Beginning in 1952 Bolivia underwent a social and economic revolution, spearheaded by the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, MNR), a political party founded in 1941 and led by the economist Victor Paz Estenssoro and the lawyer and former president’s son Hernán Siles Zuazo. The roots of the revolution can be traced to Bolivia’s humiliating defeat by Paraguay in the Chaco War (1932– 35); decades of military dictatorship and politically exclusionary rule by the landowning and military elite; the country’s long history of class and racial inequality and extreme poverty among its mostly indigenous population; and the emergence of new leftist political forces from the early 1940s, particularly its labor unions, peasant leagues, and Marxist-oriented political parties.
Coming to power through both electoral victory and popular mobilizations, after 1952 the MNR instituted a range of far-reaching social and economic reforms. By the late 1950s the revolutionary process stalled in consequence of mounting conservative opposition, growing factionalism and corruption within the MNR, and U.S. support to conservative elements. In 1964 the MNR was overthrown in a military coup. The Bolivian revolution left an enduring legacy, with much of the popular unrest and indigenous political organizing of the 1990s and 2000s finding important antecedents in the revolutionary period half a century before.
Coming to power on April 16, 1952, after a wave of strikes and street protests, the MNR under Paz Estenssoro launched an ambitious program of land, labor, and social reform. Establishing universal suffrage in July, the regime expanded the electorate from around 200,000 to over one million voters. It also slashed the size and power of the military.
In October it nationalized the country’s largest tin mines and established the state-run Mining Corporation of Bolivia (Corporación Minera de Bolivia, COMIBOL). The act fulfilled a longtime goal of the Union Federation of Bolivian Tin Workers (Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia, FSTMB), founded in 1944 and led by Juan Lechín, the country’s largest labor union with some 60,000 members. Following the MNR’s assumption of power, in 1952 Bolivian trade unions formed the Bolivian Workers’ Center (Central Obrera Boliviana, COB), with the FSTMB as its largest affiliate. The COB exercised a major political influence throughout the period of MNR rule.
In August 1953 the MNR initiated a sweeping program of agrarian reform in an attempt to eliminate forced labor and address the country’s extremely unequal landowning patterns. Before 1953, 6 percent of landowners controlled upwards of 90 percent of the nation’s arable land, and 60 percent of landowners controlled 0.2 percent.
While not all of the provisions of the 1953 Agrarian Reform Law were implemented, in later years land ownership became significantly less unequal. Peasant leagues, forming armed militias, exerted considerable influence on the revolutionary government, partly through their representation in the new Ministry of Peasant Affairs.
By the end of Paz Estenssoro’s first term (1952–56), the revolutionary process had slowed in consequence of mounting opposition from conservative elements, growing polarization within the multiclass ruling coalition, economic decline in the tin and farming industries, and skyrocketing inflation due to increased government spending. Under the presidency of Siles Zuazo (1956– 60), the United States stepped up its efforts to moderate the regime through increased flows of economic assistance, heightening the country’s political polarization. By Paz Estenssoro’s second term (1960–64), the MNR’s more radical elements faced mounting internal and external opposition. In 1964 a resurgent military overthrew the regime, followed by a series of military dictatorships that ruled until 1982.