Bolivia military puts familiar brand ('reject') on civilian rule

Bolivia's military, having never won a war, prefers politics to the barracks -- and again this weekend showed its penchant for seizing power and toppling civilian governments.

In setting up Bolivia's 197th government in 154 years of independencE, the military July 17 pushed aside the interim government of Lidia Gueiler Tejada that had come to power only last Nov. 16 in an effort to lead the country to civilian rule.

The military said it acted to prevent communists from coming to power, an allusion to the victory of leftist Hernan Siles Zuazo in recent presidential balloting.

"We cannot permit the people of this country to vote for a man whom we disapprove of," the military high command said, adding in telling fashion: "Until the people learn what is correct and begin making the correct choices, we will have to shepard them, for we, among Bolivians, know what is correct."

The tragedy in all this is that the Bolivian military has never learned to respect traditional democratic practices while at the same time suffering defeat after defeat on the battlefield. First at the hands of the Chileans in the War of the Pacific in the 1870s, then the Paraguayans in the Chaco War of the 1930s, and finally Bolivia's own miners in the 1950s, the Bolivian military has been repeatedly and soundly defeated and humiliated.

The only place it has managed to win any battles and, in its own eyes, recoup its image has been on the domestic political battlefield. But even here, the military has suffered defeats; last November, public opinion forced an Army colonel to step down after only 16 days in office.

The military's seizure of power this past weekend did not come as a surprise. In fact, elements of the Bolivian Army repeatedly have threatened to topple the Gueiler government.

Prior to the June 29 presidential balloting, for example, the Second Army Corps in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, where coups often begin, declared itself in revolt and sought to have the elections postponed. Then the Army commander in chief, Gen. Luis Garcia Meza, demanded that Mrs. Gueiler delay the voting. She refused and the elections were held. It looked for a time that a strong-willed Mrs. Gueiler might have called the Army's bluff.

But as the vote count proceeded through July and it became evident that Mr. Siles Zuazo would amass the single largest percentage of the vote, the military began to caucus. "Never will Siles Zuazo become president!" proclaimed an Army communique from Santa Cruz. "When the people vote the way we do not approve, we must prevent their errors from becoming a reality."

That seemed a clear tipoff that there was no chance that Mr. Siles Zuazo would become president even if Congress, which had to vote on the matter since no candidate got an absolute majority, gave the nod to Mr. Siles Zuazo. The weekend coup confirms that view.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.