The loyalists of the MNR launched the National Revolution on April 9, 1952. The revolt was the work of a vanguard of revolutionaries supported by workers, miners, and middle-class students and intellectuals. Initially, the peasantry and the indigenous communities were not on the front lines of the revolution; consequently, the insurrection was primarily a proletarian and urban-based revolution similar to the MNR’s failed revolt in 1949. Unlike the 1949 civil war, however, better planning and kind fortune favored the rebels. Not until the months after victory did the rural revolutionary contingency join the MNR and radicalize its agenda.
Timing was critical in the revolution’s success. The political climate immediately before and after the 1951 elections had been chaotic. The old elite parties had fractured into warring factions, and the economy had been devastated by a severe crisis in the price of tin. The conservative Liberal Party and even the Big Three tin mining interests were against the government, having excoriated it for the bankrupt economy and its “soft” treatment of labor and leftists. Indeed, the government had attempted to woo labor at the 11th hour before the vote by decreeing a one-third increase in salaries for miners. The mining companies, however, had denounced and blatantly defied the unilateral decree. In no small measure, therefore, this escalating dissension within the government and the traditional political parties exposed in the pre-electoral confusion had worked in the plotters’ favor.
Initially, the military takeover by General Ballivian following the disastrous election results had offered hope for the old order. Claiming a duty to protect the country from a Nazi-communist menace (referring to the pact among the MNR and the Marxist parties), the junta had restored a brief stability. But within a few months the prostrate economy and deep political polarization had undermined the junta’s efforts and civilian support.
Ballivian blustered and threatened, but other top military commanders began to aspire to the presidential office, and everyone knew that the junta would fall sooner or later. The question was who would strike the blow and reap the political victory? At this critical juncture, the MNR, political scientist James M. Malloy writes, “began plotting day and night with everyone and anyone looking for a formula to power” (1970, 156).
When it finally came, the insurrection was not a spontaneous rising; indeed, extensive planning and plotting secured its ultimate success. Two key MNR leaders, Hernan Siles and Juan Lechin, who had been instrumental in the 1949 uprising, once again played major roles. Both had learned from past mistakes. In 1949, a timid MNR had not armed the people, fearing the spread of civil war and a bloodbath. In 1952, a more desperate and radical MNR decided to risk greater violence, and they armed the opponents of the government.
The leaders of the revolt enlisted professional soldiers to their cause, but this was not an easy task. The MNR was suspicious of and ambivalent about the military, and the old days of MNR-military collaboration were long over. After the fall of Villarroel, the army had been thoroughly purged of its radical elements. As a result, the military establishment had remained loyal to the government in revolts, especially the uprising of 1949. The MNR judged it unlikely that career officers would defect to the revolutionaries’ cause in 1952. Indeed, the military junta in power had outlawed the MNR, and the army’s conservative chief of staff, General Humberto Torres Ortiz, was rumored to be interested in the presidency himself. Nevertheless, the MNR pursued a potential alliance with Torres and the right-wing (Bolivian Socialist Falange FSB), but at the last minute Torres backed out.
The MNR rebels then sought the assistance of the militarized national police, known as the carabineros. On the eve of the revolt—moved forward from April 15 to April 9 for fear of discovery—General Antonio Seleme, the minister of internal security and the chief of the national police, secretly agreed to support and arm the revolutionaries. He ordered the police force to open up the armories and distribute weapons to the MNR and the rebellious workers. The plan, according to James M. Malloy, was for General Seleme to become president in an MNR-military cabinet and for Hernan Siles, personally in charge of the revolt, to become vice president. But events soon took a different course.
On the morning of April 9, the startled citizens of La Paz woke to armed confrontations in the narrow streets and plazas of the city between the MNR loyalists and carabineros on one side and the army and government supporters on the other. The revolutionary forces of the MNR rapidly seized the city center, forcing the national army to regroup below the rebel positions. The government army also commanded El Alto along the rim of the altiplano heights above the city Encircling the city, which lay in the deep bowl below, the government’s well-armed and confident troops moved pincerlike to smash the rebel forces.
After the first day’s fighting, the position of the revolutionaries seemed precarious. The superior forces of the loyalist army had the advantage, and General Seleme, who had armed the rebels gambling on an easy victory, now feared all was lost. In a panic, Seleme deserted his command and sought diplomatic asylum in the Chilean embassy. The police general’s cowardice further panicked the insurgents, and some began to consider the possibility of compromise or surrender. But Siles and the MNR leaders refused to capitulate. The rebels fought on as the uprising spread to the major cities of Oruro and Cochabamba. Meanwhile, in La Paz, the city’s factory workers and those from nearby Viacha armed themselves with captured weapons and joined in the battle.
The situation was reversed dramatically the next day Militant miners from the Milluni mining complex, 10 miles north of La Paz, overran El Alto and seized the railroad station and the air force base located there, above the city. This decisive action intercepted a trainload of munitions and prevented the bombing of rebel positions. Converging on the army’s forces along the heights above the city, the angry miners trapped the army from behind and pushed the government’s forces ever closer toward the edge of the altiplano and the precipitous drop to the central city below.
Meanwhile, about 70 miles south of La Paz on the altiplano, the MNR cadres and miners of Oruro prevented the military garrison there from sending reinforcements to rescue the government’s soldiers trapped on El Alto. This rearguard action proved to be a decisive move in the revolt. Had reinforcements arrived from Oruro, the Milluni miners would have been squeezed between the two armies of the government and probably wiped out. As it was, the government troops in La Paz realized that there would be no rescue from outside the city and became disheartened. According to Malloy’s account of the battle, there was a final heroic but fruitless stand by the cadets of the military college before the government surrendered.
After three days of intense fighting, the historic Battle of La Paz sealed the MNR’s victory. On April 11, the government general Torres Ortiz gave up and signed a truce with the revolutionaries. Most of the army’s high command, including General Torres, who had defended the bankrupt oligarchy, fled into exile. The violent revolutionary takeover had been costly for both sides: The official record listed 552 dead and 787 wounded.
The structure of the revolt had not been that radically different from previous civilian-military coups. Indeed, Malloy notes that “the original plan smacked strongly of a Villarroel-type formula, that is, a rapid coup involving little civil participation, followed by a military-civil coalition government” (1970, 157). Malloy suggests that this may have been a conscious decision by some of the MNR leaders to diminish the role of the radical labor elements. A more conservative-reformist sector of the MNR wanted Siles rather than the more radical Paz Estenssoro to head the new government. In short, Malloy writes, “the in-country MNR elite was aiming at establishing a Villarroel-type reformist regime in which labor could have a secondary role, at best” (1970, 158).
But again events took a different course. The Battle of La Paz had been unexpectedly fierce and bloody, and although confined largely to the city, there was extensive citizen involvement, especially by the miners and factory workers. Without the support of these radical labor elements the revolt would most likely have fizzled out in the first 24 hours. Whether party leaders had intended it, the MNR owed the spectacular and surprising success of its revolutionary putsch to the socialist and Marxist miners and workers of La Paz. The MNR leadership could ignore the radical and revolutionary social goals of its leftist labor supporters only at great cost.