The Sometimes Apocryphal Sins of Bolivia’s Worst President
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Mariano Melgarejo loved four things: sex, booze, gambling and having it all.
General Mariano Melgarejo, the 18th president of Bolivia, had barely been in office a year when he was — according to some sources — defeated in battle in La Paz, the capital, by his archrival, former President Manuel Isidoro Belzu. Instead of accepting defeat, Melgarejo gate-crashed the victory party at the Presidential Palace in La Paz on March 23, 1865. Belzu, who assumed Melgarejo had been brought as a prisoner, “decided to leave the room and receive him with a hug,” wrote 19th-century Bolivian historian Tomás O’Connor D’Arlach in General Melgarejo: Words and Deeds of This Famous Man.
Bad move. According to D’Arlach, Melgarejo made his way through the throng of soldiers and civilians, shot Belzu dead and, leaving Belzu “shrouded in his own blood,” exclaimed to the crowd: “‘Belzu is dead! Who lives now?’” To which “some voices answered: ‘Viva Melgarejo!’” Other versions of the story have Melgarejo purposefully posing as a prisoner and showing Belzu’s body to the crowd.
Whatever happened, Melgarejo remained president until 1871, when he was eventually ousted by General Agustín Morales, who swept to victory on the coattails of a massive rebellion of native Bolivians after Melgarejo attempted to introduce legislation to seize the land of indigenous communities, according to Erick Langer, a history professor at Georgetown University. A few months after losing power, Melgarejo was shot dead by his ex-lover’s brother. “His sole interests might be summed up in the four words: drink, women, gambling and gluttony,” wrote Charles Chapman in Melgarejo of Bolivia: An Illustration of Spanish American Dictatorships.
Born near Cochabamba in 1820, five years before Bolivia achieved independence from Spain, Melgarejo was the “love child” of a Spanish man and a poor Quechua Indian woman, writes Ava Wilgus in South American Dictators During the First Century of Independence. He ran away from home at the age of 9 and shortly afterward entered the army, where, she says, “his audacity and valor gained him both promotion and fame relatively early.” Military valor was one of the main ways to rise to power in 19th-century Bolivia. The other was being born rich.
In the 1850s and ’60s, Melgarejo worked for (and against) several presidents, helping to quash rebellions and stage coups in various corners of the tumultuous country. While he became a fairly well-known figure, says Langer, his predilection for drink and women meant he probably wasn’t seen as a serious leadership candidate. Even in 1854, when Melgarejo was charged with high treason for launching an unsuccessful coup against Belzu — yes, the same Belzu — he was able to get off after a group of Cochabamba residents submitted a petition asking the president to spare Melgarejo, blaming his actions on alcohol. While agreeing to their request, Belzu warned that they would “someday regret” their actions. Little did he know that the real regret would be his.
The most memorable anecdote of his rule involves a drunken Melgarejo stripping the British ambassador naked, trussing him “ass backward” to a donkey and parading him around Plaza Murillo.
When Melgarejo eventually assumed power — after taking advantage of the ill health of his longtime ally, President José María de Achá, to launch a coup in December 1864 — he did, at least, stay true to his core vices. He was not, Langer points out, “the first or the last” Bolivian president to enjoy a drink or take a mistress, but his excess in both regards was legendary.
The most memorable anecdote of his rule, said to have taken place in 1867, involves a drunken Melgarejo stripping the British ambassador naked, trussing him “ass backward” to a donkey and parading him around Plaza Murillo before expelling him from the country. So unamused was Queen Victoria that she ordered a naval attack on Bolivia. After being informed that La Paz was hundreds of miles from the coast and 12,000 feet above sea level, she marked an X through her map of South America and declared, “This country does not exist.” Diplomatic relations were not reestablished until the 1900s.
Writing in Smithsonian Magazine, journalist Mike Dash has cast serious doubt on this story. (There is no way it happened in 1867, he asserts, before identifying Belzu rather than Melgarejo as the most likely protagonist.) Indeed, many of Melgarejo’s most infamous missteps are apocryphal — he is said to have donated huge tracts of land to Brazil in return for a magnificent white horse and, on a separate occasion, to have argued that Napoleon was a far superior general to Bonaparte, despite the two being the same person — but they deserve retelling, says Langer, because they are indicative not only of his character but also of the “kind of contra-propaganda” that blights Melgarejo’s image to this day.
The damage caused by his policies is easier to quantify, says Langer. Not only did Melgarejo cede enormous swaths of territory to both Brazil and Chile (thus paving the way for Bolivia to lose its gateway to the Pacific), but he — or, more accurately, his policymakers — also made the first attempt to privatize the communal land held by indigenous communities. Communities were given a choice: either pay for the land they had farmed for centuries or see it sold — at bargain-basement prices — to government cronies.
Although his land policy would ultimately result in his downfall, Melgarejo didn’t generally bother himself with the details of governance. That meant he was easily used by the technocrats of the day. “His one principle was to get money enough to keep the army satisfied and maintain himself in power,” writes Chapman. (And to fund frequent drinking parties.) Langer likens it to how he sees the relationship between the Republican Party and President Donald Trump: “Trump is destroying the party,” he reckons, “but Republicans are using him as a vessel to get things done.”
In August 1871, 10 months after his ouster, the Bolivian Parliament voted to annul all laws passed by Melgarejo. Despite this, he is still, “rather amazingly, seen as a bad guy by all sides,” says Langer. Current Bolivian President Evo Morales, for example, often blames Melgarejo for stealing indigenous land, forgetting that the land was soon returned to the communities and the lasting theft took place a few decades later.
Later in 1871, Melgarejo was shot dead when — having tracked his ex-lover Juana Sánchez down to Lima, Peru — he was denied access to the Sánchez abode. Not one to back down, Melgarejo tried to force entry and was shot dead by her brother. Even though he is widely remembered as Bolivia’s worst president, holding on to power for six full years in 19th-century Bolivia was “quite an achievement,” says Langer. If nothing else, “he sure had cojones.”