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|18th President of Bolivia|
December 28, 1864 – January 15, 1871
|Preceded by||José María de Achá|
|Succeeded by||Agustín Morales|
|Born||April 13, 1820
Tarata, Cochabamba, Bolivia
|Died||November 23, 1871 (aged 51)
Military career and presidency
A career military officer from the department of Cochabamba, Melgarejo slowly climbed the hierarchy of the armed forces, aided by his sycophancy, willingness to participate in rebellions, and feats of personal valor. Having participated in an 1854 military revolt against long-time dictator Manuel Belzú, Melgarejo was tried for treason but pardoned, as he had begged for his life and blamed alcohol for his participation in the ill-fated coup. Belzú would come to rue having spared Melgarejo's life. General Melgarejo originally supported the Linares dictatorship (1857–61) and then combatted on behalf of the rebellious General José Maria de Achá, who became President in 1861. Predictably, in December 1864 he rose up against Achá and, prevailing against both the forces of Achá and former President Belzú (then struggling to return to power himself), proclaimed himself President of Bolivia. As Belzú continued to control part of the country and army, Melgarejo sought him and, by most accounts, murdered him personally. As legend had it, at the time a pro-Belzú crowd was reunited in Bolivia's central square, opposite the Palace of Government, chanting "vivas" to the former President. At that point, Melgarejo emerged onto a balcony with Belzú's corpse and proclaimed "Belzú is dead. Who lives now?" To which the crowd is said to have replied – perhaps predictably – "Long Live Melgarejo!"
Having installed himself in the Government Palace, Melgarejo proceeded to rule with more incompetence than any Bolivian leader in his time. He ruthlessly suppressed the opposition and assaulted the traditional rights of the country's indigenous population. Melgarejo worked on behalf of a new mining elite in Bolivia, during a period of resurgent silver production and investment from Chile, Peru, North America, England and European capitalists (Klein, 136). His "sexenio" is among the most tragic in the history of Bolivia, both for his repression and his foolish give-away of lands and concessions to Chile. Hardly erudite in the arts of statecraft, he relied on his obsequious civilian aide, Mariano Donato Muñoz, especially when it came to foreign policy.
Coup d'état and death
Melgarejo eventually galvanized the opposition in a concerted effort to rid the country of his tyranny. On January 15, 1871, he was toppled by the Commander of the Army, General Agustín Morales. Having fled to exile in Lima, Peru, the ex-President was assassinated in November 23 of the same year by his lover's enraged brother, Aurelio Sánchez.
Mariano Melgarejo's almost foolhardy valor and brutal obduracy are the stuff of legend, as are the tall-tales, still in circulation (some 135 years after his death) of things he supposedly did or did not do. Melgarejo was said to have given a vast amount of land to Brazil (Treaty of Ayacucho), for what he described as a magnificent white horse. The stories tell that a Brazilian minister presented Melgarejo with a white horse and other gifts, and to show his appreciation Melgarejo pulled out a map of Bolivia, traced the horse's hoof and gave that land away to the Brazilian government. This and other incidents, such as the seizure and sale of communal land on the Altiplano (Bolivian high plateau) to the highest bidder, deprived virtually all Indians of their land within a few decades. It is also said that in 1870 when Germany invaded France, he ordered one of his top generals to send most of his army to help defend Paris, a city he was fascinated by for its tales of sophistication and elegance, but also a city he could not even locate on a map. His General said it was impossible; it would take forever, as they would have to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Infuriated, Melgarejo said "Don't be stupid! We will take a short cut through the brush!"
- Alva Curtis Wilgus (1963). South American Dictators During the First Century of Independence. Russell & Russell. p. 334.
Klein, Herbert. The American Finances of the Spanish Empire: Royal Income and Expenditures in Colonial Mexico, Peru and Bolivia, 1680-1809. (1998). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, pp. 136.
José María de Achá
|President of Bolivia
Provisional until 1870