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
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'