WE usually dedicate this section of the journal to the memories of anti-capitalist militants. It might seem quite strange that we are going to talk about two Bolivian Presidents. However, Hernán Siles Suazo and Walter Guevara Arze had some connections with the Trotskyists when they were young. They were not the only ones. For instance, Lidia Gueiler, Bolivia’s first and only female President, in 1979, was the wife of Edwin Moller, the main ‘anti-Pabloite’, one of the leaders of the pro-International Committee Revolutionary Workers Party (POR) who in 1954 carried out entry work in the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR). Whilst most of the obituaries of Siles and Guevara dealt with their bourgeois political careers, we will concentrate upon the retrograde trajectory of these former revolutionaries.
Both Guevara and Siles were born and died at much the same time. The former was born on 11 March 1912, and the latter 13 months and six day later. Both died in mid-1996. Siles departed from this world on Bolivia’s national day on 6 August, 17 days after Guevara’s death. Both were lawyers, and together with Víctor Paz Estenssoro and Juan Lechín Oquendo were the four historic leaders of the MNR and the 1952-64 ‘National Revolution’. The young Siles and Guevara were radicalised in the aftermath of the Bolivian-Paraguayan Chaco War of 1932-35. They claimed to be Socialists, and started to work with José Aguirre Gainsborg and Gustavo Navarro (Tritán Marof), who were the main leaders who founded the POR in December 1934.
Bolivia is the only country in the Americas in which a Trotskyist party was founded before the Stalinist one. Marof was a very popular left-wing author, and his main slogan ‘Land to the Indians and mines to the state’ became the labour movement’s central demand.
When Aguirre arrived in Bolivia from exile, he worked with Siles and other middle-class intellectuals in establishing a mass front called Beta Gama (the Greek acronym of ‘Great Bolivia’). Aguirre was in favour of building a radical nationalist movement, and he called for nationalists to build the Socialist Party. In May 1936, when a powerful nine-day general strike overthrew the government, Waldo Alvarez, the main union leader, and Aguirre decided to enter Colonel Toro’s new ‘Socialist’ military junta. Alvarez became the first Minister of Labour, and Aguirre was his deputy secretary. Both created a movement called the Left Socialist Bloc. Alvarez was the first leader of the new Bolivian Workers Union Confederation (CSTB). This is an episode which has been hidden from the POR’s official historiography because Aguirre is always portrayed as the orthodox Trotskyist who founded the POR around clear principles. The reality is that many Latin American Trotskyists in the 1930s, like in Chile, Bolivia or Cuba (as Gary Tennant is showing), had the idea that nationalism could be influenced from within, or through close collaboration with it. Their anti-Stalinism was more linked with the defence of the Comintern’ Second Period against the ultra-left Third Period turn.
When Marof returned to Bolivia, he approached the new military ‘Socialist’ President, Germán Busch, and decided to establish a new vague Socialist party around his figure. The Bolivian Socialist Workers Party was set up. Its acronyms reflected the influence of Marceau Pivert’s PSOP. Guevara joined the PSOB, which was until the early 1940s the CSTB’s main political force. Beta Gama and the PSOB collapsed. Siles and most of Beta Gama’s members fused with Paz and other nationalists in the foundation of the MNR in 1941. It first programme was almost an Indian-Mestizo version of Hitler’s National Socialists (which, at that time, were at their wartime high point). Siles evolved from radical Marxist influences towards pro-Nazism. Marof didn’t understand that the MNR’s main enemy was the dominant imperialism — the USA — and the Tin Barons. He decided that the ‘Nazi’ MNR was the greater evil, and in 1946 entered the right-wing oligarchy that persecuted the MNR and the unions. Arze entered the MNR.
In Pulacayo in 1946, the Bolivian miners adopted a particular version of the Transitional Programme. The few Trotskyists who didn’t want to follow the capitulation to the Too and Busch dictatorships ended collaborating with Lechín, the MNR’s trade union leader.
In 1952, when for the first and only time in the Americas workers’ militias destroyed the bourgeois army, the POR was still believing that the nationalists could be transformed into a revolutionary force. The post-Trotsky Fourth International unconditionally endorsed the MNR and its ‘left wing’. In the end, the MNR won most of the POR’s membership and base. In 1959, Guevara organised the first big split in the MNR, the ‘Auténticos’. It managed to establish some support in the trade unions. In 1979, Guevara was nominated as President by the parliament, but he was in power for less than three months, because he was overthrown in one of the most reactionary coups, Natusch’s takeover.
In the 1980s, when we started to build Trotskyists cells in some of the pits, the Morococala miners told us many stories about how when they were Guevarists some of them died in clashes with the workers of the neighbouring mine who supported the government. For them Guevarism was associated with Walter Guevara, whilst many in the West still believe that Ché Guevara, who was never in a Bolivian mine, was a very popular figure there.
Siles was the main leader of the April 1952 putsch which was overthrown by the masses. In 1952-56, he was Paz’s Vice-President, and in 1956-60 he was the President who launched the attack upon the unions. In the early 1970s, he organised the MNR’s third large split, creating the MNR Left. In 1979 and 1980, he won the Presidential elections, and headed a Popular Front. Only in 1982-85 was he allowed to rule the country. In March 1985, the miners occupied La Paz for two weeks. After their inability to build an alternative, the petit-bourgeois majority backed the right-wing stabilisation.
Siles and Guevara represent the classic nationalist backward evolution from initial radicalism towards complete submission to imperialism. They could not be educated by the Bolivian Trotskyists, because the Bolivian Fourth Internationalists never broke with nationalism.