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.