EARLY last April the thin air of La Paz, 12,000 feet above sea level, crackled with gunfnre, and the latest Bolivian revolution got under way. After a few days the government forces admitted defeat. Between 1,000 and 3,000 persons had been killed in the bloodiest clash in recent Bolivian history. Soon Victor Paz Estenssoro, leader of the National Revolutionary Movement (M. N. R.), returned from six years of exile and assumed the Presidency.
Almost his first official act was the announcement that he would appoint a commission to prepare for nationalization of the tin mines owned by the Patiño, Hochschild, and Aramayo groups, the “Big Three.” Attention was thus focused at once on the question of tin, which is in fact the key to recent developments in Bolivia.
When the modern state of Bolivia was created by the men who liberated the region from Spanish rule, an ethnic and economic unity which had existed for centuries was broken up. This initiated a long decline, with the result that the area which had led the continent in civilization, population, and wealth became one of the most backward. The decline was sharply accelerated when the weakened country was deprived of its seacoast by Chile. Today 85 per cent of the population of 3,500,000 is engaged in subsistence farming, follows the old customs, and speaks only the ancient tongues, Aymara and Quechua. Most of the rest of the people live, directly or indirectly, from the export of tin ores. The subsistence agriculture does not suffice to feed the cities, which must import necessities with the proceeds from the sale of tin.
The educated Bolivian, aware of his country’s former greatness and present backwardness, has developed a proud and hostile nationalism. The disastrous Chaco war against Paraguay in the thirties intensified this feeling and made possible the brief but spectacular career of President Germán Busch. Busch’s militant nationalism antagonized the outside world but made him a hero in Bolivia.
The M. N. R. clearly derives its strength from the nationalistic tradition. It aspires to be the party of the Indian and the voice of the submerged 85 per cent, whom it proposes to educate away from their centuries-long habit of scratching the soil for a bare livelihood and set to work to tap the virtually untouched natural resources of the country. In order to get the funds for this program and to free the people from the political domination of the tin interests, it intends to nationalize the tin mines. It is suspicious of anything that smacks of foreign interference but will welcome the aid of foreign capital and know-how.
Observers outside Bolivia have fallen into the error of assuming that the M. N. R. is unique in its nationalism, its social planning, and its hostility to the tin interests. Actually these attitudes are claimed by all the parties, being essential to political success in Bolivia today. The M. N. R., not unnaturally, has welcomed and perpetuated the delusion that the opposition has other aims; the opposition has done nothing to correct the error abroad but has stubbornly attacked it at home.
The M. N. R. carries on a continuous campaign against the “Rosca”–that is, the coalition of “vested interests”–which supposedly consists of the hirelings of the tin interests and the feudal landholders. Probably the Rosca, or a reasonable facsimile of it, once existed, but events of recent years show that it is either dead or impotent. Moreover, a box score of laws directed against the tin interests would show that such legislation is passed whether the M. N. R. is in power or not. The most that can be said for the M. N. R. is that it is the only party with an unequivocal program and the only one which has succeeded in becoming identified with that program.