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Reorganization of the Armed Forces, 1952-66

The 1952 Revolution neutralized the army politically for a dozen years and redefined the military's role in society. Distrustful of the army, Paz Estenssoro's Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario--MNR) government (1952- 56) immediately formed armed milicias populares (popular militias) composed of campesinos, miners, and factory workers. The militias in effect replaced the army and by 1953 were the strongest armed forces in the country. Instead of abolishing the army, which the MNR leaders soon realized was indispensable, the government largely demobilized and reorganized it. The government also reduced the army in size from approximately 20,000 to 5,000 members, downgraded it in status, and slashed the military budget. In addition, the MNR imposed party control over the army by establishing células militares (military cells) and requiring the military to take an oath to the party. Author Charles D. Corbett estimates that no more than 300 officers actually were discharged or exiled, leaving 1,000 officers in the smaller army. He notes, however, that most senior officers were purged from the service.

Paz Estenssoro succeeded in dominating the army, which exercised relatively little influence as an independent political force. It became involved primarily in civic-action projects, particularly in helping to colonize frontier areas. Other than establishing additional engineer units, the army made little progress in developing militarily. Under Paz Estenssoro, the defense budget fell from 22 percent of government expenditures in 1952 to 6.7 percent in 1957. Although the Paz Estenssoro government closed the Military Academy for a year, it kept open the School of Arms and the "Marshal Andrés de Santa Cruz" Command and Staff School (Escuela de Comando y Estado Mayor "Mariscal Andrés de Santa Cruz"--ECEM), which had replaced the ESG in Cochabamba in 1950. Paz Estenssoro also formally established the "General José Manuel Pando" School of Military Engineering (Escuela de Ingeniería Militar "General José Manuel Pando"--EIM), which had already begun operating in La Paz in 1950. In addition to reestablishing the Military Academy in 1954, Bolivia began sending a few officers to attend the School of the Americas (Escuela de las Américas) in Panama.

As the army declined, the militias grew in strength. By the end of Paz Estenssoro's first term in 1956, the militias numbered between 50,000 and 70,000 men. The Paz Estenssoro government also thoroughly reorganized the police force, giving it more responsibility than the military (see The Security Forces , this ch.).

The MNR government of Hernán Siles Zuazo (1956-60 and 1982-85), uneasy about having to depend on the goodwill of the increasingly militant militias, began rebuilding the FF.AA. with the idea of keeping the force subordinate to the civilian government and involved primarily in civic-action projects (see Civic Action , this ch.). Historian Robert J. Alexander cites two additional reasons why the MNR government decided to revive the military. First, the government wanted to make use of the docile Indians, who, accustomed to being conscripted at the age of eighteen, continued to present themselves to authorities for induction. Second, the government probably felt pressured by the United States to reestablish the regular armed forces and believed that increased United States economic aid was contingent on doing so. In an effort to ensure that the new military would remain loyal, the civilian government gave preference in command appointments and promotions to military officers of known pro-MNR sympathies and permitted members of the lower class to enter the Military Academy. As the MNR government became increasingly dependent on the army to control unrest, the military began to acquire some political influence.

In 1956 United States military instructors began teaching at the Military Academy. With the beginning of United States military assistance to Bolivia in 1958, military expenditures rose sharply and steadily. The United States also helped to strengthen the military with training and technical assistance. The army created an additional two divisions, raising the total to eight. The FAB, which became independent of the army in 1957, assumed responsibility for air defense, including the operation of antiaircraft artillery units.

Although a landlocked country, Bolivia established a nascent naval force in the early 1960s when it acquired four patrol boats from the United States. The River and Lake Force (Fuerza Fluvial y Lacustre) was created in January 1963 under the Ministry of National Defense. It consisted of 1,800 personnel recruited largely from the army. Bolivia's naval force was rechristened the Bolivian Naval Force (Fuerza Naval Boliviana) in January 1966, but it also has been called the Bolivian Navy (Armada Boliviana).

In his second term (1960-64), Paz Estenssoro continued the military buildup and made determined efforts to improve the training and equipment of the FF.AA., while preventing the militias from rearming. New military schools helped to improve the military's professional standards. The establishment of two new military organizations indicated the military's growing political influence. One was the School of High Military Studies (Escuela de Altos Estudios Militaries--EAEM), inaugurated in 1960 to educate senior civilian and military leaders on strategic issues affecting Bolivia. The EAEM was later renamed the School of High National Studies (Escuela de Altos Estudios Nacionales-- EAEN), or National War College. The other was the Supreme Council of National Defense (Consejo Supremo de Defensa Nacional--CSDN), formed in 1961 as "the highest advisory body charged with problems of national defense." According to Corbett, the Supreme Council--which included the president, vice president, cabinet, chairmen of congressional committees, and the military high command--provided a structure for the FF.AA. to present its viewpoints on any national defense-related issue.

By 1964 the army had increased to 15,000 members, and the military budget had grown to 14 percent of the national budget. Although the strength of the militias had dropped to about 16,000 men by early 1963, the militias had not been replaced by an entirely apolitical army. Actually, by rebuilding the army Paz Estenssoro had unintentionally strengthened its political role, for its younger officers had few personal ties with the MNR political leadership.

After leading a successful military coup against Paz Estenssoro in November 1964, FAB General René Barrientos Ortuño immediately abolished the military cells that he, ironically, had headed. An elite nucleus of officers trained in the career school rose to power along with Barrientos (president, 1964-65; copresident, May 1965-January 1966; and president, 1966-69). Beginning with Barrientos's coup, the military reemerged as a factor in Bolivian politics and would remain the dominant power in government until 1982. Although still fractionalized, it was the strongest and most important institution in Bolivia. The relative status of the military was illustrated by author James Dunkerley's observation that between 1964 and 1966 the monthly pay of an army lieutenant rose to more than twice the average annual per capita income (US$120) and quadruple the salary of the highest grade of teacher.

General Alfredo Ovando Candia (copresident, May 1965-January 1966; and president, January-August 1966 and 1969-70) became the most articulate advocate of a new, professional role for the army. Ovando is generally credited with modernizing the military by deemphasizing its traditional role and transforming it into an instrument of development and production. The Generational Group (Grupo Generacional), formed in 1965 and consisting of a few young, professionally oriented, reform-minded officers, also advocated a nationalistic program of reducing foreign influence in Bolivia and diversifying the economy.

Data as of December 1989

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