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Gualberto Villarroel

Gualberto Villarroel López (December 15, 1908-July 21, 1946) was the head of state of Boliviamarker from December 20, 1943 to July 21, 1946. A reformist, he is nonetheless remembered for his alleged fascist sympathies, and is sometimes compared with Argentina's Juan Domingo Perón. Above all, he is remembered for his violent demise, which occurred on the day when he was overthrown.

Villarroel was born in Villa Rivero, Cochabamba, on December 15, 1908. He participated in the Chaco War (1932-35) against Paraguaymarker. In the aftermath of Bolivia's disastrous defeat in that conflict, he became convinced that Bolivia needed profound structural changes and supported the progressive Military-Socialist dictatorships of David Toro Ruilova and Germán Busch (1936-39). Following Colonel Busch's suicide in August 1939, conservative forces reasserted themselves, took power, and propitiated the 1940 elections in which the tradiational (oligarchic) parties linked to the country's big mining interests (known as "La Rosca") triumphed at the polls with General Enrique Peñaranda. Villarroel was part of the younger, more idealistic military officer corps that had supperted Toro and Busch.

In December 1943, a coup d'état crystallized against President Peñaranda, and Major Gualberto Villarroel became de facto President of Bolivia. He formed a coalition with the main reformist party of the time, the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, as well as with a hitherto-secret military faction known as Radepa (Razon de Patria, or Nation's Cause) inspired on the ideals of former president Busch Becerra.

Villarroel enacted a number of far-reaching reforms, including official recognition of worker unions and the right to retire voluntary with a pension. He also followed Busch's lead in calling a National Assembly, instituting Constitutional reforms, and having himself proclaimed Constitutional President by Congress (August, 1944). On the international front, Villarroel faced formidable obstacles in Washington'smarker reticence to recognize him as President of Bolivia. This was due to the pro-Axis stance of the 1936-39 military regimes that inspired the Villarroel government, as well as of (it was alleged) some of the President's closest aides from the MNR party. Eventually, the Roosevelt administration extended its recognition, but only in exchange for the expulsion from the cabinet of a number of "tainted" ministers first, and rupture with the MNR later.

The conservative backlash against Villarroel did not take long to appear, fed by the considerable resources of the private mining interests. Moreover, the workers themselves decided to exercise their newly-won rights to protest and demand further concessions in a manner that seemed imprudent and excessive, forcing the government to adopt repressive measures to maintain control. The extreme zeal of the government's repressive apparatus (weary of the chaos and increasing momentum of the right-wing opposition) led it to commit a number of shocking acts, including the execution of various prominent members of the intelligentsia and subsequent disposal of their bodies by pushing them off a cliff. This, in turn, gave the traditional parties the excuse to initiate a nationwide revolt that culminated in the death of the President. On July 21, 1946, anti-government crowds took control of the Plaza Murillo, where the Palace of Government (the so-called Palacio Quemado) is located, essentially laying siege to it.

From within the Palace, Villarroel announced his resignation, but the enraged hordes of teachers, students and marketplace women still seized arms from the arsenal and broke into the Quemado after an hour of fighting, assassinating the President and various of his aides. Villarroel's body was tossed from a balcony toward the square, where the crowds proceeded to hang it from a lamp-post opposite the Palace, perhaps inspired by a recently-shown newsreel of Benito Mussolini's demise.

Following this, the opposition regained control of the government, keeping it until the explosion of the April 9, 1952 Revolution. Villarroel ("El Presidente Colgado") has since been revered by the majority of the Bolivian population as a martyr and hero whose time, sadly, had not yet come when he met his violent death.


  1. Scheina, Robert L. Latin America's Wars: The Age of the Caudillo, 1791-1899, p.209. Brassey's (2003), ISBN 1574884522


  • Céspedes, Augusto. "El Presidente Colgado."
  • Mesa José de; Gisbert, Teresa; and Carlos D. Mesa, 3rd edition. pp. 572-577.

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