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 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.
Barrientos was a native of Tarata, department of Cochabamba, and was of mixed Quechua and Spanish descent. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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,” 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).
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.