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In much of mid-nineteenth-century Latin America, charismatic military or political leaders with popular followings were common figures. In Bolivia, General Manuel Isidoro Belzu (1848–55), who gained the allegiance of urban artisans and plebeians in La Paz, was an exceptional example of these caudillos. Belzu was an early proponent of national economic growth based on domestic manufacturing, which earned him the ire of liberal elites tied to free-trade doctrines. His political adversaries sought to discredit him as a socialist and a communist. In a gripping speech from 1849, presented here, he inveighs against aristocratic privilege and the prevailing property regime, themes that were a constant in his public pronouncements. Belzu invoked the contrast between the disinherited classes and suffering common people in ponchos, on the one hand, and the oligarchy of gentlemen dressed in tails, on the other. The radical discourse associated with Belzu signified a historic rupture. It was with his government that the popular urban groups of artisans, small traders, and common people were first recognized as political actors. The narrow electoral world that existed up until that point doubled in size and would continue to expand, opening the doors to greater political participation and to an issue that had been absent until then in postcolonial Bolivia: social equality.

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