Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The National Revolution of 1952 in Bolivia

Bolivia has seen many, many coups d'etat (golpe de estado) the one of April 1952 was truly revolutionary. The events leading up to the revolt were probably typical but the outcome was quite distinctive.

Bolivia was ruled at that time by a military junta headed by General Hugo Ballivián. The junta came to power when the previous government refused to turn power over to the winner of the 1951 election, Victor Paz Estenssoro representing the Movimiento Nationalista Revolutionario (MNR).

Although Paz, the MNR candidate, won the election the President at the time, General Urriolagoitia, claimed that Paz had not received the 51 percent required for election and that The Bolivian Congress would have to choose the president. However Urriolagoita did not leave the matter to Congress; instead he chose a group of military officers to rule as a junta.

One member of the junta ruling the country was General Antonió Seleme Vargas, a career military officer, who was in charge of the police force of the city of La Paz, the de facto capital of Bolivia although the city of Sucre was the legal capital. He and his chief of police, Donato Millán, were noted for their denouncement of MNR and the police searches for subversives and subversive literature.

Despite these gestures of support for the junta, Seleme and Millán were secretly supporting the MNR. In the agreement with the MNR Seleme was to be made president until new elections could be held. But Seleme's secret support of the MNR was not kept secret enough and some members of the junta called for his dismissal.

On April 6, 1952 Seleme was dismissed from the junta and lost his legal control over the 2000 man La Paz police force. This police force was a key element in the coup d'etat so the timing of the revolt had to be immediate before someone else took effect control of the police force.

The MNR leader in charge of the revolt was Hernan Siles Zuazo, a son of a former Bolivian president. Seleme tried to persuade Siles Zuazo to bring into the revolt the Falange Socialista Boliviano (FSB), a fascist party modeled upon the Falangist Party of Franco's Spain. The negotiations were unsuccessful and only led to the junta being tipped off about the imminent coup. General Humberto Torres Ortiz left La Paz to assemble army units to protect the Junta's government.

On April 9th supporters of the revolution announced on the state-controlled radio station that the revolution was successful. The La Paz police force on Seleme and Millán's direction had taken control of the city but it was not clear that it could be held against the 8 thousand troops General Torres Ortiz was bringing to La Paz. Things looked particularly bleak for the revolutionaries when they got hold of the state arsenal and found the supply of weapons and ammunitions they were counting on for arms was not there.

Seleme and Millán assessed the situation and decided there was no hope of success and sought asylum in the Chilean embassy. But the MNR had deeper support than most Bolivian coups d'etats. Armed worker militias appeared and fought the army effectively. The Bolivian army was made up of young conscripts who had no real allegance to the government and they were persuaded to change sides. An army unit that had decided to change sides and join the revolution indicated this by putting their caps on backward. In some cases the young conscripts were persuaded by motherly, middle-aged women not to shoot their own people. In most cases these were the market women. Some of these merely walked up to the recruits and took their rifles.

In a few days of fighting the Bolivian army was wiped out either by military defeat or defection to the side of the revolutionaries. The army surrendered and Bolivia was suddenly in the hands of a radical political movement with popular political support and a legitimacy based upon having won the last election.

It is notable that the revolution was led by Juan Lechín, the leader of the federation of tin miners' unions, and Hernán Siles, the vice presidental candidate of the MNR in the 1951. Either one of these could have legitimately assumed power. They did not. Instead they summoned back from exile in Argentina, Victor Pas Estenssoro, the winner of the 1951 presidential election.

HOME PAGE OF applet-magic
HOME PAGE OF Thayer Watkins