Victor Paz Estenssoro

views updated May 21 2018

Victor Paz Estenssoro

Victor Paz Estenssoro (born 1907) was a reformer, political thinker, and president of Bolivia. He instituted a series of widespread reforms that revolutionized Bolivian society.

Victor Paz was born to a middle-class family of mixed Spanish and Indian blood in the small and isolated northeast town of Tarija in 1907. He received his education at the University Mayor de San Andrés in La Paz and later studied economics in Germany. Paz worked in the government as a senior finance official from 1932 to 1933. During the Chaco War with Paraguay (1932-1935), he fought in the infantry, rose to the rank of captain, and was decorated for heroism.

After the war Paz filled a succession of government posts that brought him increasingly into the world of Bolivian politics. He became the deputy for his home in Tarija from 1938 to 1939. He taught economic history at La Paz University from 1939 to 1941. In 1940 he was promoted to the post of national deputy for Tarija, a post he would hold until 1943.

As part of the general intellectual and social unrest sweeping the country after the Chaco War, Paz helped to found the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), a radical political party, in 1942.

The MNR reflected a need to change Bolivian society and institute reform on all levels. Its most active segments, liberal intellectuals and restive army officers, began plotting immediately. Some of their pronouncements began to sound similar to the fascist doctrines then current in the political world.

In 1943 Paz and the MNR aided an army coup which ousted president Enrique Peñaranda. The new president, Major Gualberto Villaroel, drew heavily upon the leadership of the MNR for his cabinet, appointing Paz minister of finance. The United States, likening the MNR to fascism, refused to recognize the new government. Soon the MNR leaders had been weeded out of the government by Villaroel, who wanted to disassociate himself from them. In 1946 Paz gave up his post at the ministry of finance and fled to Buenos Aires.

In Exile

In his Argentine exile, Paz studied the techniques and rhetoric of dictator, Juan Perón, a man who relied heavily upon the intense nationalism of the common people to keep himself in power. He was in Argentina when Villaroel's regime was brought down in a violent revolution. The President was shot and then hung from a lamp post in front of the presidential palace.

From Buenos Aires, with the protection of Perón, Paz began planning a comeback. With other MNR leaders in Bolivia and Argentina, he planned the abortive 1949 coup. Despite its failure, Paz and the MNR gained increased popularity among Bolivians who were becoming disillusioned with their traditional political leaders.

In 1951 the rightist regime in power, feeling falsely secure, issued a call for open elections. Despite government pressure and a very restricted franchise, which prohibited the illiterate majority from voting, the government candidate placed a poor second to Paz. Since he had not won a clear majority, however, the government threw the election into the very conservative Congress for a predictable anti-Paz decision. But before the Congress could vote, the military intervened, taking over the nation and banning the MNR as a subversive party.

Rebellion and Reform

The people of Bolivia reacted swiftly; the miners rose against the government in the mountains, and in La Paz the urban proletariat erupted in bloody street fighting. When the smoke cleared, it was apparent that, for the first time in history, the Bolivian people had become involved.

Paz returned from exile in May 1952 and was duly installed as president. Hernán Siles Zuazo became his vice president, and Juan Lechín, radical chief of the armed miners, was appointed secretary of labor. The MNR government lived up to its promises of reform at once. The great tin mines were nationalized, the army was weakened and counter-balanced by a workers' militia, and a sweeping land reform program was promulgated. Great landed estates were divided among the landless peasantry. The Quechua and Aymara Indians were returned their original lands and these all but forgotten people were integrated into Bolivia's political and economic systems. With the economic support of the United States, which saw in Paz and the MNR as a viable alternative to communism, a development plan was launched in 1954. The government was able to resist and repress a conservative reaction.

By the time Paz left the presidency in 1956, to become ambassador to England, Bolivia had been transformed. The election itself, which gave power to Siles Zuazo, saw all Bolivians over the age of 21 eligible to vote for the first time in history. Paz was back in Bolivia for the 1960 elections, which he easily won. In 1961 he announced an ambitious ten-year plan for Bolivia. Predicated on large amounts of US aid, the plan aimed at developing the forgotten eastern region of Bolivia—the Beni and Santa Cruz lowlands. The same year a new constitution was passed which allowed Paz to be continually reelected (unusual in Latin America).

It soon became clear that Paz was championing himself more than the MNR as a movement, and the party began to become seriously fragmented. By 1963 he had chosen the moderate General Rène Barrientos Ortuño of the air force, as his running mate for the coming elections. 1964 saw rising opposition among conservatives to Paz's continuing rule within the MNR and to the MNR itself. Unrest was becoming endemic by the time Paz and Barrientos won the October elections. On November 4 Vice-President Barrientos, acting "to save the nation," launched a coup which threw Paz out of power. In the name of order, Barrientos and the military ruled until his election in 1966. Paz, the self-proclaimed "indispensable man," settled into exile first in England as a professor of economics at London University, and then in Lima, Peru as a lecturer in economics at the National English University.

Returning from exile, he was again elected president in 1985, and was successful in implementing more economic reforms. These "shock therapy" programs reversed a hyperinflationary process that had seen Bolivia's annual rate of inflation rise to 24,000 percent. Paz's reforms reduced this to a respectable ten to twenty percent and made the Bolivian economy one of the most respected in South America. Paz's economic reforms were used as a blueprint for many countries in Eastern European. During his second period in office Paz assisted the US in its drug enforcement efforts. He attempted to solve the ever-persistent problems of high infant mortality and illiteracy.

Paz left office at the conclusion of his term in 1989 and was replaced by Jaime Paz Zamora in Bolivia's third successive democratic presidential election. Zamora was elected by the Bolivian Congress after the MNR candidate, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lazado failed to win a majority. This peaceful transition of power was a testament to Paz's legacy as a dominant figure in Bolivian politics and history.

Further Reading

Perhaps the best work on Paz and his political life is Robert J. Alexander, The Bolivian National Revolution (1958). Also informative is Alberto Ostria Gutierrez, The Tragedy of Bolivia: A People Crucified (1958). For a more detailed discussion of the 1966 Bolivian coup, consult William Handforth Brill Military Intervention in Bolivia: The Overthrow of Paz Estenssoro and the MNR (1967). For a more general treatment see Harold Osborne, Bolivia: A Land Divided (1954; 3d ed. 1964). There is a brief biography of Paz located at the A&E Entertainment Networks Website at There is also some more general history on Paz and the Bolivian nation and government maintained at Roberto Ortiz de Zarate's Political Datasets at and a site maintained by Bolivian CAFé at □