Hernán Siles Zuazo (1914-1996) served as president of Bolivia for four years in the 1950s and was returned to his nation's highest office for an additional three years in the 1980s. As one of the leaders of the 1952 revolution and through his continuing political activities, Siles Zuazo played a major role in 20th century Bolivian history.
Hernán Siles Zuazo was born into a prominent Bolivian family in the capital city of La Paz in 1914. He attended school at the Methodist Church's American Institute in La Paz, although he was a Roman Catholic. His father, Hernando Siles Reyes, had served as president of Bolivia from 1926 until 1930. Despite this promising background, his early years were not easy. As Edward Schumacher wrote in the New York Times, Siles Zuazo "began life with the odds against him, " because the former president never married Siles Zuazo's mother. Although in later life father and son remained on friendly terms, they were never very close.
The entire Siles Zuazo family demonstrated forthrightness and great political skill. His mother was a strong-minded woman. When Siles Zuazo became president she would occasionally scold her son if she believed he had failed to keep promises. A half-brother, Luis Adolfo Siles Salinas, was to serve as Bolivia's president for five months in 1969.
War Against Paraguay
In 1932, Bolivia battled neighboring Paraguay in a territorial dispute known as the Chaco War. Although the Bolivian army was better trained and equipped, it was badly defeated; land was lost and national pride was shattered. Siles Zuazo fought as a volunteer. Serving as a sergeant, his left arm was badly injured, leaving some of his fingers immobile for the rest of his life. As a result, Siles Zuazo was awarded several medals for bravery.
After the war, Siles Zuazo earned a law degree from San Andres University in La Paz. He later set up a private law office in that city. In 1938, he married Maria Teresa Onmecha. They had three daughters, Marcela, Ana María, and Isabel.
The Chaco War defeat turned the Bolivian people against their leaders. Many in the nation also blamed international oil companies, as well as wealthy mine owners and land-holders. Bolivians felt that the interests of all citizens, including the very poor and the Indians, were not being equally represented. In the wake of the Chaco War, a large number of political parties were established to challenge the existing structure. Siles Zuazo was an important part of that challenge.
New Political Party
In 1941, the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) was founded by Siles Zuazo and Victor Paz Estenssoro. Their party, like many others, became caught up in the revolutionary fervor which swept Bolivia during World War II. The seeds of the MNR's eventual division were sown by its ill-defined mixture of European Marxism and fascism-an ideology that suppressed opposition and encouraged nationalism and racism.
That oppressive strain was evident in 1943, when an army major was installed as president by a military movement aided by the MNR. That administration proved to be repressive and was overthrown by a popular uprising in 1946. The major was lynched in front of the presidential palace. Consequences for supporters, such as Siles Zuazo, were not as severe-he fled to exile in Argentina and Chile.
The uprising served as an alarm to party members, including Siles Zuazo. They rebuilt their party and introduced a reform agenda. From exile, Paz Estenssoro ran for president and Siles Zuazo for vice president. They won a plurality of the vote in the 1951 election, but the military prevented Congress from installing them in office. The tin miners protested, beginning a national revolution in 1952. Siles Zuazo returned to Bolivia and was soon able to take office as vice president.
Strains in Party Coalition
The factions that made up the MNR were diverse, creating an "uneasy alliance, " according to historian Eric Selbin. Working class members, who had been oppressed for years, demanded strong reform. Upper class members tended to be more moderate in their views and were often reluctant to embrace change.
In the years following the 1952 revolution, reforms were passed. The major tin mines, owned by foreign companies, were nationalized. Voting reform was instituted, creating universal suffrage. Perhaps the greatest reform was the abolition of a feudal landholding system, which had been in place for hundreds of years. This agricultural reform, however, was begun by rural workers and peasants seizing land. As with many other reforms, the MNR followed the peasantry. When it was clear that such reform was becoming a reality, the new ruling party was forced to accept it and try to take credit for it.
Although the reforms were striking, increased inflation was driving many Bolivians further into poverty. When Siles Zuazo was elected president in 1956, he sought to improve the economic health of the country by acquiring loans from the International Monetary Fund and requesting aid from the United States. These measures came with a large cost, however. IMF loans required the adoption of an austerity plan that placed the severest burdens on the working and poor classes. Siles Zuazo froze wages, reduced social services, and invited American oil companies to return to Bolivia. These were all policies harshly criticized by leftist citizens.
The president also was forced to confront labor unrest among the very workers who had helped install him in office. In response to strikes, Silas Zuazo countered with his own personal hunger strikes. In later years, he would employ the same method with varying effectiveness. One incident highlights the bravery of the man and the dilemma into which he had been placed. When Siles Zuazo met with a group of striking miners, he was handed a lighted stick of dynamite. Siles Zuazo simply took it, but refused to extinguish the fuse. A panicked miner grabbed the dynamite from his hand and threw it away moments before it exploded.
The courage of Siles Zuazo, however, was not enough to alter the divisions within his party. Years after 1952 the rebellion had taken firm hold on Bolivian soil, but had not sprouted and flowered. As historians J. Domínguez and C. Mitchell have written in Comparative Politics, the establishment of the revolution "proved to be a hollow accomplishment."
Moved Leftward in Exile
After completing his four-year term as president, Siles Zuazo served as ambassador to Paraguay and Spain in the government of Paz Estenssoro. But a 1964 coup forced him to leave Bolivia once again.
During his years exile, Siles Zuazo moved further to the left. In 1971, he established the Leftist Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNRI), a group that enjoyed broad support from the Bolivian peasantry.
In 1979, Siles Zuazo won another presidential election and returned from exile in triumph. However, a violent military uprising forced him into exile once again. Many leftist leaders were tortured and killed. The escape by Siles Zuazo was accomplished by disguising himself as a peasant and crossing Lake Titicaca by boat to Peru.
During the period of military rule that followed, the economy grew worse. Bolivia defaulted on its foreign debts. In 1982, the military handed the government back to Siles Zuazo. He was inaugurated on October 10, 1982.
"We are going to construct a democracy with absolute liberty, " Siles Zuazo said in his inaugural address. "Those who do not believe in democracy and have interrupted it many times, depriving people of their liberties, should reflect and understand that their time has come to end."
The problems facing the Siles Zuazo government proved to be overwhelming. Prices rose by more than 24, 000 percent during his tenure, due to a miscalculation in an austerity program. In addition, the worldwide price for tin plunged in 1985, crippling the nation that had once been the most important tin producer in the world.
Political divisions worsened the situation. As the austerity program increasingly hurt the very poor, leftist leaders and workers demanded that foreign debt payments end, that refinancing be handled on more favorable terms, and that negotiations with the IMF cease.
Kidnapped Amid Economic Crisis
In May 1984, Siles Zuazo suspended payments of foreign debt until refinancing arrangements could be made. This action infuriated rightists, who demanded the president's resignation. An attempted coup led to the abduction of Siles Zuazo. Surprisingly, even the military spoke out against this action. As a reporter for Time magazine wrote, "The show of loyalty to democracy was impressive." In less than 10 hours, he was released unharmed.
The administration of Siles Zuazo was crippled by clashes of the left and right and by his inability to reconcile them. As the historians James Malloy and Eduardo Gamarra have noted in Revolution and Reaction: Bolivia, 1964-1985, "Siles was to begin and end his presidency essentially the political prisoner of both [left and right]….On numerous occasions the central government for all practical purposes came to a standstill as Siles exhausted himself juggling personalities and factions."
The president took decisive action, however, in combating terrorism. Immediately after assuming office in 1982, his police arrested one of Italy's most wanted right-wing terrorists. In addition, his administration was instrumental in the capture of Klaus Barbie, the former Nazi who was returned to Israel to stand trial.
Drug Trafficking Scandal Weakens Government
Upon assuming the presidency, Siles Zuazo "wasted no time in taking the broom to the country's corrupt, cocaine-fueled politics, " wrote Barry Came in Newsweek magazine. Siles Zuazo tried to cooperate with the United States in controlling drug traffic, but resistance was strong in his impoverished nation. At that time, the cocaine industry was earning approximately $2 million per year.
In 1984, a scandal hastened the end for Siles Zuazo. It was alleged that he had authorized a meeting between the head of his antidrug agency and the prime exporter of cocaine in Bolivia, Robert Suárez Gomez. At that meeting the drug dealer supposedly offered to pay off some or all of the nation's debts. When the Congress learned of this, it reprimanded the president.
In 1985, amid worsening conditions, a general strike was ignited by a walkout of tin miners. For the first time in his administration, Siles Zuazo deployed riot police and army troops against crowds of strikers. Although a bloody clash was avoided, "the looming confrontation was sad testimony to the deterioration of the political system in Bolivia, " wrote Malloy and Gamarra.
By that summer, Siles Zuazo had decided to step down, one year before the end of his term. The Congress named Paz Estenssoro to succeed him.
Exactly 11 years after he stepped down as president, Siles Zuazo died on Bolivia's independence day. After a long illness, he died from a lung embolism in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Further Reading on Hernán Siles Zuazo
Alexander, Robert J., Bolivia: Past, Present, and Future of Its Politics, Praeger, 1982.
Barton, Robert, A Short History of the Republic of Bolivia, Werner Guttentag, 1968.
Klein, Herbert S., Bolivia: The Evolution of a Multi-Ethnic Society, Oxford University Press, 1992.
Morales, Waltraud Queiser, Bolivia: Land of Struggle, Westview Press, 1992.
Malloy, James M. & Eduardo Gamarra. Revolution and Reaction: Bolivia, 1964-1985, Transaction Books, 1988.
Selbin, Eric, Modern Latin American Revolutions, Westview Press, 1993.
Comparative Politics, Volume 9, number, 2, 1990.
Newsweek, October 25, 1982, p. 87.
New York Times, October 19, 1982; August 8, 1996.
Time, July 9, 1984, p. 58.
"Bolivia: A Proud History, " http://jaguar.pg.cc.md.us/historia.html (April 1998).
"Destination: Bolivia, " http://www.lonelyplanet.com/dest/sam/bolivia.htm (April 1998).
"History of Bolivia, " http://www.latinsynergy.org/boliviainfo.htm (April 1998).
"Latin American History, Modern Andean History, " http://www.emayzine.com/lectures/Modern∼1.htm (April 1998).
"The Lure of Easy Money, " http://www.fieldingtravel.com/dp/dangerousplaces/bolivia/main.html (April 1998).
McFarren, Peter, "Hernan Siles Zuazo, Former Bolivian President and Revolutionary, Dies, " http://www.sddt.com (April 1998).
Morris, Harvey, "Death of a President, " http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/HarveyMorris/bolivia.htm (April 1998).
U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, "Background Notes: Bolivia, " http://www.state.gov (April 1998).