On 7 October 1970 President Ovando was overthrown by a triumvirate representing the three branches of the armed forces, headed by General Miranda. Then, in a remarkable political action, General Torres proclaimed resistance to this junta, called on the workers, and made himself President. The triumvirate managed to last only a few hours because the working class came on to the streets. Yet it is misleading to describe the October 1970 events in terms of an alliance between the working class and military nationalism. The word ‘alliance’ implies the existence of a deliberate pact, and in this case there was really a unilateral move by Torres which would not have been possible without the—equally unilateral—spontaneous support of the working class. Without the support of the workers, the small group of military nationalists would not have been able to reverse Miranda’s seizure of power. But, on their own, the workers would have failed to stop Miranda. The mass uprising was successful because it was sanctioned by the military, and the military nationalists, who were in
The Torres regime was not a coherent systematic creation of the left. But it presented a good opportunity for them. Torres himself had a confused personal record. His politics were empirical and boiled down to two rigidly adhered-to conceptions—nationalism and loyalty to the army as an institution. To understand him it is particularly important to understand the institutional loyalty of officers of his kind. Why did he eagerly support the ‘restoration’ of November 1964? Because November 1964 was among other things the army’s retaliation, and marked the return of the officers.
For a long time Torres had been a close disciple of Ovando, who was then head of the military ‘institutionalists’, their political strategist, and the originator of the plan for the army’s political return. Why did Torres then become a populist? The answer involves the wider social trend of the radicalization of the petty bourgeoisie after the Nancahuazu guerrilla foco, because of the way in which the political consciousness of the middle sectors relates to the army. The officer class, although part of a separate bureaucracy, still forms part of the middle sectors, or at least it most readily identifies with them. When Torres became the restorer of the army’s position after Ovando, he followed the interests of that institution. But after the 1964 Restoration the army became extremely unpopular, and Torres, in defence of the interests of the army, decided to become a populist. ‘We were not even able to get on to the buses,’ he said, when trying to justify to officers the army’s swing to the left, the nationalizations, and the concessions to the workers. For Torres to get what he wanted the officers had to be able to board buses without encountering the hatred of the people. While the military restorers wanted to destroy their popular opponents, the military nationalists like Torres wanted to seduce them.
A number of officers like Torres, who believed they were acting in the army’s long-term interests, underwent this change. The only influence the left had was a passive one. The mere fact that it existed made the more clear-sighted officers feel an urgent need to negotiate with it. They were aware that it was strong but not active. The left’s practice was not at this time directed at the army, it was not trying to win support from it: on the contrary, the left in this situation was bound to be anti-militaristic. Torres appeared as a challenge to the left, to its ability to adapt to an unprecedented situation. Torres represented the army trying to seduce the left, and this characterizes every subsequent measure adopted by his government. A typical example is as follows: Torres carried out nationalizations in the army’s name and with its support, at a time when nationalization meant little to the working class, who were aware of how limited and impractical it was. But his institutional loyalty stopped Torres from distributing the few arms he finally did distribute until the situation was past saving.
The left did gain a considerable margin of freedom and influence within the government, particularly in comparison with the restoration period. But why did the left regard Torres as a lucky opportunity? Because it had not expected such a swing to the left from the military. It was prepared for a struggle with the army, and not for a military faction to approach it. What had happened here was what usually happens when political power is concentrated into a single political area. It is perhaps the oldest illusion of all to imagine that external contradictions are eradicated simply by seizing control from above. When the mnrfootnote1 became the instrument of political power in Bolivia with the support of the masses, it tried to realize this dream of total power. But the contradictions, although they momentarily disappeared, re-emerged in an even more destructive form within the organization that did not permit them to exist outside of it. Problems do not disappear just because they are not allowed to be mentioned. Because under Ovando and Torres politics was prevented from manifesting itself in a normal way through political parties, it went over to expressing itself covertly though the factions into which the army was divided. Both Ovando and Torres took the left by suprise. It was never able to formulate a policy for dealing with them, and it was reduced simply to being suspicious and cautious as a result of its political confusion. The course of Ovando’s government seems to have proved the left were right to distrust him: he began by nationalizing oil and ended up running a gang of racketeers. With Torres things were different, and this is why it is important to analyse where the two regimes differed and what they had in common.