Reformist Bolivian President Paz Estenssoro Is Toppled Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The revolt that toppled the Bolivian government in 1964 ended one of the most profound social, political, and economic revolutions of the twentieth century. Its legacy was prolonged political crisis, chaos, and conflict.

Summary of Event

On November 3, 1964, armed forces under the direction of General René Barrientos Ortuño, then vice president of Bolivia, initiated a coup d’état against President Víctor Paz Estenssoro. Military units under Barrientos attacked a small detachment of armed peasant militias and other forces loyal to President Paz. Paz’s efforts to rally additional militia from outside La Paz met with little success. One reason for this failure was that November 3 was a Tuesday following a long weekend during which the Indians, who formed the ranks of the peasant militias, had celebrated the Day of the Dead. Festivities associated with the Day of the Dead often extended beyond the weekend and frequently left many Indians intoxicated or otherwise incapacitated. It was no coincidence that the coup was launched on a day at the conclusion of these festivities. In some areas, military forces loyal to Barrientos delayed or prevented the peasant militias from reaching La Paz. When Paz appealed to the army commander, General Alfredo Ovando Candía, to intercede and bring the rebellion to an end, Ovando, a coup participant, responded that there was nothing he could do. Bolivian coup of 1964 Revolutions and coups;Bolivia [kw]Reformist Bolivian President Paz Estenssoro Is Toppled (Nov. 3, 1964) [kw]Bolivian President Paz Estenssoro Is Toppled, Reformist (Nov. 3, 1964) [kw]President Paz Estenssoro Is Toppled, Reformist Bolivian (Nov. 3, 1964) [kw]Paz Estenssoro Is Toppled, Reformist Bolivian President (Nov. 3, 1964) Bolivian coup of 1964 Revolutions and coups;Bolivia [g]Latin America;Nov. 3, 1964: Reformist Bolivian President Paz Estenssoro Is Toppled[08260] [g]Bolivia;Nov. 3, 1964: Reformist Bolivian President Paz Estenssoro Is Toppled[08260] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 3, 1964: Reformist Bolivian President Paz Estenssoro Is Toppled[08260] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Nov. 3, 1964: Reformist Bolivian President Paz Estenssoro Is Toppled[08260] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 3, 1964: Reformist Bolivian President Paz Estenssoro Is Toppled[08260] [c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 3, 1964: Reformist Bolivian President Paz Estenssoro Is Toppled[08260] Paz Estenssoro, Víctor Barrientos Ortuño, René Siles Zuazo, Hernán Lechín Oquendo, Juan Guevara Arze, Wálter Ovando Candía, Alfredo

It soon became apparent to the president that the small force protecting the government could not prevail against a superior military. President Paz realized that his options were few. The following day, November 4, General Ovando accompanied Paz to the airport, where the deposed president flew into exile in Lima, Peru. The successful insurrection was relatively bloodless. The conflict left about forty dead and two hundred injured; most of the casualties were supporters of Paz whose weapons were inferior to those of the military. There was little property damage from the clashes in La Paz and none in other Bolivian cities and towns. The coup effectively terminated the social, political, and economic reforms initiated during the preceding twelve years, when the National Revolutionary Movement National Revolutionary Movement, Bolivian (MNR) party had governed Bolivia.

The roots of the 1964 coup d’état that led to the demise of President Paz can be traced to the early months of the revolution. Perhaps Paz’s most fateful decision was the one to reconstitute the armed forces only fifteen months after they had been virtually abolished following Paz’s own April, 1952, coup. By the early 1960’s, however, the MNR was in disarray. In the years after its creation, the foremost strength of the party was the diverse assortment of political groups and interests of which it was composed. In time this apparent strength became, perhaps, its greatest liability as these groups competed for supremacy. The disintegration of the party was gradual, occurring over a number of years. The splintering was a result of the divergent interests of the competing groups and the failure of those groups to make concessions or to compromise. Eventually several of the prominent leaders of various factions bolted the party and formed rival parties. Related to the fissures in this tenuous coalition were the personal political ambitions of several early leaders of the MNR.

One of the first serious fractures in the National Revolutionary Movement occurred in 1960, when Wálter Guevara Arze, a cofounder of the MNR and an early revolutionary leader, was denied the party’s nomination for president. Guevara had served as interior minister under Hernán Siles Zuazo, who succeeded Paz as president in 1956. Guevara was denied the nomination when Paz, who had served as ambassador to Great Britain under Siles, returned to Bolivia to claim the nomination. Guevara, who had been previously promised the 1960 MNR nomination by the party leadership, withdrew from the MNR and formed the Authentic Revolutionary Party (PRA). He became a candidate for president under the PRA banner and finished second to Paz in the 1960 election. A disgruntled Guevara, who was the leader of the conservative wing of the MNR, became a virulent and persistent critic of President Paz and the MNR for the next four years. The relentless criticism of the party and strife between the president and a prominent former member of the MNR weakened both Paz and the MNR.

A more serious split in the MNR occurred four years later, during the convention to select a presidential candidate for the 1964 election. Juan Lechín Oquendo, Paz’s vice president and the charismatic leader of the party’s left wing, had agreed to support Paz in 1960 and to serve as his vice president. For this support he was promised the 1964 nomination. However, when the MNR party convention met to select the 1964 presidential nominee, there was considerable dissension over who would succeed Paz. Many of the party’s hierarchy were vehemently opposed to the radical Lechín. The Bolivian constitution had been amended in 1961 to allow a president to serve two consecutive terms, and party leaders selected Paz as the MNR’s 1964 standard-bearer. The selection of Paz as the MNR’s 1964 nominee shook the party to its roots, outraging many in the MNR’s vast constituency. Virtually the entire left wing of the party—including the mine workers and several trade union leaders, led by Lechín—left the party and organized the Revolutionary Party of the Nationalist Left Revolutionary Party of the Nationalist Left, Bolivian (PRIN). When the military under General Barrientos moved several months later to depose Paz, Lechín was among those who supported his removal.

Following his nomination for a third presidential term in January, 1964, Paz, under pressure from the military, reluctantly accepted General Barrientos as his running mate. They were elected by an overwhelming majority on May 31, 1964, and inaugurated on August 6. The landslide victory resulted when many of the other parties refused to participate in the election, claiming it was rigged in favor of the MNR.

The months preceding his removal from office were a time of apprehension for President Paz. The MNR continued to disintegrate as internal strife persisted. For most of the year, Bolivia was in turmoil as hostility toward Paz intensified. Much of the opposition was caused by Paz’s decision to succeed himself as president. Student protests over this issue often ended in riots. In the summer and fall of 1964, a series of strikes paralyzed the country. Striking miners, teachers, and other disaffected groups, supported by university students, conducted demonstrations and protests that resulted in widespread chaos in the major cities, especially La Paz, Sucre, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz. In order to mobilize opposition to Paz, a number of prominent political leaders, including Siles and Lechín, carried out hunger strikes. The turmoil and chaos of the summer and fall of 1964 gave way to near anarchy by November. Vice President Barrientos, confident that little opposition would materialize, began the first in what became a long series of military coups d’état in postrevolutionary Bolivia. The coup sent President Paz into a long exile first in Peru and later in the United States.


The primary significance of the November 3, 1964, coup d’état was that it shattered one of the world’s most profound twentieth century revolutions. Although the key achievements of the revolution—including nationalization of the large tin-mining companies, land reform, and universal suffrage—were not reversed, the coup ushered in a long, intense, and violent struggle between diverse groups that sought to dominate the Bolivian political landscape. For the next eighteen years, the country was in chaos: Conflict raged between civilian factions and harsh military governments, the one constant during this era. The military governments demonstrated little tolerance toward their adversaries. Harsh and at times brutal repression of opposition groups marked the years after the 1964 coup d’état. Miners, labor unions and their leaders, universities and their students, teachers, political parties of all persuasions, and occasionally peasant groups experienced the wrath of the military. Techniques used by the military to suppress and neutralize its opposition included exile, jail, torture, assassination, and military force. Bolivian coup of 1964 Revolutions and coups;Bolivia

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Robert J. A History of Organized Labor in Bolivia. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005. Overview of organized labor in Bolivia with an emphasis on its role in the revolution and the disintegration of the MNR leading up to the 1964 coup.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klein, Herbert S. A Concise History of Bolivia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Comprehensive history of Bolivia, including a detailed examination of the revolution and the postrevolutionary era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Malloy, James M. Bolivia: The Uncompleted Revolution. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970. Explores the Revolution and early postrevolutiony era in detail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morales, Waltraud Q. A Brief History of Bolivia. New York: Facts On File, 2003. Survey of Bolivian history shaped by personal observations and experience.

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Categories: History