Bolivian president hunger strikes to preserve economic policies, 1956

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Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
This occurred 4 years after a Revolution in Bolivia, and the country was still in the process of stabilizing.
28 December
1 January
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
La Paz
To achieve political unity so that the government could be stable enough to accept loans and undergo structural adjustment without significant challenges from all sides.

Hernán Siles Zuazo took office in 1956 during a politically and economically unstable time in Bolivia and throughout Central America. There had been a succession of violent revolutions in the region. This was Siles’ first time as elected president, although he had previously had a brief stint as acting president while he was vice president.

In Bolivia four years earlier -- in 1952 -- an influential and violent political party led a revolution/coup. The party, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, implemented far-reaching reforms, including nationalizing major tin mines and abolishing the feudal landowning system. However, the party lacked external support and suffered from internal schisms and disagreements. Meanwhile, the Bolivian people experienced high levels of hunger, high prices for essential agricultural goods, unemployment, inflation and a currency rapidly losing its value.

President Siles found the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) strongly advocating for an economic stabilization plan; eventually, Siles reluctantly approved it. Siles had already ceded much control and power to large Bolivian labor unions, with whom he had agreed to share governing power. Labor proceeded to demand higher wages and to veto economic policies that would threaten their members and workers.

Siles had few choices in this situation. The economy could not support the spending promises that he had made to the unions. In order to receive loans from backers like the US and the IMF, he had to implement structural adjustment policies, which angered the unions and ultimately failed to aid the peasants. He also lost the support of his own Vice President Ñuflo Chácez Ortiz in the process, who publicly denounced the plan.

The dilemma intensified as Bolivians began to protest his economic policies (see Bolivians strike, protest, offer resignations against the President’s economic policy, 1956-1960). In September of 1956, Siles declared a "state of siege" and was careful to add "that protesters not be shot.” This mollified some of his opponents on the right of the political spectrum. He then tried to limit union power by outlawing striking and breaking strikes and protests with tear gas and mass arrests. This proved to be an unsuccessful strategy, as he neither quelled the demonstrations nor gained more supporters.

Recognizing the instability of his leadership, he announced a hunger strike on December 28, 1956, to defend his new economic policies against the mass protests without the use of force. Quickly, people rose to support him, from "oil workers, newspaper employees, chauffeurs, printers, factory workers, youth movements, Chaco War veterans, and gold mining cooperatives.” After just a few days, he called off the fast. By January 1, he had won over some prior opponents within the MNR party and had influenced miners to end their strike and return to work. One particular eminent politician who came forward in his support was Juan Lechín Oquendo, head of a labor union and an influential signer of the unity proclamation.

While the hunger strike did usher in a new level of calm and collaboration, Bolivia’s political woes did not end immediately. Ultimately, Siles was pressured out of office; he agreed to advance elections to be a year earlier than planned and was promptly voted out of office. He remained an active Bolivian politician and served another presidential term in the 1980s, during which he embarked on another hunger strike, this time with less positive results (see Bolivian President stages hunger strike for economic reform, 1984).

Research Notes
Krain, Matthew and Alemañ, Begoña Toral. "Hunger for Power and Order: Nonviolent Direct Action by a Bolivian Leader, 1956 and 1984." Wooster College and Dickinson College.

"Front Cover, Zanesville Newspaper" 29 December 1956.

"Hernán Siles Zuazo." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. 30 Sep. 2012 <>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Samantha Shain, 30/09/2012