60 years since the 1952 Bolivian revolution

By La Protesta (Bolivia)

When the miners and peasants took power in their hands

For many people in Bolivia the anniversary of the revolution is a “celebration” of the MNR [Revolutionary Nationalist Movement]. However, the MNR and its leader Paz Estenssoro betrayed the great workers and peasants’ revolution of 1952. Mining workers and workers militias defeated the army of the tin oligarchy interests [known as La Rosca], took control of La Paz and began the revolution whose lessons are still present to this day.

Believe or not, the 60th anniversary of one of the most important events in Bolivian history—a fact widely recognized by supporters and detractors— is completely surpressed. Meanwhile, what little remains of the MNR do celebrate it while distorting its history and taking credit for the major changes that took place in 1952. At the same time, elderly miners, survivors of that feat, celebrate it in the privacy of their homes.

We believe that this conspiracy of silence is not an absolute coincidence. But rather, it reflects the need to erase the historical memory of one the greatest exploits of revolutionary workers and peasants in Latin America during the twentieth century. Thus, our organization La Protesta commemorates this great event since we need its political lessons for the present.

Bolivia in 1952

In 1952, Bolivia’s population stood at 3,100,000 inhabitants of which 23% comprised the urban population. Nearly 90% were illiterate; , and without the right to vote. The land was in the hands of a small oligarchy and the Indians were reduced to the “pongaje” system. [1]

Even with a backward and archaic economic structure, one of the main sites of tin production in the world was underway. The Bolivian mining industry was concentrated in three large transnational companies: the Simon Patiño, Guillermo Aramayo and Mauricio Hoschild which were associated with both American and English companies.

The Theses of Pulacayo [2]

In June 1946 a military coup overthrew and killed Villarroel, a nationalist military president. The La Rosca party (which represented mining interest) launched the coup with the support of Stalinism (called PIR at the time). Under the Yalta pact, signed at the end of the war, Stalin had agreed to extend the global partnership with both U.S. and British imperialism which developed during the war against Hitler in Europe, Thus, the Stalinist PIR characterized Villarroel’s government as “Nazi-fascist” and La Rosca party as part of the “democratic front”.

The betrayal of the Stalinist PIR by lending support to the coup by La Rosca and the subsequent government of the coup makers in which they had ministers made them lose all influence over the miners who were the more organized workers. Before the strike, the miners who had already organized their unions, held a Congress of the Miners’ Federation in November 1946 and voted the “Theses of Pulacayo” which declared their political independence, their opposition to La Roca government while approving a transitional program to fight for socialism and a workers’ government. Shortly thereafter, they obtained miners deputies during the elections. These deputy miners, among them Juan Lechin and Guillermo Lora, used their position to denounce La Roca and ended up throwing them out of Congress.

In 1951, although only 10% of those who voted knew how to read, the MNR led by Victor Paz Estenssoro won the elections. At that time, the MNR had imperialist leanings expressed by the petty bourgeois. That is why regime of the mining magnates presided by La Roca and backed by the army refused to hand over power.

The popular uprising defeated the military

The military dictatorship remained in power for a brief period of time. Meanwhile, the MNR was trying to negotiate with the military while Paz Estenssoro was in exile in Buenos Aires. Siles Suazo [3] conspired from the city of La Paz. From his part, Juan Lechin, the miners’ leader belonging to the same party as Siles, called the workers to rise up against the dictatorship. Thus, within hours, the accumulated hatred exploded and everything began to change.

In April 1952, a popular uprising led by the miners broke out. Armed with dynamite, the workers went down to La Paz. Subsequently, they stormed the central armory and then the air base; they got ammunition and resisted the bombardment of the city by the army. A section of the police bowed to the insurrection. In Oruro, miners took the military base and the local government. After three days, the army had crumbled before the might of the armed militias, workers and peasants who had been trained in the unions and they already controlled the city and the country.

The leadership of the Bolivian Worker’s Center (COB) handed over power to Paz Estenssoro 

At the time, the workers had the weapons while the unions had a strong territorial power as well as the control of the COB nationwide; workers were making decisions on the food distribution and transport. The Bolivian Workers Central trade union federation was founded as well. Its main leader was Juan Lechin who shared the leadership with the POR party which then responded to the positions of Ernest Mandel—that international current is now called the United Secretariat. All the conditions for the COB to formally take power existed—a power that in fact, the workers and peasant militias as well as the COB had. But the POR leadership of chose the opposite path: When Paz Estenssoro returned from exile on April 14, the POR leadership gave him the presidency.

Meanwhile, worker and peasant mobilizations continued and put pressure on the government. This way, workers achieved the nationalization of all mines. Furthermore, peasants rose up and seized the haciendas in the highlands and valleys, ending the pongaje system and taking back their lands through agrarian reform. They also achieved universal suffrage, including for the indigenous majority and women. But the MNR in power soon made a pact with the bourgeoisie and imperialism. The MNR incorporated Lechin and some leaders of the COB to the government However, the MNR did so in the service of maintaining private property and the bourgeois capitalist economic system. That is how the MNR gave back US imperialism the oil that had been nationalized since the thirties.

In the East of the country, the MNR divided the land between their friends and indigenous leaders. Although it took the government ten years to disarm the militias, the MNR did just that while restoring the repressive bourgeois army with the help of US advisors. In 1964, a military coup brought to power the presidency of General René Barrientos, closing one of the most important revolutionary chapters in the history of Bolivia and Latin America.

Workers and peasants could have taken power

The great lesson of 1952 is that workers, peasants, indigenous people with the COB and the unions leading the way, might have taken political power (if the COB decided to do so there was no force able to stop it) and make substantive change that was already defined in the mining thesis of Pulacayo: to build on past gains; to expropriate the capitalists and landlords; and start the construction of a socialist economy while calling Latin American workers to do the same. Three years earlier a triumphant revolution of the poor peasants in China had expropriated the capitalists and landlords.  At the same time, US imperialism was intervening in Korea to stop the Asian revolution. In a convulsed world at the time, the conquest of power by the COB and a socialist revolution in Bolivia would have been a strong push for a Latin American revolution, seven years before the Cuban revolution took place.

The act of making a pact with capitalist and transnational interests led to defeat. In fact, Juan Lechin along with the leaderships of both POR and the Communist Party were responsible for calling the working class and peasants to trust Paz Estenssoro instead of assuming power with the COB.

In 2003 history was repeated

In many occasions, similar political circumstances were repeated in Bolivia. In October 2003, when Goni [former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada] was overthrown in a popular revolt, leaders of FEJUVE [Federation of Neighborhood Councils-El Alto] in El Alto raised the need to seize power for the labor movement, indigenous people and peasants along with the COB, FEJUVE and other organizations. But they were alone in this position.

Back then, the conditions to take power existed due to the split within the army and people’s power in the streets. However, Evo Morales and the MAS party together with theimperialist bossesand the bourgeoisie were able to have a quorum in Congress to elect Carlos Mesa. Before that, deputies and senators had to ask the COB‘s enter the legislative buildings.

In 2005, a new popular uprising ended up with the fall of Carlos Mesa from power. The bourgeoisie had to call for new elections in which the MAS won with 54%. But the MAS did not win the power for the people: it made a deal with the capitalist class. The MAS seems to follow in the footsteps of the MNR by making pacts with business and US imperialism while it represses the people that brought it to power.

Our group La Protesta has been constituted as a revolutionary organization founded by the former leaders of FEJUVE to advocate that workers’, popular, peasant and indigenous organizations take political power and organize themselves from the bottom up in a  democratic manner to fight for a socialist Bolivia.


[1] A form of indentured servitude.
[2] Pucalayo is a mining town in Potosi, Bolivia.
[3] Siles Zuazo was of the founders of the MNR along with Estenssoro.


This article was originally published in Spanish in www.laclase.info. English translation by Socialist Core