The Rise of New Political Groups

The Rise of New Political Groups

After a few months under the provisional presidency of General Carlos Quintanilla Quiroga (1939-40), the chief of staff during the Busch regime, the government changed hands again. General Enrique Peñaranda Castillo (1940-43) was elected president in the spring of 1940. Peñaranda's support came from the traditional parties, the Liberals, and the two wings of the Republicans, who had formed a concordancia to stem the growth of the movement toward reform.

The trend toward reform, however, could not be halted, and a number of new groups gained control of the Congress during Peñaranda's presidency. These groups, although very different in their ideological outlooks, agreed on the need to change the status quo. They included the Trotskyite Revolutionary Workers Party (Partido Obrero Revolucionario--POR), which had already been formed in 1934, as well as the Bolivian Socialist Falange (Falange Socialista Boliviana--FSB), founded in 1937 and patterned on the Spanish model. The Leftist Revolutionary Party (Partido de Izquierda Revolucionaria--PIR) was founded in 1940 by a coalition of radical Marxist groups.

The most important opposition to the concordancia came from the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario--MNR). The first party with widespread support in Bolivian history, the MNR had a membership that included intellectuals and both white-collar and blue-collar workers. It was founded in 1941 by a small group of intellectual dissidents from the middle and upper classes and represented persons from a wide range of political persuasions who were united by their discontent with the status quo. Among its leaders were Víctor Paz Estenssoro, a professor of economics; Hernán Siles Zuazo, the son of former President Siles Reyes; and several influential writers. The party's program included nationalization of all of Bolivia's natural resources and far-reaching social reforms. Its antiSemitic statements resulted not only in the imprisonment of MNR leaders but also in charges by the United States government that MNR was under the influence of Nazi fascism.

As the leader of the congressional opposition, the MNR denounced Peñaranda's close cooperation with the United States and was especially critical of his agreement to compensate Standard Oil for its nationalized holdings. The MNR members of the Congress also began an investigation of the massacre of striking miners and their families by government troops at one of the Patiño mines in Catavi in 1942. MNR influence with the miners increased when Paz Estenssoro led the congressional interrogation of government ministers.

The MNR had contacts with reformist military officers, who were organized in a secret military lodge named the Fatherland's Cause (Razón de Patria--Radepa). Radepa was founded in 1934 by Bolivian prisoners of war in Paraguay. It sought mass support, backed military intervention in politics, and hoped to prevent excessive foreign control over Bolivia's natural resources.

In December 1943, the Radepa-MNR alliance overthrew the Peñaranda regime. Major Gualberto Villarroel López (1943-46) became president, and three MNR members, including Paz Estenssoro, joined his cabinet. The MNR ministers resigned, however, when the United States refused recognition, repeating its charge of ties between the MNR and Nazi Germany. The ministers returned to their posts in 1944, after the party had won a majority in the election and the United States had recognized the government. Villarroel's government emphasized continuity with the reformist regimes of Toro and Busch. Paz Estenssoro, who served as minister of finance, hoped to get popular support with a budget that emphasized social spending over economic development. But the salary increase for miners did not bring about their consistent backing of the government and only managed to strengthen the ties between the MNR and miners.

The Villarroel government also tried for the first time to get the support of the campesinos. In 1945 it created the National Indigenous Congress to discuss the problems in the countryside and to improve the situation of the peasants. However, most of the social legislation, such as the abolition of the labor obligation of the campesinos to their landlords, was never put in effect.

Villarroel was overthrown in 1946. He had been unable to organize popular support and faced opposition from conservative groups and increasing political terrorism that included murders of the government's opponents. Rivalry between the MNR and the military in the governing coalition also contributed to his downfall. In 1946 mobs of students, teachers, and workers seized arms from the arsenal and moved to the presidential palace. They captured and shot Villarroel and suspended his body from a lamppost in the main square, while the army remained aloof in the barracks.

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