The history of Bolivia is the history of the caudillos. Itís first leader was Simon Bolivar, who the country is named after, and who started a trend that would last until the present day, that of the armed insurrection. The country considers August 6, 1825 itís independence day, but it was independent shortly before that. Bolivar quickly sets the trend for people in power; he sets up a constitution that provides for one lifetime president who names his vice president and his successor. There would be three elected bodies, but only the landholders could vote, thus excluding 90% of the population. This constitution was under duress from the very beginning as foreign soldiers within the country turned on the elected General Sucre in 1829 and two Peruvian generals sent to his aid turned on him and drove him out of the country, and leaving General Santa Cruz in power. Through the next 100 years Bolivia would have 40 Presidents, 6 of who were assassinated, and 190 armed uprisings (Alexander 1982).
The Chaco War
The Chaco War marks the birth of Bolivia into its modern era.
In this war there was a border dispute with Paraguay over the region known
as the Chaco. All the world thought that Bolivia would easily win
the war because they had a much larger military force coupled with high
priced German leadership and training (Alexander 1982).
The war that was fought by Bolivia was wrought with problems. They fought in the highly tropical regions using soldiers brought from the high Andes, and they were not equipped to deal with the problems that they would face from the heat. Rationing was also done poorly, as there was not enough water or other supplies for the troops of Bolivia. There was also corruption at every level in the military, and as a result of these problems Bolivia lost the Chaco War in 1935 (Alexander 1982).
These problems caused extreme discontent among the military, and as a result President David Salamanca was deposed by the military in place of Colonel David Toro, who was replaced by his vice president Josè Luis Tejada Sorzano. Sorzano saw to it that the Chaco war was ended in June of 1935, but there was still extreme discontent among the populace, so a combined military-civilian insurrection occurred that proclaimed Colonel David Toro President once more (Alexander 1982).
Colonel Toroís government proclaimed itself to be socialist, and at the head of the forthcoming revolution. It took away the rights of Standard Oil to the oil in Bolivia because of concerns over its role in encouraging the Chaco War. It instituted a Department of Labor for the first time in the history of Bolivia (Alexander 1982).
In July 1937 there was another coup, and Colonel Germàn Busch was placed into power. Colonel Busch had been one of the only real heroesís of the Chaco War, and his presidency was accepted well by the populace, although it floundered (Alexander 1982).
Buschís regime established the first labor code ever enacted in Bolivia. He also took on the foreign powers that were having all the resources of the country shipped out. He decreed that anyone in the country with foreign money must sell it to the national bank (Alexander 1982).
It was shortly after this that Busch supposedly committed suicide. General Carlos Quintanilla assumed power in 1939 just after the death of Busch. General Quintanilla quickly nullified the decree making it mandatory to sell all foreign currency. General Quintanilla held the presidency until the elections, and General Enrique Penaranda was elected to power (Alexander 1982).
It is as a result of the changes enacted by General Busch, combined with the feeling that he was assassinated that bring about the formation of several political parties within Bolivia. In the 1940ís these parties start to be publicly elected to congress, but it is the MNR that publicly comes out criticizing the Penaranda regime (Alexander 1982).
In 1943, the year following the Catavi massacre, a joint military-MNR force ousted General Panaranda. The coup was largely bloodless, and was extremely popular. Major Villarroel was placed into power as a result of the coup. The new regime had trouble with the United States from the beginning, and because it took a position that was against the tin barons, that were backed by British and American dollars, it was believed that they were pro-Nazi. The PIR, the more Stalinist party, greatly expounded this belief (Alexander 1982).
The Villarroel government performed many major reforms, the biggest of which was the encouragement of the tin miners to organize. It was this move that would give the MNR a permanent following in the mining community. The government also ended the practice of pongaje, or personal service among the Indians. Villarroel also called an Indian congress to find out what the real grievances of the Indians in the country were (Alexander 1982).
The Villarroel Regime met itís end in a La Paz riot when Villarroel was dragged out of the Presidential palace and hanged on a light post just outside on July 21, 1946. In the following election Enrique Hertzog, a conservative Republican was named as President. This conservative civilian government remained in power from 1946-1951 (Alexander 1982).
The MNR Revolution
On April 9, 1952, after having been denied their rightful places
in government after the elections the MNR revolution started in several
mining towns. Paz Estenssoro was returned from exile in Buenos Aires
to become the new president under the second MNR regime. The new
MNR regime enacted universal adult suffrage, created a Ministry of Peasant
Affairs, nationalized the mines, and made the government a partnership
between the MNR and organized labor. The MNR also succeeded in giving
some land back to the Indians as a result of its agrarian reform policies.
The MNR also abolished the military, saying that it would rely on the armed
militia and the power of labor forces. Based on the upheaval in the
country since the end of the Chaco War, this was probably a wise move (Alexander
A year later the military was reformed, and was supposed to be subordinate to the government in every way. This reestablishment happened for many reasons, but the overriding factor was the pressure on the part of the United States to reform the armed forces. The military was supposed to be relatively weak, but as the MNR became old and started to lose power it gained more power. In 1964 Paz Estenssoroís running mate was the head of the Air Force, General Barrientos (Alexander 1982).
It was in 1965 that Estenssoro was ousted and Barrientos was named co-president with General Ovando. This government fought off reforms brought during the MNR period. There was a huge massacre in a battle following massive government layoffs of excess miners. Barrientos was committed to giving the Indians land back. He also spoke Quechua, the language of the Indians, and was extremely popular among the peasants, but unpopular in urban and mining circles. He died in 1969 when his helicopter hit power lines while taking off (Alexander 1982).
Barrientosís successor was his vice-president Luis Adolfo Siles Salinas. This left almost all power in the hands of General Ovando. Ovando removed decree that the government must okay all union officials that were elected. This allowed the miners to reorganize (Alexander 1982).
Ovando did not enjoy much success within his own circles as a result of this. In May 1969 he was forced to remove several radicals from his cabinet due to pressures from his more conservative backing within the military (Alexander 1982).
On October 6, 1970 there was again s revolution in which Juan Josè Torres ended up taking power. Torres was a dedicated Socialist who assembled a Popular Congress that was made up of 60% working class people (Alexander 1982).
On August 21-22 1971 President Torres was overthrown in a joint coup, and Colonel Hugo Banzer was installed as the new President. Banzer was backed by the MNR, but it eventually split into many factions opposing Banzer. He used his power to subjugate the masses, and during his last 4 years he would use the military as his only means of staying in power (Alexander 1982).
Eventually in January 1978 Banzer allowed elections for a new president. General Asbùn was the government candidate, and he won the election in the initial tally, but the number of votes reported were 50,000 more then people that were registered to vote. Asbùn admitted to fraud, and then went to Santa Cruz, gathered a military force and deposed Banzer claiming that he had won the election (Alexander 1982).
In November 1978 General Padilla who brought about a government that was interested in presiding over the next elections overthrew Asbùn. The elections happened in 1979, but the results were indefinite, so an interim president was elected until elections could be held again in 1980. Colonel Alberto Natusch Busch then overthrew Arze, the interim president. Busch was met with severe opposition, and was forced to resign the Presidency. The congress then elected Lidia Gueiler, the first woman President of Bolivia (Alexander 1982).
Again in 1980 there was not a clear victor, but congress members said they would elect whoever received the majority, but before they could meet General Garcìa Meza seized power. His battle cry was that a leftist would be elected, and he enjoyed almost no popular support, but the support of the rich elite (Alexander 1982).
Because of problems with the drug trade and local oppression Meza stepped down in 1982 and left the government in the hands of Siles Suazo (http://guf.pnud.bo/bolbrief.htm). In 1985 Congress selected Paz Estenssoro after another inconclusive election (http://guf.pnud.bo/bolbrief.htm). This government introduced structural changes that upset the mining industry, and they were voted out in 1993 (http://guf.pnud.bo/bolbrief.htm). The current state of Bolivia is that it remains in the hands of democratic elements, and the system of military rule seems to have at least taken a few steps back.
To continue the tour, click here.