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     The Chaco War
     Paz Estenssoro and the MNR
     The cocaine years

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The Chaco War: 1932-1935

The Gran Chaco is a huge arid low-lying plain, in which savanna grasses and scrub are interspersed with regions of saline swamp. It is an unenticing area, but discoveries of oil in the early 20th century raise hopes (later unfulfilled) of great wealth in the region.

It has never been considered necessary to define any exact border here, but now both Bolivia and Paraguay begin building small military outposts (almost every place name here begins with 'Fortín', a humble word in the Spanish military lexicon sometimes equivalent to little more than pillbox or bunker). From 1928 there are occasional clashes between these outposts, in a process which escalates by 1932 to outright war.


The first major engagement is at Fortín Boquerón, taken by the Bolivians in June 1932 and recaptured by Paraguayan forces in September. There is subsequent fighting over an eight-month period around Fortín Nanawa. The likely advantage seems on the side of Bolivia, a larger nation with a better equipped army. But the Bolivian troops, from highland regions, prove less well adapted to fighting in the lowland swamps. More of them succumb to disease and snakebite than to bullets.

By 1935, at the end of an inconclusive war, 100,000 men have died. A peace signed in Buenos Aires in 1938 gives Paraguay most of the disputed region but brings within the borders of Bolivia the port of Puerto Suarez, with access to the Paraguay river.


Paz Estenssoro and the MNR: 1941-1964

By the era of the Chaco War, Bolivia has taken almost no steps towards democracy and has made no attempt to integrate or educate its indigenous Indians (representing more than 80% of the people). The undemocratic nature of the nation is well suggested by the fact that liberal regimes in the first two decades of the 20th century double the size of the electorate - but only from 2.5% to 5% of the population.

The Chaco War is something of a social turning point, in that Indians form the bulk of the Bolivian armies and thus take part for the first time in an essentially national endeavour. And the war is soon followed by the founding of the first political party to have their interests on its agenda.


In 1941 Victor Paz Estenssoro and others form the left-wing Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR). During the 1940s the MNR establishes strong links with the unions in the Bolivian mines, at this stage almost the sole source of the nation's wealth.

The pattern of violent coups and counter-revolutions continues, with the MNR as active as its opponents in the contest. An uprising by the MNR fails in 1949 and a general strike is ruthlessly crushed by a military junta in 1950. But in 1952 the MNR succeeds in seizing power. Paz Estenssoro, in exile since 1949, returns as president.


He immediately puts into effect reforms so wide-ranging that they amount to a revolution. The great agricultural estates of the central plateau are nationalized and are distributed among the Indian peasants. The Indians are given the vote.

The nation's mines are taken into public ownership.They are now valuable mainly as a source of tin, since the silver at Potosí has been mined to extinction, but it is an indication of their importance that the three largest mining companies each has an annual turnover greater than that of the central government. To secure these measures, the size of the Bolivian army (the most likely source of the next coup) is successfully reduced.


The MNR, not above using ruthless methods to suppress any opposition, stays in power for twelve years - an unprecedented period in Bolivian history. Paz Estenssoro's vice-president serves as president in 1956-60, after which Paz Estenssoro returns for a second term. He is elected for a third time in 1964, with 70% of the vote, but he is then thrown out by a military junta.

In 1985 Paz Estenssoro, now aged seventy-seven, is once again elected president - in the first orderly election and transfer of power in a quarter of a century. The intervening period has seen political chaos extreme even by Bolivia's own standards.


The cocaine years: from1964

During much of the twenty-one years before Paz Estenssoro's return as president in 1985 Bolivia has military governments. Oppressive rule is imposed in an attempt to turn back the clock and undo the reforms of the 1952-64 period.

The situation of the peasants and workers in Bolivia is now so bleak that Che Guevara choose this as the Latin American nation most ripe for revolution. He arrives incognito, late in 1966, to launch a campaign of guerrilla warfare. For eleven months he makes little headway, until in October 1967 he and his men are discovered and surrounded by the Bolivian army. Guevara himself is wounded in the battle, then captured and shot.


A special problem in Bolivia is the decline in tin prices. This is to some extent solved by a change of emphasis to agriculture. The snag, however, is that the main crop grown by the peasants is the valuable coca plant, the source of cocaine.

By the early 1980s the nation's main source of foreign currency is cocaine dealing (and foreign currency now goes a very long way, since Bolivia at this time has the world's highest rate of inflation). Successive Bolivian governments are reluctant to destroy the coca crops, because of the damage to the income of farmers and peasants. However US pressure gradually has some effect, combined with assistance for programmes of crop diversification.


The return of Paz Estenssoro in 1985 introduces a period of better government, with a reduction in the inflation rate and at last a succession of orderly elections every four years. He is followed as president in 1989 by Paz Zamora, a distant relation.

The election of 1993 is won by a right-wing candidate, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada . That of 1997 brings to power a retired general, Hugo Banzer Suarez. Ominously he was also president from 1971 to 1978, the most oppressive period in recent Bolivian history. But he rules now with the support of a multiparty coalition in congress.


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