Bánzer Seizes Power in Bolivian Coup

When the Bolivian military, led by Hugo Bánzer Suárez, attempted a coup against the government, Juan José Torres failed to act forcefully and was quickly ousted. The Bánzer coup resulted in the takeover by Bolivia’s military of the country’s government and the beginning of an eight-year dictatorship.

Summary of Event

In 1971, Bolivia experienced an intense conflict between the two major political groups seeking to control the country: the Left, consisting of communist, socialist, and radical student organizations, and the Right, made up of Bolivia’s military and its powerful business interests. Some years previously, the radical Argentine communist Che Guevara, a leader of the Cuban Revolution, had entered the country clandestinely and attempted to foment a revolution among Bolivia’s peasants in the countryside. Suspicious of the foreigners who spoke a different type of Spanish, the peasants refused to aid him. His small band was attacked by the Bolivian army, led by its U.S.-trained Rangers, who captured and quickly executed him. Revolutions and coups;Bolivia
Bolivia, government
[kw]Bánzer Seizes Power in Bolivian Coup (Aug. 18, 1971)
[kw]Bolivian Coup, Bánzer Seizes Power in (Aug. 18, 1971)
[kw]Coup, Bánzer Seizes Power in Bolivian (Aug. 18, 1971)
Revolutions and coups;Bolivia
Bolivia, government
[g]South America;Aug. 18, 1971: Bánzer Seizes Power in Bolivian Coup[00400]
[g]Bolivia;Aug. 18, 1971: Bánzer Seizes Power in Bolivian Coup[00400]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Aug. 18, 1971: Bánzer Seizes Power in Bolivian Coup[00400]
[c]Government and politics;Aug. 18, 1971: Bánzer Seizes Power in Bolivian Coup[00400]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 18, 1971: Bánzer Seizes Power in Bolivian Coup[00400]
Bánzer Suárez, Hugo
Torres, Juan José
Guevara, Che

Friction between the two major political opponents did not cease with Guevara’s death. In 1971, General Juan José Torres seized control of the government and began to establish a new governmental infrastructure designed to convert Bolivia into a socialist state. General Hugo Bánzer Suárez, an army leader backed by American arms, military advisers, and field trainers, overthrew the Torres regime when the latter failed to provide the arms needed to resist the coup.

Hugo Bánzer Suárez in La Paz in August, 1971.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Bánzer, from the city of Santa Cruz, in Bolivia’s southeastern tropical lowlands, was of Spanish and German descent. He graduated from the country’s Colegio Militar and also attended military schools in Argentina, Brazil, and the United States. At the invitation of the U.S. Army, he attended the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Panama and the Armored Cavalry School at Ford Hood, Texas. Among his later assignments was his appointment as Bolivia’s military attaché to Washington, D.C. Bánzer developed strong ties with the U.S. military and spoke fluent English as a result of his exposure to U.S. Army trainers.

After taking control in 1971, Bánzer instituted a dictatorial regime, outlawing opposition parties and subjecting their membership to jail, torture, and even assassination. Many of the opposition leaders chose to go into exile. Bánzer was accused by some of having his predecessor, General Torres, assassinated when he fled to Argentina. Bánzer’s coup had the strong backing of the U.S. government. During Richard M. Nixon’s presidential administration, the United States furnished the Bolivian army with massive amounts of both supplies and technical assistance.

The Bánzer regime improved Bolivia’s economy during its initial years of operation in part through a tight control over wages, resulting in an expansion of the country’s productive capabilities. Bánzer also encouraged the increased development of Bolivia’s natural resources—mining, oil, and agriculture. Describing its economic philosophy as “free market,” the regime avidly sought foreign investment. Mineral exportation almost tripled during the 1971-1974 era. A great deal of money was spent by the government to improve transportation and communication facilities. At the same time, the Bánzer government reduced the number of state-run enterprises and welfare programs.

As a result of the extensive road-building program undertaken by Bánzer in the Santa Cruz area, the general’s home base grew rapidly during his regime. A substantial agricultural surplus was produced in this fertile lowland area for foreign export, aiding the country’s balance of payments. The city of Santa Cruz itself became one of the country’s major cities and economic centers.

Bánzer justified his lengthy retention of power by his attempts to recover land on the Pacific Ocean from Chile, territory lost by the Bolivians in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883). His failure to accomplish this, coupled with a declining economy during the final four years of his tenure, led to increasing opposition to his regime. Bánzer also lost the unqualified support of the U.S. government when President Jimmy Carter took office. He was unable to prevent a national hunger strike by the country’s industrial workers despite the use of military and police power. Finally, Bánzer had to grant amnesty to the strikers and to permit free national elections. He was forced to resign from office in the middle of the national elections in July, 1978.

Bánzer founded Nationalist Democratic Action in 1978 following his ouster. The former president also courted the support of the National Revolutionary Movement and the Bolivian Socialist Falange. He continued to play an active role in national politics and was legitimately elected to Bolivia’s presidency in 1997. His platform included government contracts with foreign companies, the elimination of privatization laws, and an expanded role of the state in credit, health, and housing. His campaign rhetoric stressed “dignity, opportunity, equity, and industrialization.” He pressed for the total eradication of the coca/cocaine industry through the development of alternative forms of agriculture. Bánzer resigned from the presidency on August 7, 2001, because of ill health. He died the following year.


Although Bolivia’s economy improved substantially during Bánzer’s 1971-1978 tenure (known as Bánzerato), the country’s political life continued to be somewhat chaotic in the years that followed. Progress was made with the strengthening of democratic electoral procedures. Bolivia’s internal and external markets would continue to expand as trade within the South American economy broadened throughout the continent.

Bánzer’s controversial coca-eradication program did not succeed, and the illegal drug trade continued to flourish in the country. Bolivia’s coca industry would become a major source of export revenue as the drug market expanded throughout the Western Hemisphere. Attempts to provide the alternative agricultural production substitutes for the growers as suggested by Bánzer in 1997 proved ineffective. Moreover, with the election in 2006 of socialist president Evo Morales, who pledged to ease restrictions on coca growers, Bánzer’s “zero coca” policy was superseded. Revolutions and coups;Bolivia
Bolivia, government

Further Reading

  • Dunkerly, James. Rebellion in the Veins: Political Struggle in Bolivia, 1952-82. London: Verso, 1984. Overview of three decades of Bolivian political history.
  • Gill, Lesley. Teetering on the Rim: Global Restructuring, Daily Life, and the Armed Retreat of the Bolivian State. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Contains an excellent analysis of the role of the military in daily Bolivian life.
  • Klein, Herbert S. A Concise History of Bolivia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Excellent up-to-date overview of Bolivian history from the pre-Columbian era to the beginning of the twenty-first century.
  • Lehman, Kenneth D. Bolivia and the United States: A Limited Partnership. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999. Presents a study in the contrasts between the American and Bolivian societies.
  • Morales, Waltraud Q. A Brief History of Bolivia. New York: Facts On File, 2003. A relatively positive assessment of Bolivia’s political, economic, and social future.

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