September 2012

Mariano Melgarejo : The history of a dictator


By: Michael O’keeffe
Projects Abroad Volunteer
London – United Kingdom

Mariano Melgarejo was born 1820 in Tarata an old colonial town, less than onehour drive away from Cochabamba, to a mestizo family. It wasn’t until he came to power in 1864 that it became apparent this small town had given birth to one of the most incompetent, corrupt rulers that Bolivia has ever seen. Before his rule he served in the army as general and was involved in three coups including that which brought him to power. During the first in 1953-1954 he was caught and would have been sentenced to death. He was, however, spared by the president against whom he had conspired, Manuel Belzu. According to some sources he pled drunkenness as his defense, others say a Cochabamba Ladies Society intervened on his behalf. Whatever the reason, President Belzu would later regret his moment of compassion. After rebelling, once again, on the side of the rebellious General Achá in 1861, Melgarejo made a successful bid for power alone, prevailing against Achá’s forces and slaying Manuel Belzu personally in La Paz. This took place in the Presidential Palace where a large crowd had gathered to witness the meeting and negotiation of the two leaders. After committing the deed Melgarejo came to the window and addressing the crowd shouted, “Belzu is dead, now who are you shouting for?” to which he received a bestial cry of “Viva Melgarejo!”

Folklore and legend characterize his rule with profligate behavior, alcoholism, ruthless suppression of the indigenous population and disastrous foreign policy. He is said to have ceded large or strategic tracts of land to Brazil. Legends say in exchange for a horse, others tell tales of his execution of his own shirt using a pistol. In 1868, like the numerous Caudillos preceding him, he put forward yet another constitution, Bolivia’s eighth since the first in 1826, further concentrating power into his own hands. At a banquet celebrating this event he declared that “…no one but me rules Bolivia.”

The rule of this tyrannical blow hard came to an end at the hands of his commander of the armed forces and long-time ally General Agustín Morales. On January 15th 1871 Morales’ coup in La Paz ousted the disgraced president, putting an end to his “sexenio” of terror. Melgarejo fled to Lima where, on November 23rd the same year he was shot, allegedly by his lover’s brother.

Folklore and legend characterize his rule with profligate behavior, alcoholism, ruthless suppression of the indigenous population and disastrous foreign policy.

The story continues from here, Marco Bustamante of the Museum Archaeological tells me, only in the form of Melgarejo’s skull, the rest of the skeleton being burned. “The skull was returned to Tarata around 1907 and put into the church.”

Marco has been working on the skull since 2008, his training as a biologist saw him selected for the job of preserving the precious artifact. “It was in terrible condition when I first saw it; insects, mold, most of the fine beard had been lost” he lamented, “However, we’ve put it in a sealed, dry environment and give it five minutes of UV light every week.” The UV does a good job of destroying corrosive microorganisms.

However, unable to gain access to the more effective silicon salts, they have had to use sodium chloride, or simply table salt, which has a much lower efficacy. Moist conditions create a fertile breeding ground for corrosive nastiest. Human bone, as opposed to other mammals, is particularly susceptible to bacterial degradation which creates problems for archeological finds the world over. One of the more interesting theories suggests that the concentration of human remains in graveyards have created excellent conditions for human specific bacteria to evolve and thrive.

Esther Leytón de Villena

But how and when did her passion for art grow? During high school she developed a close friendship with Claudia Alcalá, daughter of prominent artist Ricardo Perez Alcalá. It was at this moment that Esther would have her first “linea de seguimiento” in the world of art. In the following years, she made crucial acquaintances with artists such as her art professor Benedicto Aiza and artist Mario Conde, which helped her to define a stylistic approach.

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