HAHR Forum on Contemporary Bolivia and History

HAHR Forum on Contemporary Bolivia and History

Elizabeth Shesko is assistant professor of history at Oakland University. She is author of Conscript Nation: Coercion and Citizenship in the Bolivian Barracks (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020). Her article “Mobilizing Manpower for War: Toward a New History of Bolivia’s Chaco Conflict, 1932–1935” appeared in HAHR 95.2.

As a student of the Bolivian military, I’d like to focus my comments on a term that caused much debate among Bolivians and Bolivianists in the wake of Evo Morales’s departure from the presidency: coup. This is a term that anyone familiar with Bolivia encounters on a regular basis. English-language scholarship, travel guides, and even the Guinness Book of World Records frequently tally coups in Bolivia. In a certainly nonexhaustive search, I found 60 books and articles offering a number or stating that Bolivia had suffered more coups than any other country in the world. The most common total provided is 188, but they range from 150 to “over 200.” This trope serves as a pithy way to signal the country’s instability (or perhaps ungovernability) and the oversized role that the military has played in politics.

Those who reject the coup label are reacting to precisely those connotations in their rejection of the term to describe the events of November 2019. They note that although military pressure immediately precipitated Evo’s resignation, that pressure came because of popular protests from many different sectors of Bolivian society. They further argue against the word “coup” with the fact that no member of the military took power or dictated who would. However, those circumstances also describe many of the changes in administration included within the above counts. The “coups” so commonly attributed to Bolivia mask an enormous range of circumstances. In this context, we unequivocally need to call the events that led to Evo’s departure a coup: It was a change in power outside of normal elections, precipitated by popular protests and pressure from the state’s armed institutions. Yet we must also recognize that the word “coup” is a weapon consistently deployed by academics and Bolivia watchers. We should rethink how we use it.

As others have noted, the 1964 coup by Vice President General René Barrientos serves as a point of comparison for 2019. But I would like to highlight the parallels to the 1946 overthrow of Major Gualberto Villarroel’s administration, which itself came to power in a coup. A reformist coalition between a clandestine lodge of junior officers (Radepa) and the nascent Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR), the administration faced strong opposition from traditional political parties and the military. In the context of World War II, allegations of fascist and anti-Semitic ideologies led the international community to delay or withhold recognition of Villarroel. Yet his administration is best known for hosting Bolivia’s first national Indigenous Congress, its efforts to rewrite the constitution, and its decrees in favor of rural workers, such as the establishment of schools and elimination of forced labor.[1]

Angered by these reforms, fiscal policies, and state-sponsored assassinations, a popular cross-class and cross-party coalition of teachers, students, workers, communists, and the traditional elite lynched Villarroel in July 1946. After this coup, two civilians led caretaker governments until January 1947 elections, which brought Republican politician Enrique Hertzog to power. After only two and half years, Hertzog’s own party forced him to resign in favor of his more hardline vice president.[2] His administration had been constantly hampered by strikes and social protests from a mobilized population that led to what was known at the time as a civil war (August 1949) and the 1952 revolution that brought the MNR back to power.

Evo Morales and Gualberto Villarroel were both political outsiders who instigated reforms and were profoundly associated with the indigenous population. Both left power because of multifaceted protests that depicted their actions as unconstitutional. Yet Villarroel took on the status of a martyr who gave his life for the indigenous population and social change. We will see how history remembers Evo Morales, who, unlike Villarroel, thankfully did not hang from a lamppost in Plaza Murillo. Instead, like Víctor Paz Estenssoro, the president overthrown in 1964 for prolonging his own rule, Morales boarded a plane for exile. Will he return someday, as Paz did 20 years later, to reclaim the presidency?

[1] For a detailed treatment of this administration, see Laura Gotkowitz, A Revolution for Our Rights: Indigenous Struggles for Land and Justice in Bolivia, 1880–1952 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 164–234.
[2] Gotkowitz, Revolution for our Rights, 233–34; James Dunkerley, Rebellion in the Veins: Political Struggle in Bolivia, 1952–1982 (London: Verso, 1984), 31–36.

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Top image: Mercha a favor de Evo Morales – Buenos Aires. November 18, 2019. Photograph by Santiago Sito, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (Find the original here.)