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Manuel Isidoro Belzu

Manuel Isidoro Belzu Humerez (14 April 1808 23 March 1865) was president of Bolivia from 1848 to 1855.

Born in La Paz, Bolivia to humble mestizo parentage, Belzu was educated by Franciscan friars and joined the wars of independence in his youth, combatting under Andres de Santa Cruz at Zepita (1823) when he was 17. An aide to Agustin Gamarra, he separated himself from the Peruvian army when the latter entered Bolivia in 1828. Sent as garrison commander to Tarija, he married "up" by wedding a beautiful and intellectual Argentine lady residing there. Belzu fought in the battles of the Confederacy and was elevated to the post of Army commander by President Jose Ballivian, under whose orders he had fought bravely at the Battle of Ingavi (1841).

Originally a close friend and supporter of President Ballivian, he turned against him around 1845 when the latter had, apparently, attempted to seduce his wife in Belzu's absence in his own Oruro home. Surprising the President there when he turned up unexpectedly, Belzu shot at Ballivian, barely missing him. The event sealed an undying enmity between the two that would never abate. Undoubtedly political ambitionstypical of upper-level Bolivian military officers at the timemay have played a role, in addition to personal reasons, but the fact is that Belzu decided at that point do whatever he could to topple the Hero of Ingavi from the presidency. Indeed, withdrawing to the countryside (there was an order for his arrest for the attempted murder of the President), Belzu never ceased to conspire against his former friend.

Belzu's discourse at the same time became more populist, as he now embraced his mestizo heritage, railed against the power of the white oligarchy, and vowed to do all he could to advance the cause of the poor and the Indian should he come to the presidential seat. In his fugitive wanderings, he had seen the deplorable conditions under which most of the population lived, with scarcely any improvements or works by the government. This solidified for him a strong base of support among the humble, who came to know him as "Tata Belzu."

Another, more conventional anti-Ballivian insurgent group was commanded by the ambitious former President Jose Miguel de Velasco. His warlord army competed with Belzu in the race to topple the President. Conditions were now intolerable, and the country ungovernable, for the embattled Ballivian. In December 1847 Ballivian fled to exile abroad, leaving 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 pacted with Velasco to support his accession to the Presidency while he, Belzu, became Minister of War. Belzu now betrayed Velasco, however, and had his storming troops proclaim him (rather) than Velasco President. A bloody counter-coup by General Velasco had to be put down, with Belzu himself commanding the troops that crushed Velasco's. Thus, by the end of the year Belzu had wiped out the opposition (both Ballivian and Velasco) and consolidated himself as the sole de facto president of Bolivia.

As promised, Belzu's government took a decidedly populist course, one largely derived from his personal experiences as well as by his legendary enmity against the patrician former president Jose Ballivian. Indeed, Belzu tried to fashion a more egalitarian administration, but this clashed with his desire to maintain firm control. Most of Belzu's reforms were rather cosmetic, although his discourse seems to have been far more liberalizing than any president's had been since Sucre. Still, capitalizing on his relative popularity, Belzu managed to legitimize his rule by becoming democratically elected, but nonetheless faced constant opposition and rebellions from the pro-Ballivian camp, from ambitious fellow military warlords, and later, from the pro-Linares faction that coalesced as a united front against military caudillism. Moreover, his protectionist economic policies earned him the enmity of Great Britain and the United States, which isolated Bolivia even more from the global economy and ongoing intellectual trends. Although popular enough with the humble masses due to his demagogic rhetoric and statist policies (contrary to prevailing notions), Belzu never lacked powerful enemies. Indeed, he barely survived a well-planned assassination attempt in Sucre, carried out by a man who would later become President himself, Agustin Morales (then an obscure mid-ranking officer). By the early 1850s Belzu had dispensed with any pretense of democratic norms and ruled despotically.

Lieut. Lardner Gibbon, USN, in his part of the Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon met with President Manuel Isidoro Belzu Humerez in Bolivia; "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 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 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 Ballivian, 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)

Following a prolonged, 7-year rule, in 1855 a weary Belzu decided to "retire" and ran elections in which he sponsored the candidacy of his loyal son-in-law, General Jorge Cordova. The latter was duly elected over Jose Maria 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. Cordova, however, was overthrown in an 1857 coup d'etat, and, still acting as Belzu's proxy, was murdered after being caught plotting against President Jose Maria de Acha in 1862. This galvanized the old warlord, who after an absence of 7 years, infiltrated himself back into Bolivia and raised an army with the hope of returning to the presidency and avenging the death of his son-in-law and acolyte. He never flagged in his campaign against Acha, and came close to becoming President for a second time when the latter finally fled Bolivia in 1864. However, it was another warlord and general, Mariano Melgarejo, who beat Belzu's forces to the government palace of La Paz, now the country's largest city and the de-facto seat of government. Belzu continued to besiege the city, considering himself more entitled to rule, but some of his old magic was gone. Indeed, the similarly mestizo had Melgarejo himself had taken a page from Belzu's populist rhetoric and was now considered as popular as the "Tata."

Purportedly to avoid bloodshed, Melgarejo sent an emissary to Belzu, and invited him to the Government Palace to pact a dual-sharing administration, or even to cede power to the former President in exchange for some concessions. Fatally trusting in Melgarejo, Belzu was assassinated in January 1865 on the grounds of the Palace of Government in La Paz, presumably at the hands of the new dictator and caudillo.

External links

Biography on Bolivian Government site in Spanish


Mesa Jose de; Gisbert, Teresa; and Carlos D. Mesa, "Historia De Bolivia", 5th edition.

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