Revolution Grips Bolivia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A populist coalition representing the interests of Bolivia’s reform-minded workers, peasants, and middle classes gained political power and implemented major structural changes to instill reform. Although this party governed for twelve years, factionalism weakened the movement, contributed to loss of momentum, and resulted in an incomplete revolutionary transformation.

Summary of Event

The revolutionary movement that came to power in 1952 was a product of Bolivia’s recent history and long-standing socioeconomic inequities. Bolivia is a poor country dependent largely on the production and export of raw materials such as tin and gas. In this stratified society largely made up of indigenous or mestizo peasants and workers, white elites have monopolized economic and political power. Before 1952, 72 percent of the population, mainly indigenous peasants, worked on 3 percent of the land. Furthermore, the nation’s political history has been among the most unstable in South America in terms of frequent political coups and regime changes. Bolivian revolution of 1952 National Revolutionary Movement, Bolivian Revolutions and coups;Bolivia [kw]Revolution Grips Bolivia (Apr., 1952) [kw]Bolivia, Revolution Grips (Apr., 1952) Bolivian revolution of 1952 National Revolutionary Movement, Bolivian Revolutions and coups;Bolivia [g]Latin America;Apr., 1952: Revolution Grips Bolivia[03780] [g]Bolivia;Apr., 1952: Revolution Grips Bolivia[03780] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr., 1952: Revolution Grips Bolivia[03780] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr., 1952: Revolution Grips Bolivia[03780] Paz Estenssoro, Víctor Siles Zuazo, Hernán Lechín Oquendo, Juan

In the period between 1930 and 1950, two factors gave rise to a movement for radical reform: Bolivia’s poor showing in the Chaco War (1932-1935), which was a struggle over oil rich borderlands with Paraguay; and the desire to overcome backwardness and underdevelopment associated with the rule of traditional elites, a problem further underscored by economic depression. As a result, reform-minded army officers seized power and ruled the nation from 1936 to 1939.

These reformers implemented changes that championed organized labor over the mine-owning elite (the rosca), gave legal recognition to indigenous communities, promulgated a new progressive constitution, and nationalized Standard Oil holdings. Although the regime was short-lived and conservative forces succeeded in blocking major changes, the result was to raise expectations among progressive middle-class groups and contribute to the growth of the political left when these aspirations were frustrated.

During the 1940’s a new political party known as Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), or National Revolutionary Movement, emerged as the leading opposition group to conservative rule. The MNR was a typical Latin American populist movement, an effort by progressive nationalistic middle-class elements to cultivate more radical peasants and workers to forge a powerful political alliance crossing class barriers.

An attempted MNR coup in 1949 failed. In May, 1951, a legal effort to win power appeared successful as the party gained a plurality in national elections. A military junta under General Hugo Ballivián Rojas Ballivián Rojas, Hugo then seized power, invalidated the election, and attempted to squelch unrest. However, a progressively deteriorating economic situation undermined these efforts and severely weakened the military regime. On April 9, the MNR launched a revolution backed by armed mine workers who marched on the capital, La Paz, and blocked military reinforcements. After three days of bloody fighting, the junta collapsed and Víctor Paz Estenssoro, the MNR’s presidential candidate in 1951, assumed office on April 16.

The first phase of the national revolution witnessed a period of sweeping radical change in which the more leftist sectors of the populist coalition exercised strong influence. Juan Lechín Oquendo, a tin-miners’ union leader with Marxist ties, became the executive secretary of the newly created Bolivian Labor Confederation Bolivian Labor Confederation (COB) and received the post of minister of mines and petroleum. The MNR government also created a ministry of peasant affairs and organized peasant unions. In an effort to secure new revolutionary gains, the regime sought to eliminate the political influence of the Bolivian military. Measures included purging hostile officers from the ranks and requiring loyalty oaths. As a counterbalance to the military’s power, the government also encouraged and armed worker and peasant militias. Furthermore, the government’s implementation of universal suffrage without property and education restrictions enfranchised the poor indigenous peoples and led to a fivefold increase in voters in the next national election.

Important radical structural changes included nationalization of properties of the largest tin-mining companies and an agrarian reform that confiscated with compensation some properties of land owners and redistributed the land to landless peasants. The Corporacion Minera de Bolivia (Bolivian Mining Corporation Bolivian Mining Corporation ) was formed to operate the tin industry, and the COB exercised a strong influence in this body. Miners’ salaries and benefits were also substantially increased.

After this initial phase, the revolutionary momentum slowed because of several factors that put a strain on the diverse populist coalition, leading to factional discord. The revolutionary shakeup was accompanied by economic problems. Anarchic conditions in the countryside, low technology in agriculture, inadequate transportation facilities, and the inability of most peasants to produce for the market led to a decline in production and required food imports. Mining also suffered from a need to modernize production and from declining world-market prices for tin. Severe inflation was next. As a result, the more moderate middle-class wing of the MNR began to assert itself in favoring economic stabilization policies and reduction of the power of the radical working-class and peasant sectors of the coalition. This trend reached its height during the presidency of Hernán Siles Zuazo, who had served as Paz’s vice president and represented the more conservative MNR faction.

Under the Siles administration, Bolivia accepted a large amount of U.S. foreign aid, which eventually amounted to nearly one-third of the national budget. Technical assistance included U.S. advisers, who further prodded the regime toward a new course. A very important consequence of U.S. involvement was the decision to reconstruct and “professionalize” the Bolivian armed forces for the role of containing increasing unrest. In 1960, Paz was again elected president following a constitutional change allowing another term. As a concession to the left, Lechín became vice president. Although Paz had occupied a middle position between the MNR’s leftist and moderate wings, he now continued the retreat from radical change.

In 1964, Lechín openly broke with Paz when he was not selected as the party’s presidential candidate and formed a new left-wing party. In this same year, Paz ran for reelection and chose an army leader, General René Ortuño Barrientos Barrientos Ortuño, René , as his vice president in hopes of securing military support. However, the military, dissatisfied with the state of affairs and sensing the regime’s vulnerability, overthrew Paz. Barrientos, a charismatic leader who spoke the indigenous Quechua language and was popular with the peasants, assumed control. Military leaders dominated the national political scene for the next eighteen years.


Along with the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Bolivia’s National Revolution of 1952 is one of the rare examples of a true Latin American social uprising. The MNR government restructured the old society and its institutions, redistributed wealth, and transferred greater political and economic power to the indigenous and mestizo masses. Income and property were more evenly distributed, the society became less stratified, and the poor were better off. However, factional strains between divergent social groups, a problem inherent in many populist movements, as well as policy errors and corruption, contributed to the MNR’s downfall.

Bolivia’s experience since this time also indicates that the long-term results of the revolution have been mixed. A number of the important structural changes, such as the land reform, have been left intact by succeeding regimes. However, the MNR’s revolutionary experiment failed to build a viable political democracy and ensure orderly civilian government. Since 1964, the nation has continued to lurch between left- and right-wing approaches to development and social justice under both military and civilian rulers.

Finally, although progress was made toward greater equality and social justice, some studies show that the revolution also eventually contributed to the rise of new privileged groups. This rise partially nullified the effort to eliminate inherited privilege. Bolivian revolution of 1952 National Revolutionary Movement, Bolivian Revolutions and coups;Bolivia

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunkerley, James. Rebellion in the Veins: Political Struggle in Bolivia, 1952-82. London: Verso, 1984. A thorough and detailed political history of Bolivia’s National Revolution and its aftermath from a Trotskyist perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kelly, Jonathan, and Herbert S. Klein. Revolution and the Rebirth of Inequality: A Theory Applied to the National Revolution in Bolivia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. A study of the social consequences of Bolivia’s 1952 revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klein, Herbert S. A Concise History of Bolivia. Rev. ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Comprehensive political, economic, and social survey that provides an overview of the National Revolution of 1952 and highlights the revolution’s effects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Malloy, James M. Bolivia: The Uncompleted Revolution. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970. Analyzes Bolivia’s national revolution as a comparative case study in the general problem area of revolutions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitchell, Christopher. The Legacy of Populism in Bolivia: From the MNR to Military Rule. New York: Praeger, 1977. A history of the populist rule of the MNR that takes a largely critical view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morales, Waltraud Queiser. Bolivia: Land of Struggle. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992. A historical survey focusing on the background to and the events of the revolution of 1952 as well as its legacy and impact on contemporary Bolivia.

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Categories: History