René Barrientos

René Barrientos
President of Bolivia (Co-Government with Alfredo Ovando)
In office
5 November 1964  26 May 1965
Preceded by Víctor Paz Estenssoro
Succeeded by Co Government with Alfredo Ovando
In office
May 26, 1965  2 January 1966
Succeeded by Alfredo Ovando
56th and 58th President of Bolivia
In office
August 6, 1966  April 27, 1969
Vice President Luis Adolfo Siles Salinas
Preceded by Alfredo Ovando
Vice President of Bolivia
In office
6 August 1964  4 November 1964
President Víctor Paz Estenssoro
Preceded by Juan Lechín Oquendo
Succeeded by Luis Adolfo Siles Salinas
Personal details
Born René Barrientos Ortuño
(1919-05-30)30 May 1919
Tarata, Cochabamba
Died 27 April 1969(1969-04-27) (aged 49)
Near Arque, Cochabamba
Nationality Bolivian
Political party Popular Christian Movement

René Barrientos Ortuño (30 May 1919 – 27 April 1969) was a Bolivian military officer and politician who served as his country's Vice President in 1964[1] and as its President from 1966 to 1969.

General Barrientos came to power after the 1964 Bolivian coup d'état which overthrew of the government of Paz Estenssoro. During his five-year rule, Barrientos and the army suppressed leftist opposition to his regime, including a guerrilla group led by Che Guevara in 1967.[2]

Early years

Barrientos was a native of Tarata, department of Cochabamba, and was of mixed Quechua and Spanish descent.[3] He was a career military officer, graduating from the military academy in 1943 and earning his pilot's license in 1945. Later in the 1940s, he gravitated toward the reformist Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, or MNR) party of Víctor Paz Estenssoro. Barrientos played a part in the Bolivian National Revolution of 1952, when the MNR toppled the established order and took power. In fact, he was given the honor of flying out of the country to bring back the revolutionary leader Víctor Paz Estenssoro, then in exile, once the rebellion succeeded. In 1957, Barrientos was rewarded when he was named commander of the Bolivian Air Force.

A "new" kind of general

Known as a rather obsequious, sycophantic supporter of the MNR, he slowly became famous throughout the country for his uncommon, and very public, feats of valor. In 1960, for example, a live parachute-drop demonstration by Air Force soldiers ended in disaster when their equipment failed and three of the fifteen parachutists fell to their death before a large crowd assembled. Recriminations flew as to who may be held responsible for the carnage. Barrientos, as Air Force commander, decided to put a demonstration of his own and jumped from an airplane himself, using one of the parachutes that had failed to open during the earlier debacle. His point was that there had been nothing wrong with the equipment or the training, just bad luck, but the incident cemented his popularity among certain sectors of the population.[4][5] Furthermore, the ruling MNR helped prop up his standing, as the MNR leadership constantly extolled General Barrientos' virtues as the paragon of the new kind of military officer the Revolution had fostered.

While around 1960 the ruling MNR party entered a phase of fragmentation due to personal and policy differences, Barrientos' stock was clearly on the rise. In addition, President Paz Estenssoro (elected to a second term in 1960) was leaning more heavily on military support to restore order to various parts of the country where rival pro-MNR militias had turned against each other, often on behalf of specific MNR leaders.[6] Disarming the militias (who had been allowed to keep their weapons since the 1952 Revolution) became a priority to Paz, and this enhanced the role the "new" armed forces played in the national arena. The most popular of these military leaders was, of course, the dashing Barrientos.

Rise to power

In 1961, Paz Estenssoro had the Bolivian Constitution amended in order to be allowed to run for consecutive re-election, feeling that only he had the standing to keep the crumbling MNR together. Traditionally, attempts such as these (known as "prorroguismo") have been strongly condemned by the Bolivian political elites, many of whose members may have been waiting for their turn to occupy the Presidential palace for years. This was no exception, and Paz's controversial move would soon prove harmful to him. Paz, surprisingly to some, chose General Barrientos as his running mate in that year's elections, and the two were sworn in in August 1964.[7] Just three months later, Barrientos in tandem with the Army Commander Alfredo Ovando toppled Paz in a violent coup d'état and installed himself as co-president in a Junta alongside General Ovando.[7]

His idea all along was to capitalize on his popularity and run for elections, with the full support of the Bolivian military establishment now in control of the country.[8] To this end, he resigned his co-presidency in early 1966 and registered himself as a candidate. With the most important civilian leaders (Paz, Hernán Siles and Juan Lechín) in exile, Barrientos was easily elected, and was sworn in during August 1966.

Barrientos as Constitutional President

René Barrientos and Don Rupert Herboso at the opening celebration of the largest mall in Bolivia.

General Barrientos was quite charismatic, and was throughout his presidency popular with ordinary Bolivians, aided by the fluency with which he spoke Quechua, the most important native language among the Bolivian peasantry.[5] Barrientos enjoyed a loyal following among the poor farmers of Santa Cruz and Cochabamba and was one of the first South American leaders to engage in small-scale farm mechanization. He cooperated with Frederick Pittera, an American inventor and manufacturer of small farm tractors (the chairman of The Tiger Tractor Corp., Keyser, West Virginia, which in 1962 was nominated by the New York Office of the U.S. Department of Commerce for the Presidential 'E' Award for Exports, was endeavoring to introduce a new cooperative farming concept to eliminate world famine with his U.S.-patented small farm tractor equipment. The FAO of the UN had concluded through studies that small-scale mechanization was the only answer to eliminating world famine by helping the world’s malnourished poor to help themselves by growing their own food. FAO instead opted for daily feeding programs that fed only a small percentage of the approximately 800 million (now 1.3 billion) starving people around the world at a cost of billions of dollars. According to Pittera, the effort was an abysmal failure and over 35,000 people continued to die everyday. Pittera also secured the interest of President Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay and General Juan Perón of Argentina and other government leaders in the Philippines, India, Indonesia and across Africa, but despite the non-profit structure of the venture neither the UN, World Bank or donor nations rendered any financial assistance to the impoverished nations who placed huge orders for the concept. According to Pittera (who is writing a book about his experiences) he believes the venture was sabotaged to let the starving populations die as part of a New World Order plan to depopulate the earth.

Barrientos was also skilled at manipulating the masses with his oratory, which often allowed him to present himself as both a populist and conservative, a revolutionary and a "law-and-order" advocate. Purporting to be a staunch Christian, Barrientos actively courted the Church and, in fact, chose as his running mate in the 1966 elections the leader of the small Christian Democrat Party of Bolivia, Dr. Luis Adolfo Siles. He was fiercely anti-Communist and pro-free market.[9] Accepting more military aid and acquiescing to the training of special forces designed to combat possible Communist-inspired insurgencies (under the aegis of the Alliance for Progress) made Barrientos particularly popular with Washington.

The 1967 Guerrilla

Barrientos had ample opportunity to prove his anti-Communist credentials in 1967, when a guerrilla force was discovered to be operating in the Bolivian southeast under the leadership of the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara in the Bolivian jungle. Barrientos was very concerned with Guevara's alleged popularity among the miners in the southwestern part of the country, and clamped down in the area with some very heavy-handed measures (such as the Massacre of San Juan). Guevara felt that such an atrocity by the Bolivian Army and Air Force would be the tipping point in his favour in rallying the miners to his Communist cause, but eventually the miners signed an agreement with the government-owned mining company Siglo XX, which agreement Guevara felt undermined his reason for being there. The war between President Barrientos and Che Guevara's militia did not end there, but eventually the Bolivian Army Rangers captured Guevara and executed him in October 1967.

Political troubles and Barrientos' death

While temporarily enhancing the president's stature, this only started more troubles for Barrientos. While the army was fighting the guerrillas, the miners of Siglo XX (a state-owned Bolivian mining town) declared themselves in support of the insurgency, prompting the president to send troops to regain control. This led to the "Massacre of San Juan,"[10] when soldiers opened fire on the miners and killed around 30 men and women on Saint John's Day, called Día de San Juan in Spanish, 24 June 1967. Further, a major scandal erupted in 1968 when Barrientos' trusted friend and Minister of Interior, Antonio Arguedas, disappeared with the captured diary of Che Guevara, which soon surfaced in, of all places, Havana. From abroad, Arguedas confessed himself to have been a clandestine Marxist supporter, denouncing Barrientos and many of his aides as being on the CIA's payroll. The episode embarrassed the administration and cast doubts about the president's judgment (after all, it was he who was friends with, and had appointed, Arguedas to the most important ministry post in the government).[11][12]

In the aftermath of the mining massacres and anti-guerrilla campaign, Barrientos was widely seen by some as a brutal dictator at the service of foreign interests while masquerading as a democrat. Eager to do some damage control and repair his once-excellent relations with the campesinos, Bolivian farm workers, the president took to traveling throughout the country to present his position, even to the smallest and remotest of Bolivian villages. It was a tactic that had yielded him good results in the past and Barrientos hoped to rebuild his political capital. However, when flying into Arque, Cochabamba Department, he perished on 27 April 1969, in a helicopter crash.


  1. (Spanish) Vice presidency of Bolivia official website
  2. Ernesto "Che" Guevara (World Leaders Past & Present), by Douglas Kellner, 1989, Chelsea House Publishers, ISBN 1-55546-835-7, pg 97
  3. James Dunkerley (2000). Warriors and Scribes: Essays on the History and Politics of Latin America. Verso. p. 3. ISBN 1-85984-272-0.
  4. Dunkerley, p. 5
  5. 1 2 "Bolivia: Not a Bird, Not a Plane But Barrientos" Time magazine Feb. 7, 1969. Accessed 14 December 2010
  6. "Bolivia: Reorganization of the Armed Forces, 1952-66," Accessed 14 December 2010
  7. 1 2 The Cambridge History of Latin America: Latin America since 1930: Spanish South America, pg 564.
  8. Military disengagement from politics. By Constantine Panos Danopoulos, pg. 50.
  9. "Bolivia: Plot or Ploy?" Time magazine, Jan. 15, 1965. Accessed 14 December 2010
  10. "The San Juan massacre," In Defence of Marxism, June 25, 2007. Accessed 14 December 2010
  11. "Bolivia: Consequences of a Diary" Time magazine, Aug. 2, 1968. Accessed 14 December 2010
  12. Antonio Arguedas obituary, The Guardian, Feb. 29, 2000.


Political offices
Preceded by
Alfredo Ovando
President of Bolivia
19641969 (co-president with Ovando from 1965-66)
Succeeded by
Luis Adolfo Siles
Preceded by
Juan Lechín Oquendo
Vice President of Bolivia
Succeeded by
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