by Kevin Young
Republished with permission from the Hispanic American Historical Review
A coup overthrew the Bolivian government. The coup was spearheaded by the country’s racist oligarchy and backed by the United States, but it was also supported by portions of the Left, the labor movement, and the middle class. The latter groups had some legitimate grievances: for instance, the regime had sometimes treated dissent with a heavy hand and had made only limited progress toward transforming the country’s economic structure. Yet it had also facilitated major gains for workers, peasants, and indigenous people. It was those gains that drew the rage of the oligarchy and its allies in Washington. And it was the oligarchy that came out on top after the coup. Once in power it unleashed massive violence against those who resisted.
The year was 1946. Although the hyperlinks above are from 2019, the description applies equally well to the July 1946 overthrow of Colonel Gualberto Villarroel. The deposed government had sponsored a historic Indigenous Congress, decreed an end to forced labor in the countryside, promoted the formation of a mineworkers’ federation, and asserted greater state control over the mining industry. It also displayed some conservative tendencies, for instance in its hostility to leftists in the labor movement and its tight fiscal policy in the midst of declining real wages. The result was an unlikely coalition of opponents: capitalists, the middle class, and the US government, but also Stalinists and anarchists. On July 21 a mob killed Villarroel and hung his body from a lamppost in La Paz’s central plaza.
The leftists initially celebrated. In a series of manifestos in the weeks that followed, the La Paz anarchist federation wrote that the Villarroel regime had “reduced the people to a state of slavery.” It decried all previous politicians, who, “without distinction, have brought ruin to this country.” Anarchist-feminists in La Paz wrote that the “Popular Revolution” of July 21 had toppled “an absolutist tyranny” and had “definitively crushed the insolence, terror, and criminality” of the “Nazi-fascists obsessed with State power.” The anarchists predicted a brighter future of “accelerated revolutionary progress,” wherein any new would-be tyrant would “be swept away by the action of the pueblo.”
They were too optimistic. The regimes that held power for the next six years were brutally repressive, and the Left was the main target. When the anarchists forged a powerful interethnic coalition to confront the landed elite, the state responded by killing scores of them and decimating their organizations. The Stalinists, too, found that Washington and the Bolivian Right soon turned on them.
There are of course many differences between 1946 and 2019. Unlike Villarroel, Evo Morales was democratically elected. Evo had a much longer presidency. Villarroel did not have to contend with thousands of phony Twitter accounts spreading fake news. And Evo has so far escaped the lynch mobs.
But the parallels are striking. In each case the forces of domestic reaction and empire were abetted by a similar cocktail of circumstances. Each coup won support from many leftists and liberals, who wagered they could get their complaints addressed by a new government while preventing the Right from capitalizing on the situation. Some went so far as to equate an imperfect reformist government with the Far Right. They dismissed other leftist voices who critiqued the limitations of the existing government but stressed that a right-wing government would be far more harmful.
The overthrown governments were also weakened in part by their own errors. Both could have done more to foster participatory governance and grassroots leadership. Both failed to address the contradictions around them in a revolutionary way. This is not to say, as some are now saying about Evo, that they “brought it on themselves.” But some of the governments’ decisions did make them more vulnerable.
I think the lessons of 1946 have been widely ignored. This isn’t the first time they were ignored: similar dynamics contributed to the coup of 1964, which ushered in 18 years of military regimes. Both leftist activists and reformist governments should consider what these disastrous outcomes can teach us about how best to pursue progressive change amid conditions not of our choosing. There is no easy answer to the question of “what is to be done,” but 1946 and 1964 offer clues about what we should avoid doing if we don’t want to empower the Right.
The most urgent task right now, however, is not to dissect the causes of November 10 but to stop the repression being carried out by the de facto regime of Jeanine Áñez. International solidarity can play a major role here. In Bolivia, courageous resistance in the face of state terror has forced the Áñez regime to backtrack on some of its most authoritarian plans, while it persists with others. The resistance has forced significant concessions, though many grassroots leftists are wary of regime promises.
The Áñez regime will end. But dozens of Bolivians have already paid with their lives. And whether there will be fair conditions for new elections is very much in doubt: the MAS party is in disarray, and the coup regime has harassed human rights monitors, threatened journalists, and removed critical coverage from state-owned media (most of the private media is of course hostile to the Left). What sort of regime will come next, and how much freedom of maneuver it will have, is unclear.
Kevin A. Young is assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His article “From Open Door to Nationalization: Oil and Development Visions in Bolivia, 1952–1969” appeared in HAHR 97.1.
This article originally appeared in the Hispanic American Historical Review on December 18, 2019 and was part of a forum in which historians responded to the question, “What would you say is the key piece of historical context for understanding the contemporary political developments in Bolivia?” This article is republished here with permission.