The following article is an analysis of the political forces and strategies at work in Bolivia in the period prior to the overthrow of the nationalist General Torres by the rightist General Banzer in August of last year. A remarkable feature of the Torres period was the emergence of a Popular Assembly representing the workers and peasants. At one point this pretended it could develop into a Bolivian soviet—the springboard for a socialist revolution. General Torres won power in October of 1970 because he had enlisted the support of the workers in defeating an attempted rightist coup and this was one reason why it was possible for the Popular Assembly to be established. But beyond this immediate context its roots lay in the bitter class struggles that have marked the last decades of Bolivian history.

The disastrous Chaco war with Paraguay of 1932–5 weakened and discredited the Bolivian ruling class. In 1936 a General Strike combined with the disenchantment of young Army officers to produce a so-called ‘military socialist’ regime which nationalized the operations of the Standard Oil Company, favoured the growth of trade unions and proclaimed the abolition of the ponguaje, the semi-feudal tribute paid by the Indian peasants. In 1939 the Government of the radical Colonel Germán Busch attempted to control the tin companies who dominated the export sector of the Bolivian economy. Before he was able to implement these schemes Busch died in mysterious circumstances, and the regime of a conservative General was installed. In December of 1942 a strike led to troops firing on tin miners in Catavi. The newly-formed Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionaria (mnr) led a protest campaign against this massacre and established itself as a powerful force in Bolivian politics. Between 1943 and 1946 mnr participation in the government of Major Villarroel allowed them to consolidate their support among the trade unions and in particular among the tin miners. Juan Lechin, leader of the tin miners union, joined the mnr at this time.

After the overthrow of Villaroel in 1946 the mnr was the object of persecution by successive governments until April of 1952 when a popular uprising led to the creation of a new government dominated by the mnr. Whereas previous changes of regime had reflected struggles inside the Army this time the workers of La Paz and the mining districts fought the Amy and defeated it, supported only by some sections of the carabineros, the military police. By this time the mnr was under pressure from both Communists and Trotskyists who had won some of the most militant workers to their ranks. The new mnr government nationalized the major tin mines and established a limited form of self-management within them. The Confederacion de Obreros Bolivianos (cob) was given the right to nominate four ministerial posts. The defeat of the Army by the workers helped to spark off a revolt by peasants who drove away or killed some large landlords. The mnr government legalized the peasant seizures of land with the Agrarian Law of 1953. However the nationalization of the mines and the agrarian reform were not followed up by any general assault on capitalist social relations. When the Trotskyists and Communists objected to the limited form of nationalization, the mnr sought to attack their influence in the cob and the Army was re-organized as a check to the power of the miners’ militias. Externally the Government became increasingly dependent on us aid and internally came to rely more on the support of the Government sponsored peasant associations. However the miners continued to exercise a local power in their own areas and the miners leader, Lechin, sought to organize the left of the mnr.

By 1964 the popular base of the mnr had been greatly eroded and Lechin had split to form his own party, the Partido Revolucionario Izquierdista Nacional (prin). A military coup in this year ousted the mnr government without much difficulty. The ensuing regime of General Barrientos began to dismantle the elements of workers power which still existed in the mining districts. In 1967 military occupation of the mining areas led to clashes in which many miners were killed, and the Army defeated the guerrilla campaign in Nancahuazu led by Che Guevara. However these successes failed to consolidate the military regime. The periodic eruptions of the worker and peasant masses in Bolivian political life have imposed a difficult double role on the bourgeois state machine which has been required both to respond to popular revolt and to smother it. The confrontation with the miners and the experience of the guerrilla led by Che Guevara began to precipitate a crisis within the Government and Army itself. One sign of this was the resignation of Arguedas, the Minister of the Interior.

Under General Ovando the regime began to evolve in 1970 towards a Peruvian style military nationalism. At the same time leaders of the students unions embarked on a short-lived guerrilla campaign at Teoponte, a further example of the influence exerted by Che Guevara. Despite its lack of success the Teoponte guerrilla helped to accentuate further the crisis in the military regime and led to rival attempts at a coup by different army factions. General Juan José Torres, with the aid of the trade unions, only barely defeated a powerful attempt to seize power by the right-wing of the Army. During these events a Commando Politico including Juan Lechin, the cob and a combination of left parties helped Torres to defeat his opponents by mobilizing armed workers and students. The Commando Politico demanded half the seats in the Cabinet, but although Torres appeared ready to concede this he could not persuade the army to accept it. The Commando Politico then persuaded Torres to agree to the convocation of a Popular Assembly specifically designed to represent the workers and peasants. The Popular Assembly met for the first time in June 1971, taking over the Legislative Palace in La Paz. Meanwhile the unions, the peasant confederation and different groups of the left seized control of a number of radio stations and newspapers so that all the events surrounding the Popular Assembly received great publicity.