Bolivia coup perils S. American trent toward civilian rule

The military coup d'etat in Bolivia slows -- and could derail -- the return to civilian, constitutional governments now under way in South America. It is perhaps too early to fully assess the spinoff effects of the coup on Bolivia's neighbors, but it seems certain that last weekend's events in the mountainous, landlocked country will have far-reaching consequences. At least, similar events in the past have done so.

With a military government led by Gen. Luis Garcia Meza promising to retain power "for the foreseeable future," Bolivia is clearly off track as far as civilian government is concerned.

Neighboring Peru and Ecuador had already chosen civilian leaders, and Bolivia was to have been next. Once Bolivia inaugurated its civilian leader, the loose and unofficial scenario called for a movement toward greater civilian influence in both Argentina and Uruguay -- and perhaps Chile, as well. But by grabbing power, Bolivia's military has shattered the scenario.

There was never an official understanding on this series of events, but it seemed logical to observers. After all, there was a strong mood in all these countries to get the military out of politics and back into the barracks. In the three Andean lands -- Boliva, Ecuador, and Peru -- the military had by its own admission failed to solve the problems of government and its image was tarnished further by continuing its hold on power.

Bolivia's military had lost some of its luster before its latest seizure of power, but the generals appear less, concerned with their image than with the prerogatives of power. They worried that recent presidential elections, which gave leftist Hernan Siles Zuazo a commanding lead although not an absolute majority, could lead to new inroads on that power.

That this was the reason behind the coup July 17 seems borne out in General Garcia Meza's words two days later: "We intend to remain in power to preserve the integrity of the armed forces."

History has not been kind to the Bolivian military. It has never won a war. It has been defeated repeatedly on both domestic and foreign battlefields, and it does not enjoy much respect among the Bolivian population.

Although these points have sometimes been cited to argue that the military should, indeed, go back to the barracks to lick its wounds and recover, if possible, some of its lost prestige, General Garcia Meza and his associates apparently reason differently.

Now that they are in power, there are two major issues to watch:

* What happens to the leading civilian figures in Bolivia, such as ousted President Lidia Gueiler Tejada, election victor Siles Zuazo, and former President Victor Paz Estenssoro, Mrs. Gueiler has taken refuge in the Papal Nuncio's residence, while Mr. Siles Zuazo is in hiding. Will they all go into exile or will they stay to form a nucleus of resistance to military rule? How will the military deal with the political parties of the country that fielded 14 candidates in the presidential vote?

*Perhaps most important, what will the military do about the nation's backward economy? What will it do for the two-thirds of the population, mainly descendants of the original Aymara and Quechua Indian inhabitants of the land, who live outside the economy?

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