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Bolivia coup attempt fails for now

Governments in Bolivia spin in and out of power like a revolving door. This past weekend it seemed for a time that the door was about to revolve again as military officers attempted yet another coup d'etat.

But the government of Maj. Gen. Luis Garcia Meza Tejeda managed to hold onto power and arrested the dissidents, who include the Army chief of staff and the Army's national commander.

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There is little doubt, however, that the abortive coup further weakened General Garcia Meza's already tenuous hold on government. Two previous coup attempts in recent months have made it increasingly difficult for him to govern, and this latest effort to dislodge his government came as no surprise.

Further attempts to bring down his government are likely.

Such instability is nothing new to the landlocked South American nation. Few Bolivian governments -- democratic or authoritarian -- survive for long. The average lasts little more than 10 months.

General Garcia Meza actually has done slightly better, managing to remain in office for 11 months. His is the nation's 190th government since Simon Bolivar, the South American George Washington, ended Spanish colonial rule in 1825 and named the country after himself.

Freedom from Spain and Bolivar's vision of a bright future for the mountain-girt land have never been enough to bring it stability. Personal rivalries quickly developed following independence. Over the years this problem has repeatedly surfaced and is a factor in the current power struggle.

Battlefield defeats over the past century have led to the loss of about half of Bolivia's original territory. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay took over rich agricultural and mining land and left the nation with a feeling of "national inferiority," as a Bolivian historian has written.

Adding to this has been Bolivia's lack of a national conscience, resulting in some measure from the country's failure to assimilate its large Indian population, at least 70 percent of which is pure-blooded Indian. Most Indians do not know Spanish; they speak the gutteral Aymara or the Inca tongue, Quechua. Living outside the national economy, they keep to themselves, although they sometimes engage in bitter skirmishes with the Bolivian Army.

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Moreover, the bulk of Bolivia's population is located in the wrong place -- at least from the economic view. Too many Bolivians live in in the harsh, dreary highland Altiplano rather than in the potentially rich eastern lowlands. The Altiplano is a strange region whose dreariness is matched only by its lack of economic resources.

These problems, combined with the rivalry-prone military establishment, produce Bolivia's continuing instability.

General Garcia Meza, like others before him, has grappled unsuccessfully with the instability and been defeated by it.

After the two coup attempts in late May by district commanders, he relinquished his role as Army commander-in-chief, naming Lt. Gen. Humberto Cayoja to the post, and agreed to step down Aug. 6 as president. General Cayoja was coauthor of the weekend attempt to overthrow General Garcia Meza, and even though he is now under arrest, he could well emerge as Bolivia's next president.

Meanwhile, Bolivia's economy is in a tailspin. The country's principal export, tin, is currently commanding low prices on the world market, and other exports are off in volume. Inflation is running at 45 percent and agricultural production is down 20 percent.

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