Rumblings in Bolivian military may shake nation's civilian government

History has not been kind to the Bolivian military. Suffering humiliating battlefield defeats at the hands of foreign and domestic opponents, it has repeatedly lost prestige at home.

Now it faces another contest that may tarnish its image even more.

The issue centers on presidential elections scheduled for June 29, which the military opposes but which a strong-willed interim president, Lidia Gueiler Tejada, is determined to hold.

Having publicly told her to cancel the balloting on the grounds that civilians are not ready to govern, the military now has to put up or shut up.

Either way, it stands to lose.

If it forces cancellation, perhaps outsting Mrs. Gueiler in the process, the military will lose additional stature at home and abroad. But having made such a fuss over the issue in the past few weeks, and been stood up to by a detemined woman, the Army has been humiliated.

It may just decide, as one Bolivian colonel said late last week, "What the heck, we might as well do our duty and let the chips fall where they may."

At this writing, it is unclear which way the military will go. Such uncertainty is not new to the landlocked South American nation that has enjoyed precious little political stability or economic progress in 155 years of independence.

At the moment, the Army -- and particularly the traditionally unruly Second Army Corps based in the eastern city of Santa Cruz -- is restless.

The rest of the military tentatively holds back from joining the Second Army in what it calls a situation "tantamount to being in revolt" against what it terms "a pipsqueak president."

The Army's uncertainty responds, at least in part, to Mrs. Gueiler's toughness. She is clearly determined not only to hold the elections on schedule , but also to tell the military to go back to the barracks and stay there if it wants to recover some of is prestige.

Backing her is the force of civilian opinion, which at no time in recent memory has been so opposed to the military. The top officers in La Paz, the capital, are wary of doing anything to arouse more civilian opposition.

The military, for its part, charges that political violence is on the rise throughout the country and that there are too many political parties and candidates for the presidency. With 71 registered parties, there are 15 presidential candidates, including five former presidents. "All we have is a repeat of 'has beens,'" a Second Army Corps commander charged last week. "We want new faces and none of the retreads."

Such charges point up an important aspect of Latin American political history , namely that "caudillismo" -- the concept of perennial chieftains, whose age is often an asset -- is very strong in Bolivia.

The top three candidates are all former presidents -- Mr. Paz Estenssoro, Hernan Siles Zuazo, and Hugo Banzer Suarez.

Although the Second Army Corps has long declared itself in favor of Mr. Banzer Suarez, a former general, (and the Army command would prefer him), he is likely to be no more than an also-ran.

Moreover, since the election will be thrown into the Congress if no candidate polls a majority -- which is practically a certainty -- the legislators will also almost certainly pick between Mr. Paz Estenssoro and Mr. Siles Zuazo.

But both are anathema to the military. The thought of Mr. Paz Estensoro coming back to power 16 years after they ousted him would be further humiliation. But Mr. Siles Zuazo, somewhat to the left of the centrist Mr. Paz Estenssoro, would be no better in their eyes.

"They are all a bunch of 'payasos,' [clowns]," crowed the commander of the Second Army Corps. With such attitudes among the military, the prosects for the election, much less civilian rule in the years ahead, are none too good. The same commander called on his more timid comrades in La Paz "to stand up like men and not be swayed by sentiment."

What is not clear, however, is just which way the Army high command in La Paz will go. But the Second Army Corps in Santa Cruz has made its position clear -- and coups often start in Santa Cruz.

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