Lidia Gueiler Tejada: Politician who became only the West's second female president

Many outside her native Bolivia may never have heard the name Lidia Gueiler. But women politicians such as Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin might still like to emulate her as their nation's first female president. Although it was for just eight months in 1979-80 – between two of her nation's traditional coups d'état – Gueiler became only the second female president in the western hemisphere. That was five years after Argentina's Isabel Peró* broke the masculine mould, though she was not averse to playing the grieving-widow card on the back of her late husband Juan Perón's popularity.

Although her eight months in the presidential palace became her relative 15 minutes of fame on the international political and diplomatic stage, Gueiler was a life-long campaigner for human rights, not least for women, and against the arrogant, delusional military regimes that blighted not only Bolivia but most of Latin America through much of her life. A former local beauty queen who fought against male exploitation not only of its beautiful women but also of its poverty-stricken indigenous population, she also happened to be a cousin of the American actress Raquel Welch (real surname Tejada), whose father was a Spanish emigrant to Bolivia.

Gueiler was a left-wing MP who had been elected president of Bolivia's parliament by her fellow MPs when Colonel Alberto Natusch launched a bloody military coup on 1 November 1979. Natusch had served under the notorious dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer but a popular revolt and particularly a labour strike forced him to step down (and wisely disappear from public life for his own safety) after only 16 days. A deal brokered with Natusch to prevent further bloodshed meant it was Gueiler, as president of parliament, rather than the man Natusch had deposed, Walter Guevara, who was sworn in as interim president of the nation on 17 November 1979.

Her job was to prepare for new democratic elections but she found herself presiding over some of her nation's most unstable and violent times after a 25 per cent devaluation against the dollar and rising prices of petrol and basic foodstuff. Before elections could take place she was overthrown in another bloody military coup – a typically Bolivian family affair led by one of her cousins – on 17 July 1980. Needless to say Raquel Welch was not involved: the man wielding the guns was another cousin, General Luis García Meza Tejada. Gueiler, after three months of asylum within the Papal Nunciatura, or embassy, in La Paz, was forced to flee into exile in Paris. She returned only in 1982 after the military dictatorship collapsed. It is thought unlikely that she ever visited her cousin García Meza in jail, where he is still serving a 30-year sentence for horrific human rights violations. In fact, she had personally testified against him before the Supreme Court.

After serving as ambassador to Col-ombia, West Germany and Venezuela, and for a time as a Senator, Gueiler retired from public life in 1993, although she continued as a human rights campaigner and supported the former coca farmer Evo Morales in his successful presidential campaign of 2005.

Lidia Gueiler Tejada was born in Cochabamba, central Bolivia, in 1921. After studying accountancy she joined the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) of Victor Paz Estenssoro (who would become a four-times president of Bolivia) in 1948. She was married for a time to a former Paraguayan military officer, Mareirian Pérez Ramírez, a veteran of the so-called Chaco war between Bolivia and Paraguay who became a leading Paraguayan businessman. They had a daughter, Teresa, before they separated and she later admitted that she put politics – "my love for my country" – before her daughter's needs.

Gueiler first shot to prominence, notably among Bolivian women, in 1951 when she led a hunger strike by 26 women, mothers or wives of leftist political prisoners. After an eight-day fast the prisoners were released. In April the following year she took to the streets during Bolivia's popular revolution of 1952, which got rid of the military rulers of the time. After another coup, by General René Barrientos in 1964, she was jailed, tortured and released only under condition that she leave the country. After a spell with the Revolutionary Party of the National Left (PRIN), she returned to the MNR.

Phil Davison

Lidia Gueiler Tejada, politician and human rights campaigner: born Cochabamba, Bolivia 28 July 1921; married Mareirian Pérez Ramírez (separated; one daughter); died La Paz 9 May 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: KS2 Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is a two form entry primary schoo...

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee