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Lidia Gueiler Tejada, DEP

11 May 2011

Latin American politics has always been a full-body contact sport, no where more so than Bolivia.  One of the toughest, and best,  players was Lidia Gueiler, the first woman head of state in the Americas who did not inherit her position from her father or husband.  She died Monday at the age of 89.

Gueiler, from one of the provincial “white” families that have traditionally ruled Bolivia, joined the MNR in 1948.  MNR, the National Revolutionary Movement, modeled on the Mexican PRI, sought to replace the oligarchical and miliary governments that had run Bolivia (with the exception of the radical caudillo Manuel Belzu) since independence.

In 1948, this was a purely “honorary” post, women not having full political rights until the MNR Revolution of 1952, when Gueiler first went to congress, representing her native Cochabamba.  As with the Mexican PRI, the Bolivian MNR, attempting to be simultaneously a revolutionary party and to hold the support of the elites and traditional power brokers, had huge internal contradictions.  Unlike the PRI in its glory-days of the 1950s, the MNR was a little less successful at keeping internal squabbles behind closed doors.  Gueiler was implicated in an attempt by one party faction to assassinate President Paz Estenssoro in 1953.  How involved she was in the plot is something I don’t know, but she was — in the Latin American political tradition — enough of a danger, but a possibly useful future ally, to be “exiled” to a diplomatic post.  Having served her three-year “sentence” in East Germany, she returned to Congress in 1956.

In 1964, despite moves in the second Paz Esternnoro administration towards a more conservative, “middle-of-the-road” government, military officers — unhappy with the subordinate role they held under MNR governments — staged a putsch, and another twenty years of government from the barracks.

Gueiler went into exile for the second time, joining the left-wing PRIN (Revolutionary Party of the Nationalist Left).  Returning in 1979 to a destabilized Bolivia, Gueiler was again elected President of the Chamber of Deputies, from the Revolutionary Left Front (FRI) on an MNR coalition ticket headed by her one-time enemy Paz Estenssoro, who had led the MNR into a partnership with the military governments. While Gueiler was elected to her post, no one, it appeared, had won the presidency.  Congress couldn’t decide between the leftist Hernán Siles (who received the most votes, but not more than 50 percent, as Bolivian law required) and Paz Estenssoro… and for called new elections.  Which were again inconclusive.  As a compromise, Congress — being the ones who made this decision — elected the Senate President, Walter Guevara as an internal president, with a mandate to oversee new elections the next year.

Guevara, a compromise — and, as one of the MNR politios who served under the military dictatorships — compromised — head of state quickly lost support from both the left and the right.  The inevitable military coup followed … BUT…

This time, the people fought back, and fought hard.  The first of November coup led to massive street fighting and the would-be President Alberto Natuch’s pathetic surrender to democracy, his only demand being that Guevara not return to the Presidency.

Assuming the Presidency, 1979 (photo: "Lydia: una mujar en la historía")

Guevara returned only to resign, and … constitutionally, next in line for the difficult task of interim president was Lidia Gueiler.  As only the second woman to hold executive office in the Americas (the first being the woefully unprepared and politically incompetent Isobel Martinez de Peron) Gueiler should have been perhaps better noticed in the world press, but was basically ignored as she took on the impossible task of both attempting to rein in the military and create conditions for a democratic, legitimate government.  In the latter, she was well on her way to success, the scheduled 1980 elections looking to be surprisingly fair.  She was purging the military, and — with no good choice for chief of staff, reluctantly appointed her cousin, Luís Mesa García Tejada.

On top of her other challenges, Bolivia was under immense pressure from the United States to simultaneously control cocaine trafficking (largely controlled by the military) AND, avoid a leftist popular administration that might actually carry out its promises to keep more of the money made from the mining industry in Bolivian hands.

When it became clear that the left would sweep the scheduled elections, Mesa García — backed by the cocaine-dealing officers and internationally wanted Nazi war criminal, Klaus Barbie (who the Bolivians found nearly impossible to extradite given his close ties to the military) — overthrew his cousin’s government.

Again exiled, and later serving in diplomatic posts (this time West Germany, and later Colombia and Venezuela), Gueiler did what she could to work for a return to democracy.  One of the very few Bolivian politicians of her era with clean hands, her support for Evo Morales’ election was important in assuring those who did not have the imagination or faith in their countrymen to otherwise trust an indigenous populist from a non-traditional political background.

In addition to her continuing activity in Bolivian feminist and human rights causes, she was one of the first Latin American politicians to call for an end to the U.S. sponsored “war on drugs”.

Lydia Gueiler Tejada (28 de agosto de 1921 — 9 de mayo de 2011)

(Photo, background information:  Opinion Bolivia, )

One Comment leave one →
  1. corvad permalink
    25 May 2011 3:58 pm

    great work as always! I’m curious as to the source of this assertion — doesn’t seem to be in the linked story.

    “In addition to her continuing activity in Bolivian feminist and human rights causes, she was one of the first Latin American politicians to call for an end to the U.S. sponsored “war on drugs”.”

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