What Difference Did a Revolution Make? Conscription in the MNR’s Bolivia, 1952–58

Friday, January 5, 2018: 4:10 PM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Elizabeth Shesko, Oakland University

When the MNR came to power in 1952 in Bolivia, it nationalized the mines, decreed universal suffrage, and began a sweeping land reform. It faced a dilemma, however, over what to do with the army, which had dominated Bolivian politics for decades. Although many sources report that the MNR abolished and then eventually rebuilt the military, my research shows that all functions continued as the power and prestige of the army at first declined dramatically and then resurged. This paper details the propaganda campaign that rebranded the military as the “Revolution’s Army,” with an explicit focus on production and development. It then focuses on how the profile and experience of conscripts changed after 1952, arguing that Bolivia’s once predominantly urban military began drawing in and accepting more rural men. These data support anthropologists’ observations in the 1960s that military service had become a rite of passage among Aymara communities by the 1960s. However, the papers argues that, like its predecessors, the MNR failed to recognize that the meanings and effects of conscription could not be controlled by either the government or the institution because it so heavily depended on investment from below. Obligatory military service would exceed its mission and long outlive the MNR, just as it had every party that had come before. In fact, the prominent face of the military in development projects, combined with the widespread participation of rural men in conscription and the changes wrought by the agrarian reform, led to the forging of a peasant-military pact only months before the MNR was overthrown by a military general in 1964.