Obituary : Hernn Siles Zuazo

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Nicknamed "el concjo" (the rabbit) because of his protuberant front teeth, Hernn Siles Zuazo was a central figure in the modernisation of Bolivia over the last half-century. But he also epitomised the treacherous and Byzantine world of Bolivian politics, with its ever-shifting mix of alliance, betrayal, insurrection, corruption and military coups.

As a radical young lawyer, Siles Zuazo in 1942 founded Bolivia's Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR), a party which has dominated Bolivian politics ever since. The son of a former president, he became MP for La Paz from 1943 to 1946, then lived in exile in Argentina and Chile from 1946 to 1951 before returning to stand as a vice-presidential candidate in 1951. He went on to become one of the three leaders of the Bolivian revolution of 1952, one of Latin America's most radical political upheavals of the century.

Following a brief and successful uprising led by militant, dynamite-lobbing tin-miners, the revolutionary government nationalised the country's mines, distributed land and voting rights to its Indian majority and briefly abolished the army. In doing so, the new government, in which Siles Zuazo was vice-president, broke with the country's feudal past, but failed to create lasting political or economic stability.

In 1956, Siles Zuazo was elected president with a record 82 per cent of the vote, but he was unfortunate enough to take office as an economic crisis struck the country, prompted by a crash in the price of the country's all-important tin exports. From 1956 to 1960 he was effectively in charge of reversing many of the measures introduced by the revolution as he pushed through an IMF austerity programme in the face of rising trade-union opposition. He even rebuilt the army, unwittingly preparing the way for his later years in political exile.

During this period, Siles Zuazo formally renounced violence as a means of solving the political crisis, resorting at one point to the Gandhi- esque tactic of going on hunger strike (always a favourite with Bolivian politicians) to protest at the trade union's opposition to his government. He also resorted to more conventional tactics, proving adept at fomenting divisions within the labour movement of his own party, consolidating his position by playing factions off each other.

By so doing he helped divide his own party, and was expelled in 1964 after calling on the military to replace his arch-rival (and erstwhile co-revolutionary) Victor Paz Estenssoro, when Paz attempted to extend his term in office. Following the military coup which overthrew Paz, Siles Zuazo spent many years in exile in Uruguay (where he had been ambassador from 1960 to 1963), Argentina and Chile, as Bolivia entered 18 years of often bloody military rule. During that time, he rued the debacle of his first government, and moved politically to the left, as the MNR adopted a more right-wing stance.

In 1978 Siles Zuazo came back to Bolivia. He returned to the presidency as the leader of a left splinter party, the MNRI, and began his second period of office in 1982, when international pressure forced the Bolivian military to recognise his victory in three successive elections from 1978 to 1980.

Unfortunately his second term, like his first, was dogged by economic crisis. He inherited a virtually bankrupt state, while 1982 marked the beginning of Latin America's debt crisis, as high international interest rates on its foreign debt and low market prices for its exports drove the region into a recession. Even nature was against him, as severe flooding in 1983 crippled agriculture.

Siles Zuazo resisted pressure for a severe austerity programme, instead opting for a series of ineffectual economic packages which only worsened the crisis. He also refused to use political repression to curb rising trade-union protest.

By 1985, hyper-inflation had reached Weimar Republic levels of 20,000 per cent, and the government was paralysed. Siles Zuazo was forced to acquiesce in the so-called "church coup", when Bolivia's bishops proposed cutting short his term by a year. His party, the MNRI, was destroyed in the polls and was left with just eight seats in Congress.

Siles Zuazo returned to the political wilderness, to be replaced by his old rival, Victor Paz Estenssoro, at the head of a new and fiercely right- wing MNR government. Paz, then aged 77, promptly put in place the severe austerity programme that Siles Zuazo had refused to implement. Brooding on his second failure in office, Siles Zuazo went into self-imposed exile in Uruguay, where he died following a long illness.

Hernn Siles Zuazo, politician: born La Paz, Bolivia 21 March 1914; married (three children); died Montevideo, Uruguay 6 August 1996.