1978-1982 - The End of Military Rule
The succession of elections and coups that followed the military's withdrawal from politics in 1978 revealed the deterioration of Bolivian institutional life. In the absence of military leadership for the process of transition, parties, factions, and other groups searched for a formula to carry them to the presidency. Nearly seventy political parties registered for the general elections in 1978, including at least thirty MNR factions.
Between 1978 and 1980, Bolivia was constantly in a state of crisis. The fragmentation of political forces made it impossible for any party to dominate. In the three elections held during this period, no party achieved a majority, and alliances of various groups could not break the deadlock. Social unrest increased as peasants began to agitate again on a large scale for the first time since their rebellion in the late colonial period. The Bolivian workers were more radical than ever, and in 1979, during the COB's first congress since 1970, they vehemently protested the economic austerity measures dictated by the IMF.
The division in the armed forces and the increasing visibility of paramilitary groups reflected the institutional decay of the military. A civilian investigation into human rights violations committed during the Banzer regime further demoralized the officer corps.
General Pereda did not call for elections, despite his promise to do so, and he was overthrown in a bloodless coup in November 1978 by General David Padilla Arancibia (1978-79), who was supported by the younger institutionalist faction of the military. He saw the main role of the military as the defense of the country rather than political intervention and announced elections for 1979 without naming an official government candidate. Electoral reforms simplified voter registration, and 90 percent of the electorate chose among eight presidential candidates in honest elections.
When none of the main candidates gained a majority, Congress appointed former MNRA head Guevara Arze as interim president on August 8, 1979. This first civilian regime since the brief term of Siles Salinas in 1969 was overthrown, however, by a bloody coup under Colonel Alberto Natusch Busch in November. When Natusch stepped down after two weeks because of intense civilian opposition and only limited military support, as well as United States diplomatic action to prevent recognition of the Natusch government, another interim president was appointed. Lidia Gueiler Tejada (1979-80), head of the Chamber of Deputies and a veteran MNR politician, became the first woman president of Bolivia.
In 1980 Gueiler presided over elections in which the parties of the left gained a clear majority of the vote. Siles Zuazo and his Democratic and Popular Unity (Unidad Democratica y Popular—UDP) coalition alone got 38 percent of the votes; Congress was certain to name him president on August 6, 1980.
The process was disrupted on July 17, 1980, however, by the ruthless military coup of General Luis Garcia Meza Tejada. Reportedly financed by cocaine traffickers and supported by European mercenaries recruited by Klaus Barbie, former Gestapo chief in Lyons, the coup began one of the darkest periods in Bolivian history.
Arbitrary arrest by paramilitary units, torture, and disappearances — with the assistance of Argentine advisers — destroyed the opposition. Government involvement in cocaine trafficking resulted in international isolation for Bolivia. Cocaine exports reportedly totaled US$850 million in the 1980-81 period of the Garcia Meza regime, twice the value of official government exports. The "coca dollars" were used to buy the silence or active support of military officers. But Garcia Meza, who failed to gain support in the military, faced repeated coup attempts and was pressured to resign on August 4, 1981.
The ruthlessness, extreme corruption, and international isolation of the Garcia Meza government completely demoralized and discredited the military; many officers wanted to return to democracy. However, President General Celso Torrelio Villa (1981-82), who had emerged as a compromise candidate of the military after Garcia Meza's resignation, was reluctant to call for elections. In July 1982, after yet another attempt by the Garcia Meza clique to return to power, he was replaced by General Guido Vildoso Calderon (1982), who was named by the high command to return the country to democratic rule. On September 17, 1982, during a general strike that brought the country close to civil war, the military decided to step down, to convene the 1980 Congress, and to accept its choice as president.
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