Manuel Isidoro Belzu
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Early life and education
He joined the wars of independence in his youth, fighting under Andrés de Santa Cruz at Zepita (1823) when he was 17. After serving as an aide to Agustín Gamarra, he left the Peruvian army when the latter entered Bolivia in 1828.
Marriage and family
Belzu fought in the battles of the Peru-Bolivian Confederacy, during which he was promoted to the post of Army commander by President José Ballivián. He had fought bravely under his orders at the Battle of Ingavi (1841).
Originally a close friend and supporter of President Ballivián, Belzu turned against him about 1845. Ballivián had reportedly attempted to seduce Belzu's wife in his own Oruro home. Surprising the President there, Belzu shot at him and barely missed. The event sealed an undying enmity between the two that would never abate. Political ambitions—typical of upper-level Bolivian military officers at the time—may have played a role in addition to the personal reasons. Belzu decided at that point to try to topple the "Hero of Ingavi" from the presidency. Withdrawing to the countryside (orders for his arrest for the attempted murder of the President had been issued), Belzu never ceased to conspire against his former friend.
Belzu's political stance became more populist as he embraced his mestizo heritage, railed against the power of the "white" oligarchy, and vowed to advance the cause of the poor and the Indian should he come to the presidency. In his travels as a fugitive, Belzu had seen the deplorable conditions under which most of the population lived, with scarcely any improvements or public works by the government. His position established a strong base of support among the peasants, who came to know him as "Tata (Father, or Protector) Belzu."
Another, more conventional anti-Ballivián insurgent group was commanded by the ambitious former president, José Miguel de Velasco. As a warlord, he led his army in competition with that of Belzu in the race to topple the President. The embattled Ballivián found the country ungovernable, and in December 1847 he fled to exile abroad. He left the government in the hands of General Eusebio Guilarte, head of the Council of State and legally second-in-line to the presidency.
At this point Belzu made a pact with Velasco to support the latter's accession to the Presidency while Belzu took the position of Minister of War. Belzu quickly betrayed Velasco and had his troops proclaim him as President. A bloody counter-coup by General Velasco had to be put down, with Belzu's commanding the troops that crushed Velasco's. By the end of the year, Belzu had destroyed the opposition (both Ballivián and Velasco) and consolidated his power as the sole de facto president of Bolivia.
As promised, Belzu led his government in undertaking populist measures, but he also wanted to maintain strong control over power. Most of Belzu's reforms were cosmetic, although his political statements were more liberal than any president's had been since Sucre. capitalizing on his relative popularity, Belzu managed to legitimize his rule by becoming democratically elected. He faced constant opposition and rebellions from the pro-Ballivián camp, from ambitious fellow military warlords, and later, from the pro-Linares faction that coalesced as a united front against military caudillism. Belzu's protectionist economic policies were opposed by Great Britain and the United States, and isolated Bolivia from the global economy and ongoing intellectual trends. Although popular with the masses due to his statist policies (contrary to prevailing notions), Belzu never lacked enemies among the powerful, whose interests he threatened. He barely survived a well-planned assassination attempt in Sucre, carried out by Agustin Morales, then an obscure mid-ranking officer but one who would later become president.
"Upon inquiring how the President came by some wounds in his face, I was told that in September, 1850, Belzu was invited to take a walk in the alameda [market] of Sucre. A friend persuaded him to continue on outside the usual promenade, where they met some persons riding on horseback, upon the report of whose pistols Belzu fell, three balls having entered his head. The ruffians escaped from the country; the friend was shot in the plaza of the capitol (sp) before Belzu was well enough to interfere in his behalf. The plan was well laid, and so sure were the intended murderers that his days were ended, they rode off, leaving him on the ground, shouting “viva Ballivián,” an ex-president, who at that time was known to be lingering along the boundary line between Bolivia and the Argentine republic. This attempt to assassinate Belzu made him the more popular. The country is taught that his escape was Providential, and he had been spared for the good of the people." (Ch.5, p.135)
By the early 1850s, Belzu dispensed with any pretense of democratic norms and ruled despotically. Following a prolonged, 7-year rule, in 1855 a weary Belzu decided to "retire". He ran elections in which he sponsored the candidacy of his loyal son-in-law, General Jorge Córdova. The latter was duly elected over José María Linares (perhaps with the help of at least some degree of official fraud), and for two years ruled Bolivia as a virtual proxy of the powerful former president. During this time, Belzu served as his country's Plenipotentiary in Europe.
Córdova was overthrown in an 1857 coup d'état. Still acting as Belzu's proxy, he was murdered after being caught plotting against President José María de Achá in 1862. This galvanized Belzu despite his age, who returned to Bolivia and raised an army, with the hope of returning to the presidency and avenging the death of his son-in-law. Never flagging in his campaign, Belzu came close to becoming President for a second time in 1864 when Achá finally fled Bolivia. Another general, Mariano Melgarejo, preceded Belzu's forces to the government palace of La Paz, by then the country's largest city and the defacto seat of government. Belzu tried to besiege the city, but Melgarejo, also a mestizo, became as popular as the "Tata."
Purportedly to avoid bloodshed, Melgarejo sent an emissary to Belzu, and invited him to the Government Palace to make a pact to share power in his administration. He reportedly offered to cede power to the former President in exchange for some concessions. Trusting Melgarejo, Belzu arrived at the Palace and was assassinated in January 1865 on its grounds, presumably at the hands of the new dictator and caudillo.
- Biography on Bolivian Government site in Spanish
- Mesa José de; Gisbert, Teresa; and Carlos D. Mesa, Historia De Bolivia, 5th edition.
|President of Bolivia
José Miguel de Velasco
José Miguel de Velasco
|President of Bolivia