depression, despite short revivals during World War II. Ore content had declined, and the richer veins were depleted, increasing tin production costs; at the same time, tin prices on the international market fell. A disagreement with the United States over tin prices halted exports temporarily and caused a decline in income that further hurt the economy. The agricultural sector lacked capital, and food imports had increased, reaching 19 percent of total imports in 1950. Land was unequally distributed--92 percent of the cultivable land was held by estates of 1,000 hectares or more.

The social unrest that resulted from this economic decline increased during the last weeks before the 1952 Revolution, when a hunger march through La Paz attracted most sectors of society. The military was severely demoralized, and the high command called unsuccessfully for unity in the armed forces; many officers assigned themselves abroad, charged each other with coup attempts, or deserted.

By the beginning of 1952, the MNR again tried to gain power by force, plotting with General Antonio Seleme, the junta member in control of internal administration and the National Police (Policía Nacional). On April 9, the MNR launched the rebellion in La Paz by seizing arsenals and distributing arms to civilians. Armed miners marched on La Paz and blocked troops on their way to reinforce the city. After three days of fighting, the desertion of Seleme, and the loss of 600 lives, the army completely surrendered; Paz Estenssoro assumed the presidency on April 16, 1952.

Bolivia History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress