René Barrientos Ortuñ (1919-1969), populist Bolivian president from 1966 to 1969, identified himself with the forgotten Indian masses, allied Bolivia closely with the United States, crushed Che Guevara's guerrillas, and was killed in a mysterious helicopter crash.
René Barrientos Ortuño was born at Tunary, a village near Bolivia's second city, Cochabamba, on May 30, 1919. His father was of Spanish ancestry and his mother was Indian, and she ensured that her son's first language was Quechua, which would later endear him to a huge Indian constituency. Following the death of his father when he was very young, he was sent to a Franciscan orphanage, striking out when he was 12 and putting himself through a private high school by working odd jobs. Upon graduation, he entered the military academy in La Paz.
Before he could graduate, however, he was bitten by the political bug and was expelled for activism. He supported the new, radical MNR (National Revolutionary Movement), which was to dominate much of Bolivia's later history.
Expelled or not, Barrientos ended up in the Army and was a lieutenant in 1952 when the MNR in a bloody revolt seized power under Victor Paz Estenssoro. In this period the MNR was thoroughly reformist, dedicated to changing the society as well as the economy and to upraising the forgotten and landless Indian masses through education, land reform, and nationalization of major foreign holdings. Despite the fact that one reform soon implemented was a drastic paring of the strength of the armed forces to a miniscule 5, 000 officers and men, Barrientos—who was briefly sent to the United States for flight training—was an enthusiastic supporter of Paz and his movement. Blending his penchant for reformist politics with his love for the military life, Barrientos in the mid-1950s, before becoming chief of the small Air Force, ran the U.S. Army-financed "Civic Action" program in his native Cochabamba province.
Paz announced in 1964 that he would again run for the presidency (he had fulfilled his first term, been succeeded by Hernán Siles Zuazo, and then served a second time). His air force commander, now well-known both in and out of the military, used his influence to try and become his running mate. Paz, however, balked and instead demanded that Barrientos resign from the military for meddling in politics. Before he could resign, however, Barrientos was wounded (in one of five separate assassination attempts during his life). Returning from treatment at an American hospital in the Panama Canal Zone, Barrientos was given a hero's welcome by the Bolivian people, and Paz reluctantly accepted him as vice presidential candidate. The Paz/Barrientos team won handily.
In November 1964, some three months after inauguration, the vice president, claiming that Paz was preparing a dictatorship, began a coup in Cochabamba supported by Gen. Alfredo Ovando Candia: Bolivia's 184th coup. Paz was easily ousted, and a junta ruled Bolivia, with Barrientos and Ovando as co-presidents from May 26, 1965, to January 1966.
Not content with a co-presidency, Barrientos spent much of 1965 roaming the interior, haranguing the peasants in their native tongue and building a massive rural power base. He pledged to "restore" the 1952 Revolution, enforce honesty and efficiency in the government, and seek much-needed development aid from the United States. By the end of the year he had created the FRB (Bolivian Revolutionary Front), a coalition of basically conservative peasant and business interests.
In January 1966 he resigned from the junta and campaigned actively throughout the country for the upcoming elections, which he won easily in July, his FRB capturing 62 percent of the votes. His presidency was strongly supported by peasant organizations (which he repaid by spending half of his time helicoptering around the interior to be with them), the business and middle classes, the military, and the U.S. embassy.
Barrientos' rule was characterized by moderate economic growth, a concerted drive to lessen the extensive powers of organized labor (bloody strike-breaking by the Army became common); significant increases in U.S. aid, including Green Beret and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) training teams which trained and advised the elite new Ranger regiment which crushed the Ché Guevara guerrilla movement in 1967; a growing centralization of political power at the expense of local and regional elites; and a quite successful courting of foreign investments. He made considerable progress in these areas, but his heavy-handed tactics (political arrests, exilings, martial law) alienated many. In negotiations with Chile (which had occupied the entire Bolivian seacoast in the 19th century War of the Pacific) to obtain a seaport he failed, disappointing more.
On April 27, 1969, again visiting his beloved interior, Barrientos was killed when the helicopter he was piloting hit a power line near Cochabamba. There is still considerable suspicion in Bolivia and elsewhere that the crash was not an accident but an assassination. Barrientos is still remembered fondly by many rural Bolivians as the president who cared.
There does not yet exist a biography of Barrientos, but a great deal of information on the man, his times, and his nation can be found in the following books: Dwight B. Heath, et al., Land Reform and Social Revolution in Bolivia (1969); James W. Wilkie, The Bolivian Revolution and United States Aid Since (1969); James M. Malloy and Richard S. Thorn, Beyond the Revolution: Bolivia Since 1952 (1971); Christopher Mitchell, The Legacy of Populism in Bolivia, from the MNR to Military Rule (1977); and Herbert S. Klein, Bolivia: The Evolution of a Multi-Ethnic Society (1982).