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Independence, Political Instability

Victor Paz Estenssoro, worldwide economic depression, Chaco War, totalitarian state, Axis powers

The period after 1930 was marked by internal strife. In that year, President Hernando Siles, who had governed for two years without convening the national legislature, was overthrown in a revolution. Daniel Salamanca was elected president in 1931, but he was overthrown in 1934 by a coup under Vice President Tejada Sorzano.

The poor performance of Bolivia’s armed forces in the Chaco War gave impetus to dissident political currents, particularly among young intellectuals who had made up much of the junior officer class during the war. Their social consciousness was stimulated by the ineffectiveness and greed of professional military officers and politicians, and by the suffering of Native American soldiers unaccustomed to the world outside their mountain homes. Old political groups favoring the tin barons were discredited as many people began to realize that a combination of native and foreign exploiters was draining the country’s resources.

Widespread discontent was first expressed in the revolution of May 1936, led by Colonel David Toro, who proclaimed Bolivia a socialist republic. Toro seized the property of U.S. petroleum giant Standard Oil Company and encouraged organized labor in Bolivia. Toro was largely successful in improving the desperate conditions caused by the Chaco War and the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s. He made enemies in influential quarters, however, and in 1937 a group led by Lieutenant Colonel German Busch ousted Toro.

In 1938, during Busch’s second term as president, a new constitution was adopted. His regime enacted the country’s first labor code, abolished the system of tenant services to landlords, and set up controls over the mining industry. Busch abolished the new constitution in April 1939, however, and set up a totalitarian state. Four months later he was found dead of a bullet wound, an alleged suicide.

General Carlos Quintanilla then assumed the presidency. He restored the 1938 constitution and stated that the army would exercise control until new elections could be held. In 1940 General Enrique Penaranda was elected president, and on April 7, 1943, during World War II, he declared war against the Axis powers.

Popular discontent continued, however. During the 1940s several leftist-oriented political parties were organized. The most important of these was the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, or MNR), founded by young nationalist intellectuals and headed by Victor Paz Estenssoro, an economist and one-time close adviser to Colonel Busch. The MNR opposed the power of the big mining companies and advocated freeing the Native American people from exploitation. The party became popular among miners in December 1942, after it disclosed before congress the government’s responsibility for a massacre at the Catavi mine in which soldiers killed strikers, women, and children.

In December 1943 the MNR led a coup that ousted Penaranda. The new government, headed by Lieutenant Colonel Gualberto Villarroel, encouraged unionization of tin mines and tried to improve Native American living conditions. These efforts brought the government into conflict with the tin barons. The barons used their influence to create discord. The tin market collapsed after World War II ended in 1945, and the discord culminated in a bloody uprising in La Paz in July 1946 and the death of Villarroel. For the next six years the government remained in the hands of the conservative Socialist Republican Union Party. Enrique Hertzog was elected president in 1947; Mamerto Urriolagoitia succeeded him in 1949.

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