La Revolución (1952-1964)

   Although they won the 1951 elections, the MNR was refused power by the current government.  Dissent began to rustle in different areas around Bolivia namely in La Paz and in the mining camps.  Then complaining turned into action, and on April 9, 1952, the Bolivian Revolution began.  Hernán Siles and Juan Lechín directed the revolution with the help of the Carabineros, a militarized national police, who were led by General Antonio Selemé[1].  The military remained loyal to the government in power.  The fighting was relatively short and bloodless, and on April 11 the revolt was over.  During the fighting, however, General Selemé was convinced to leave the country.    When he returned and tried to take the power he had been promised, he was refused it by Siles and Lechín.  The MNR promptly reognized the 1951 elections and made Paz Estenssoro president and Siles vice president. 

    There were four large changes made by the MNR once they gained power.  They were:

1.    Universal Suffrage

2.    Agrarian Reform

3.    Nationalization of the Mines

4.    Dissolution of armed forces

Universal Suffrage

    Universal suffrage meant equality in the country.  The government decreed universal suffrage without literacy or property requirements, an action that increased the electorate from some 200,000 to 1 million voters. [2]  The landed elite became a minority, and lost a lot of political influence. 

Agrarian Reform

    Agrarian reform was huge advance for Bolivia.  After living under the hacienda system, in which only a few individuals owned a vast amount of land, Bolivia became a place where many individuals each owned their own piece of land.  A commission was formed soon after the MNR took power.  This commission brought in experts from Mexico, which had undergone fundamental agrarian reform as a part of its revolution.  These experts offered that the Bolivians "should not adopt any hard and fast agrarian reform institution such as the communal farm, or ejido, that had been established in Mexico, but should leave the peasants free to decide how they wanted to organize the land that was to be turned over to them."[3]         

 After much discussion the Agrarian Reform Law was announced by Estenssoro on August 2, 1953.  The law provided for the transfer of land, "particularly in the Altiplano and Yungas, from the white or near-white traditional landowners to the Indian peasants.  In the case of estates that been cultivated by 'semifeudal' methods, as defined in the law- sharecropping, virtually no use of machinery, no application of scientific agricultural methods- the total estate was taken over by the government. In the case of estates that had been cultivated by 'modern' methods of wage labor, machinery and more or less use of scientific technology, a top limit was established and all land in excess of that limit was given to the peasants."[4]

    A pecking order was established defining who had the right to the land that was being redistributed.  Peasants currently living on an working the land had first claim.  Next were those peasants who had formerly lived on the land involved.  Preference was also given to veterans of the Chaco War.  Finally, any peasant that could demonstrate that he was willing and able to use the land was entitled to receive some if there was still land available on that estate.[5]  The Indians were then left free to decide what they would do with their obtained land. 

    The agrarian reform was not without its shortcomings.  First of all it had economic shortcomings.  An Indian landowner needed credit, technical assistance, extension services, and help with transporting goods to market.  It has not been until the last two decades that the Indian population has become important in commercial agriculture.  On a cultural level, an more developed educational system was needed to bring the campesinos closer together and teach them more about farming and agriculture.

Nationalization of the Mines 

    Nationalizing the mines was a primary goal for the revolutionary government, especially Estenssoro, who wanted to get rid of foreign imperialism.  A law took the mines from the big three, Patiño, Hochschild, and Aramayo, and gave them over to the government.  The government then established the Corporación Minera de Bolivia (COMIBOL) to control the mining industry.  While a good idea, the consequences of the nationalization of mines, along with declining mineral prices, were disastrous.  The new management was rejected by 170 out of 200 foreign mining engineers.[6]  Many of these engineers, along with almost all the managers, resigned and left the country.  This left Bolivia with few engineers and many unskilled workers.  While the wages of the workers rose, the increase caused tin production costs to rise to $1.50, while world market prices were under $1.00 [7 The government had hoped to use mining profits to help pay for other economic development programs.  This however, would not be possible.  Before the revolution mineral exports provided for over 50 percent of the governments total revenue, but by 1955 that figure had dropped to a measly 4.3 percent. [8]  An attempt was made during the second Paz administration to reorganize the mining industry, but this had little success.

   Dissolution of Armed Forces

    Since the armed forces had been loyal to the opposition during the revolution, the MNR quickly took away the power of the armed forces, essentially dissolving them.  A civilian militia took the armed forces place.  However, about a year into his presidency Estenssoro reestablished the armed forces.  It was a  grave mistake, that would come back to haunt revolutionary government.  Numerous reasons existed for the MNR government's decision to reestablish the army, navy, and air-force.  First, the government found out that men, used to being conscripted at 18, continued to present themselves before the appropriate authorities in order to serve, although the military had been dissolved.[9]  Second, the officials in La Paz did not have a great amount of faith in the civilian militia, especially the miners' militia, and felt the need for a force that could counter the militia if necessary.  Finally, pressure from the United States in the form of economic aid was being used.  The MNR government thought that its chances of receiving this aid would be improved if an army, navy, and air force existed. 

    The MNR was very careful in reestablishing the armed forces, so that it would forever remain loyal to the elected regime.  Officers from the old military were carefully selected by the new government.  The government also gave preference to "officers with whom the MNR had close contact during their years in the political wilderness."[10]  Admission into the military academy was biased towards sons of members of the party or friends of the party.  Thirdly, the MNR formed its own "cells" in different parts of the armed forces and gave people within these "cells" preference in command and promotion.  The government also placed majority of the troops in the eastern portions of Bolivia.  A small force was kept in La Paz, one that could hopefully be controlled by the militia and Carabineros. 

    The reestablishment of the armed forces was not a complete loss for the revolution, as the military was put to work on many economic projects.  A large accomplishment for the country was the construction of roads, particularly in the highlands.  Another was the colonization battalions, which consisted of many young indigenous men clearing land along the roads, and preparing it for agriculture.[11]  The battalions constructed houses and other facilities as well.  After their military service had ended, many of the Indians accepted the offer of land grants for the areas they had helped to develop, and helped to form a growing migratory stream from the valleys and Altiplano to the area surrounding the Cochabamba-Santa Cruz highway.[12]

    The first six years of the Revolutionary period in Bolivia closely followed the Mexican model.  After that, Bolivia was not even close.  The MNR began to split one side more aligned to left and another more aligned to the right.  The problems all come to a head in 1964.  Lechín was promised the candidacy by the MNR, but the United States threatens to stop economic aid if Lechín is elected. [13]  The MNR responds by once again nominating Paz Estenssoro, who chooses René Barrientos as his running mate.  After they win the election, Siles and Lechín conspire to overthrow Estenssoro and Barrientos.  Siles and Lechín go to the military for help.  At first the military is fearful of the peasant support of the current regime, but after Estenssoro confides to a conspirator that the civilian militia is quite weak, and the army moves.  Estenssoro is sent into exile, thus closing out a period of MNR rule, and ending the Bolivian Revolution.

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    1.       Robert J. Alexander, Bolivia: Past, Present, and Future of Its Politics Robert Wesson ed. (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1982), 80.

    2.    World Religions and Cultures, "Bolivia / History and Resources"

    3.    Alexander, 85.

    4.    Ibid.,86.

    5.    Ibid.,87.

    6.    Lyman H. Letgers et al.  Area Handbook for Bolivia  (Washington D.C.: American University, 1963), 497.

    7.    Ibid., 497.

    8.    Ibid., 497.

    9.    Alexander, 94.

    10.    Ibid.

    11.    Ibid.

    12.    Ibid., 95.

    13.    Ibid., 98.


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