Bolivia, 1946

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It was now forgotten everywhere outside of Bolivia today, but in August 1946, the United States and the USSR co-sponsored a coup there against the dictator General Gualberto Villarroel. The mob stormed the presidential palace, and hurled the general from the balcony. His lifeless body was hung from a lamp post in the Plaza Murillo facing the palace, copying of the death of Mussolini.

The photo above shows Villarroel’s Chief of Information and editor of the newspaper Cumbre, Roberto Hinojosa who was hung in a similar fashion. Hinojosa was an organizer of the Partido Socialists Revolucionario in the 1920s and led an attempted insurrection in the frontier military post of Villazon in June 1930. He tried to rally working-class support for the Villarroel government and was often called a Creole Goebbels. Fittingly, he wrote the only contemporary Spanish language biography of Hitler.

Along with Villarroel and Hinojosa, two other men were hung on the plaza:  Luis Uría de la Oliva and Captain Waldo Ballivián, Villarroel’s private secretary and aide-de-camp respectively.

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For all his hideous qualities (Villarroel was a fascist and admirer of Mussolini and Hitler), the coup was “the last, perhaps most unworthy, Allied victory of the Second World War,” lamented The Cambridge History of Latin America. Villarroel was a reformist who recognized trade unions, created retirement and pension systems. He also tried to abolish pongueaje and mitaje (types of indentured servitude that existed in Bolivia since the Spanish times) and create an indigenous assembly. None of these reforms were welcomed by the Bolivian establishment, least of all by La Rosca.

La Rosca was a mining cartel of Bolivian tin magnates, led by Simón Patiño, then the fifth richest man in the world. In many ways, La Rosca was the Bolivian state: many officials held mining directorships and traditionally the foreign minister received a monthly salary from Patiño Mines. Villarroel’s suggestion that the mines pay higher taxes and wages chaffed the tin barons. Particularly, they hated an April 1945 decree that mandated all their export earnings to be deposited in the Central Bank. After all, Patiño paid less than fifty dollars in income tax to Bolivia annually.

La Rosca bankrolled the coup against Villarroel, but everyone happily participated: the teachers, the students, the pro-Soviet communist party (PIR) and its mirror the anarcho-Trotskyist party (POR), the U.S embassy, the Catholic Church, the League of Morality, the Association of Mothers of Priests, the War Widows. In his fascist ways, Villarroel had wanted to give equal rights to whites and indigenous Indians, legal wives and illegal mistresses, legitimate and illegitimate children, alienating all.

As for La Rosca, it was the last hurrah. Patiño died less than a year later in April 1947, having cemented his reputation as “the Andean Rockefeller”. He didn’t live to see his empire and most of La Rosca’s mines nationalized during the revolution of 1952.

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