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Bolivians successfully oust military regime, 1982
Bolivia’s transition to a democratic government began in 1978 when then military dictator Hugo Banzer Suarez stepped down after international and internal pressure for Bolivia to hold democratic elections. While the Democratic Popular Union (Unidad Democratica y Popular, UDP), led by Hernan Siles Zuazo, won the 1978 elections, Juan Pereda Asbum, Banzer’s chosen successor, launched a military coup and declared the elections invalid. In 1978, David Padilla also launched another military coup and elections were held again in 1979 and 1980, but no presidential candidate won a majority of the popular vote and parliament chose to elect an interim president until new elections could be held within a year. This introduced a period of extreme political crisis in Bolivia where military regime after military regime came into power from 1980 to 1982.
In September 1981, General Celso Torrelio took power as the new de facto president of Bolivia. The US responded favorably to the new changeover in government and the Reagan administration dispatched a new ambassador to Bolivia, Edwin Corr. The US would become an active player in promoting Bolivia’s transition from authoritarian to formal democratic rule. Torrelio responded to external pressure from the US and internal pressure within Bolivia by announcing a plan to re-democratize Bolivia over a period of three years. At this point, the Confederation of Bolivian Private Entrepreneurs (Confederación de Empresarios Privados de Bolivia, CEPB) called for more speed in forcing the military out of politics. The CEPB would become a leading force in supporting the removal of the military regime.
Additionally, under Torrelio, workers unions were able to re-organize and force the military regime to legally recognize them. Under the military regimes that had come to power starting in 1980, constitutional guarantees were suspended and workers unions were banned. Starting in November 1981, miners across the country held strikes for the right to have independent unions. The miners at Huanuni led the effort by coming out to strike on November 12, 1981, sparking strikes in other mines around the country. The military regime opened negotiations on November 24, but by December 12, no agreement had been reached. Consequently, on December 17, the Huanuni miners returned to strike, with more than 1,000 people participating. On December 19, Torrelio agreed to recognize independent plant unions within three months and promised to legalize the Bolivian Workers’ Union (Central Obrera Boliviana, COB) within one year.
Since Torrelio was showing no rush to leave power, various actors of Bolivian civil society including the CEPB, the COB, and the Catholic Church began to work together to engineer “una salida” or “a way out” for the military regime. Torrelio increasingly lost control as a result of a resurgent civil society. With the CEPB as the spokesperson of the private sector and the re-emergence of labor unions regrouped behind the COB, both groups became leading forces pushing for a return to formal democracy.
In the military, internal divisions led to a decision to replace Torrelio with General Guido Vildoso Calderon, who assumed the presidency on July 21, 1981. Vildoso wanted to lead the military in a hasty but orderly retreat back to barracks but was not sure how to manage the retreat and turn power back to civilians. Upon taking office, he attempted to direct a process of withdrawal up to the elections of mid-1983, but popular mobilization in Bolivia emerged, taking the form of a struggle for the immediate restitution of democratic rule. Vildoso and his government said it would stage elections in April 1983, but opposition forces demanded that power be handed to the previously elected Siles or that elections be held before the end of the year.
Popular pressure for an immediate withdrawal of the military regime became apparent in September 1982 with a string of nonviolent actions, though there were some instances of violence. In the first week of September, students blocked the streets of La Paz each day of the week as a means of calling for the military regime to step down. There were isolated incidents of violence during this week as students attacked some paramilitary units, and in one reported instance, students nearly lynched members of a unit. On September 7, the Revolutionary Left Movement (Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria, MIR) held its own hunger march in La Paz, attracting crowds of tens of thousands (some of whom went on to vandalize public buildings). Protesters rallied for three hours on La Paz’s central avenue, waving orange and white placards and chanting slogans such as “Down with misery, hunger, and the military dictatorship.”
That same day, similar protests were also held in the second and third largest cities in Bolivia. In Santa Cruz, 10,000 people gathered to demand immediate elections. In Cochabamba, workers held a “People’s Assembly” paralyzing work activity in support of demands for a civilian government. Manufacturing workers in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba also started to go on strike that day, walking off their jobs and demanding that the military hand over power to a civilian government.
A week later the COB, persuaded that the reinstatement of 1980 Congress was the way forward, called for a mass march on the September 17, followed by a general strike until the army handed over power. The COB proclaimed that the strike would continue until the military ceded power. On September 17, the march congregated some 100,000 people in La Paz, where they rallied in front of the capitol for six hours.
During this time, after much jockeying back and forth, a church-sponsored meeting of all key sectors of civil society came up with tentative compromise of convoking the Congress of 1980 with the provision that it would elect Siles to the presidency. In response to the COB’s general strike and the demands of a unified civil society, on September 17, the military accepted the civilian-engineered salida and agreed to turn over power to Siles and the 1980 Congress on October 5, 1982.
While the actions of different segments of Bolivian civil society were successful in bringing Siles to power in October 1982 and finally ending a prolonged period of military regimes, Siles’s presidency would be marred by the challenges of handling the worst economic crisis in Bolivian history. Bolivia would still struggle with solidifying and stabilizing its democratic political system as Siles was later overthrown in 1985 in response to widespread popular disagreement with his administration’s economic policies (see Bolivian workers overthrow president, 1983-1985).