Hugo Banzer Suárez

Hugo Banzer Suárez (born 1926), Bolivian president from 1971 to 1979, presided over the nation's largest economic boom. He remained politically active as head of the ADN party, and succeeded in winning the presidential election to reclaim power in 1997.

Hugo Banzer Suárez was born July 10, 1926, in Bolivia's (then) sparsely-populated Eastern Lowlands at Santa Cruz. He came from a family of pure Spanish blood in this ranching region noted for its fierce independence and its difference from the highlands, where the majority of Bolivians lived.

He was educated at La Paz and entered the military academy there, graduating as a cavalry lieutenant. After routine postings he was selected to receive training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Panama, beginning a long contact with the United States. In 1960 he was sent to train at the Fort Hood, Texas, Armored Cavalry School, and, after several years' command of the key 4th Cavalry Regiment in Bolivia, was sent as Bolivian military attaché to Washington, a post of great prestige. There, he expanded his already wide circle of American friends (chiefly military) and perfected his English. In this period he also served for one year under President Rene Barrientos Ortuño as minister of education.

In 1969 he returned home to the prized position of director of the military academy, a post he held until his dismissal by the left-leaning president Gen. Juan José Torres in January 1971. Torres reassigned Banzer to a "safe" frontier garrison, but the conservative, anti-Communist Banzer instead rallied other officers and seized the La Paz military headquarters. The coup, however, was abortive, and he was soon in exile in Argentina.

With unflagging energy, Banzer plotted and built up an anti-Torres organization from Argentina, often sneaking into Bolivia covertly. Within a few months he had gained support of the powerful MNR (National Revolutionary Movement) of ex-president Victor Paz Estenssoro, the ultra-conservative Falange, and much of the military.


Sparks Revolution

Arrested in August 1971 during one of his secret visits to his native Santa Cruz, Banzer became the sparkplug of a revolution which broke out the next day, spearheaded by the elite Ranger regiment trained by American Green Berets—and, it is said, by a handful of American military advisors in that city. Most of the nation accepted the Banzer revolution (Bolivia's 187th), but there was considerable fighting for several days in La Paz.

Forms New Government

Nine days later, recognized by the United States, Banzer formed his government with a judicious mix of MNR and Falange leaders on the cabinet. In short order he dissolved the Soviet-style People's Assembly formed by Torres, invited back the Peace Corps, expanded the size of the Army, announced a campaign to attract foreign investment (he soon passed a very liberal law to facilitate this), and put a team to work on a five-year plan for social and economic development.

Early in 1972, to Washington's pleasure, Banzer expelled almost all Soviet diplomatic personnel for spying, and soon (under pressure from the International Monetary Fund) announced a devaluation of the peso from 12 to 20 per dollar. While a sound economic move, this angered many and put crowds in the streets, which in turn resulted in imposition of martial law.

Early in 1973 Banzer unveiled Bolivia's first five-year plan—a series of economic reforms together with a school-building program and social security benefits for the Indian majority. By and large, the plan was successful, albeit due to events beyond Banzer's control. The years 1973 through 1976 saw a major economic boom, as OPEC's price increases greatly boosted Bolivia's oil sales earnings; as tin prices rose dramatically; as natural gas exports began and grew phenomenally; as for the first time in history Bolivia exported agricultural products (mainly sugar and cotton from the Santa Cruz area).

To these gains were added substantial foreign loans, which, while adding a debt burden, did stimulate a great building boom. In short, through a combination of choice and chance Banzer found himself champion of the middle classes rather than of all Bolivians, and, since most benefits accrued to that sector, the poor again took to the streets. Banzer, incidentally, would survive a record 13 coup attempts.


Innovative Responses To Unrest

The innovative president responded in a very unique way; in late 1974 he informed Bolivians that he had just performed an "autogolpe," or coup from above. This leger-demain permitted him to disband all political parties and rule by decree. In essence, he was following the post-1964 "Brazilian Model" of authoritarian rule hinged upon economic development. In fact, he reoriented Bolivia away from its traditional symbiotic relationship with Argentina to a heavy dependency upon Brazil both diplomatically and economically. So many long term economic packages were negotiated with Brazil that some Bolivians felt he "sold out" the nation's natural resources to that giant neighbor.

More than most Bolivian presidents, Banzer was willing to use force to suppress his critics. He literally invaded (and had the Air Force strafe) San Andrés University in La Paz, enacted censorship in the media, frequently used troops against striking miners, and often jailed or exiled dissidents. In the process, Bolivia was turning in the largest trade surpluses in its history and the middle classes— including importers, manufacturers, Santa Cruz agribusinessmen, and others—raked in the profits.


Turmoil In the Late 1970s

This situation could not last in faction-ridden Bolivia. The external debt multiplied, corruption flourished, inflation soared, and negotiations with Chile for access to the Pacific collapsed. With pressures building, Banzer suspended his autogolpe decrees in 1977 and agreed to an election in 1978 without his candidacy. The elections, patently fraudulent, were disallowed, and Banzer promptly resigned. Genuine elections held in 1979 were invalidated when no candidate received a majority, and in 1980, in new elections, Banzer himself ran at the head of a new party, the ADN (National Democratic Action), coming in second. He was hardly through with politics, however, and built the ADN into a major force for the July 1985 elections. Running against Victor Paz and the MNR (and a host of minor candidates), the supposedly unpopular Banzer took 32 percent of the vote to Paz's 27 percent, but Congress, charged with deciding the issue, favored Paz.

Not one to sulk in Santa Cruz, Banzer let himself be wooed by the increasingly conservative Paz—who needed ADN votes in Congress—and in October 1985 he signed the ADN/MNR "Pact for Democracy," which assured Paz control of Congress and Banzer a probable 1990 presidency.


Changed Leader Announces Comeback

Controversial Banzer, who held continuous power in Bolivia longer than anyone else in the 20th century, was denounced for his harsh rule yet praised for continuing and accelerating distribution of land to the peasants. He was criticized for "militarizing" politics, yet he stepped aside voluntarily in 1978 rather than risk violence. He was castigated for becoming a "tool" of imperialism, yet he diversified Bolivia's economy and trading partners. He was, in short, a paradox unresolved. In August 1997, Banzer was elected president, after working hard to convince Bolivians that he is not the same repressive, dictatorial figure he was in the 1970s.

Further Reading on Hugo Banzer Suárez

There is no adequate biography of Banzer in print. However, a great deal of information about him and the Bolivia of his era can be found in the following books: Christopher Mitchell, The Legacy of Populism in Bolivia, from the MNR to Military Rule (1977); Jorge Gallardo Lozado, De Torres a Banzer (Buenos Aires, 1972); Jonathan Kelly and Herbert S. Klein, Revolution and the Rebirth of Inequality (1981); J. Lademan, Bolivia Since 1964 (1985); William J. McEwen, Changing Rural Society. A Study of Communities in Bolivia (1975); To Get Votes, Bolivian General Changes Tune in The Christian Science Monitor, November 19, 1996, by Jack Epstein; and The General Tries Again in Economist, May 31, 1997, pp. 34-36.