The Bolivian National Revolution, 1952-64

The Bolivian National Revolution, 1952-64

The "reluctant revolutionaries," as the leaders of the multiclass MNR were called by some, looked more to Mexico than to the Soviet Union for a model. But during the first year of Paz Estenssoro's presidency, the radical faction in the party, which had gained strength during the sexenio when the party embraced the workers and their ideology, forced the MNR leaders to act quickly. In July 1952, the government established universal suffrage, with neither literacy nor property requirements. In the first postrevolutionary elections in 1956, the population of eligible voters increased from approximately 200,000 to nearly 1 million voters. The government also moved quickly to control the armed forces, purging many officers associated with past Conservative Party regimes and drastically reducing the forces' size and budget. The government also closed the Military Academy (Colegio Militar) and required that officers take an oath to the MNR.

The government then began the process of nationalizing all mines of the three great tin companies. First, it made the export and sale of all minerals a state monopoly to be administered by the state-owned Mining Bank of Bolivia (Banco Minero de Bolivia -- Bamin). Then it set up the Mining Corporation of Bolivia (Corporación Minera de Bolivia -- Comibol) as a semiautonomous enterprise to run state-owned mines. On October 31, 1952, the government nationalized the three big tin companies, leaving the medium-sized mines untouched, and promising compensation. In this process, two-thirds of Bolivia's mining industry was turned over to Comibol.

A far-reaching agrarian reform was the final important step taken by the revolutionary government. In January 1953, the government established the Agrarian Reform Commission, using advisers from Mexico, and decreed the Agrarian Reform Law the following August. The law abolished forced labor and established a program of expropriation and distribution of the rural property of the traditional landlords to the Indian peasants. Only estates with low productivity were completely distributed. More productive small and medium-sized farms were allowed to keep part of their land and were encouraged to invest new capital to increase agricultural production. The Agrarian Reform Law also provided for compensation for landlords to be paid in the form of twenty-five-year government bonds. The amount of compensation was based on the value of the property declared for taxes.

During the first years of the revolution, miners wielded extraordinary influence within the government. In part, this influence was based on the miners' decisive role in the fighting of April 1952. In addition, however, armed militias of miners formed by the government to counterbalance the military had become a powerful force in their own right. Miners immediately organized the Bolivian Labor Federation (Central Obrera Boliviana--COB), which demanded radical change as well as participation in the government and benefits for its members. As a result, the government included three pro-COB ministers in the cabinet and accepted the demand for fuero sindical, the legally autonomous status that granted the COB semisovereign control over the workers of Bolivia. The MNR regime gave worker representatives veto power in all Comibol decisions and allowed for a cogovernment in mine administration. The government also established special stores for the miners, increased their salaries, and rehired fired workers.

The peasants also exerted a powerful influence. At first, the government was unable to control the occupation of land by the peasants. As a result, it could not enforce the provisions of the land reform decree to keep medium-sized productive estates intact. But the MNR eventually gained the support of the campesinos when the Ministry of Peasant Affairs was created and when peasants were organized into syndicates. Peasants were not only granted land but their militias also were given large supplies of arms. The peasants remained a powerful political force in Bolivia during all subsequent governments.

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