Bolivians strike, protest, offer resignations against the President’s economic policy, 1956-1960

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Time Period:  
Location and Goals
To thwart the economic policy of Bolivian President Hernan Siles Zuazo

Since the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement Party (MNR) overthrew the military junta in April 1952, Bolivia underwent major reformations in its political and institutional structures and economic policies. Aside from establishing universal suffrage, the government nationalized the tin mine business. It also set up the Mining Corporation of Bolivia (COMIBOL), a semi-governmental company, to take control of the mines. Because the miners made up a large part in the revolution and the tin mine was the most lucrative business in Bolivia, miners were granted great political power. They organized the Bolivian Labor Federation (COB) and were given a certain number of positions as the representatives of legislative and ministers of the cabinet under the government’s promotion of a co-gobierno (co-governance) policy.

In 1956, Bolivia had its first post-revolutionary presidential election, in which Hernan Siles Zuazo became the President. His administration, however, was far from stable. The COB wielded a great amount of power including the veto power over economic policy. MNR, moreover, consisted of members with diverse interests. The right-wing faction of MNR displayed fascist ideologies, while the left-wing's union leaders like Juan Lechin leaned towards socialist policies. Siles played a moderate role, mediating between the two extremes.

The economy also significantly destabilized the post-revolutionary Bolivia. Reportedly, from 1952 to 1957, the living index skyrocketed from 100 to 4881. The value of Bolivian currency also plummeted; the exchange rate of dollar changed from 190 boliviano to 14,000 boliviano. This dire situation led Siles to adopt foreign economic aid from the US and the IMF at the cost of abiding by the stabilization package enforced by the IMF. The IMF required that the Bolivian government reduce its expenditure by 40%. To meet the requirement, Siles froze wages, privatized many state-run companies, and adopted various other austerity measures.

The stabilization policy, enacted in December 1956, aggravated social tensions. Most laborers could not afford their livings with the end of subsidies and soaring costs. Although Lechin and COB temporarily approved the austerity measures, it could not endure once the effect of the policy was manifested.

Marlo Torres and Felix Lara, two COB ministers resigned to protest the stabilization policy. Vice President Nuflo Chavez—also a COB secretary—resigned as well. Co-gobierno in the executive branch became virtually extinct as these three out of four COB ministers had resigned. Nationwide work stoppages ensued, and eventually elevated to the COB beginning a general strike. The country was paralyzed as a result.

As a response, the Siles administration declared the strikes illegal and dissuaded some workers from planned demonstrations. The adamant strikers were subjected to tear gas, and to mass arrests. He also manipulated the MNR into political schism. He openly questioned the leadership of Lechin and fractured the party into Pro-Siles and Pro-Lechin. He also instigated peasants to disrupt their previously friendly relationship with laborers. Armed peasant militias confronted the strikers.

On December 28, 1956, Siles decided to begin a hunger strike as an ultimate means to stop the labor unrest. This caught the attention of the press; the coverage on Siles’ health status created enormous concerns for the public. Many Bolivians, who had been mostly apathetic beforehand, were moved by his nonviolent effort, became supporters, and rallied to his cause. It also successfully quelled the unrest by getting miners to return to work.

As he gained public support enough to put an end to the general strike, he ended the hunger strike two days later. By the New Year, the leaders of MNR agreed to sign a unified agreement on the stabilization policy. Siles made further effort by visiting the mines to personally convince the miners.

However, such makeshift efforts could not end the labor unrest. As the economy worsened and the schism among the political power grew, various groups of workers went on strike. Even groups that had rallied for Siles participated in this strike wave. Between 1957 and 1959, roughly 3,400 strikes followed, and drove 1,140 factories into bankruptcy (this estimation was given by the former minister of labor, Anibal Aguilar who resigned in 1960).

Workers’ demand for wage increases comprised most of the reasons for the protests: this accounts for the strike of railroad workers in August 1958 and demonstrations of schoolteachers in August 1959. The most serious demand for wage increase was a walkout by the miners under the leadership of Executive Committee of the Miner’s Federation in March 1959. When the demand was met by a 20% increase, the committee finally called the walkout off. Despite the settlement, the workers in some communities ceaselessly continued their struggles. While not the prevalent demands, other issues also affected the struggles. The Federation of Health Workers’ struck in September 1959, for example, to oppose the layoffs of many public health practitioners.

The unrest continued until the presidential election in 1960. As a result of the election, Victor Paz Estnessoro was elected as a president with the vice president Juan Lechin. At least for three years, surprisingly, most labor disputes were settled. One of the main reasons for labor peace may have been Vice President Lechin’s role as a representative of laborers and an active mediator in labor disputes.

Research Notes
Alexander, Robert J. (2005) A History of Organized Labor in Bolivia. Praeger Publication.

“Bolivian Ends Fast: President’s Hunger Strike Had Backed Inflation Fight.” December 30, 1956. New York Times

Burrier, Grant. (2012) The Case of Bolivia Under the Movimiento Nationalista Revolucionario. The Bolivian Studies Association

Dunkerley, James. (1984) Rebellion in the Veins: Political Struggle in Bolivia, 1952-1982. Verso

Krain, Matthew and Aleman, Begona Toral. (2007) Hunger for Power and Order: A Comparative Analysis of the Adoption of Nonviolent Direct Action by a Bolivian Leader, 1956 and 1984. The Latin Americanist

Malloy, James M. (1970) Bolivia: the Uncompleted Revolution. University of Pittsburgh Press

Additional Notes: 
To find more detailed accounts of the President's hunger strike, read "Bolivian president hunger strikes to preserve economic policies, 1956"
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Soul Han, 30/09/2012