The inauguration of René Barrientos Ortuño as the ‘constitutional’ president of Bolivia on August 6th, 1966 represented the consolidation of military rule in that unfortunate land-locked Andean republic. More important than the mere consolidation of military rule, however, was the armed forces’ ability to move away from outright strongarm rule into the façade of a legitimately elected government. This is precisely the kind of military-promoted stability, order and democracy that Lincoln Gordon, us Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, so often brags about.
The tragedy of Bolivia is a double one, for the régime ousted by the coup, the mnr, first came to power in April 1952 on a programme that under other circumstances could have led to an advanced socialism. The mnr nationalized the tin mines, broke the traditional military and armed the peasants and miners, and put through a full-scale land reform.
But in 1952 the Cold War was already in full swing. In Korea, it wasn’t even so cold. The leaders of the mnr, instead of taking their revolution forward in accordance with their own anti-imperialist rhetoric, fell into decadence. Tremendous pressure and millions of dollars in aid from the United States pushed the Paz government to the right. No force in Bolivia seemed capable of stopping this drift. The nationalized mines were prejudiced by worn-out ore yields and a drop in the price on the world tin market, and in any case they remained beholden to the same big companies for processing and sale.
The people’s militias, instead of being maintained as vigilantes for the protection of the newly-won rights, became disorganized, were used for indiscriminate attacks on the mnr’s oldtime political enemies, while the class allies of those enemies were integrated into the mnr. As the militias were all but destroyed later on, the army rose anew. The mentality typifying mnr officials was neither nationalism nor revolution, but economic and political opportunism. The vote was given to the peasants, including illiterates, but instead of providing grass-roots political education, the government relied on a system of tight political control through local chieftains. Barrientos’ electoral advisers put themselves on the top of this system of controlled voting.
In many rural areas, only the green ballot of the Barrientos ticket was available to peasants. Supporters of the four opposition tickets were threatened with violence when they tried to enter these districts. In one small town, a hacienda owner reported that the peasants were herded into a big ranch house the night before the election for an eat-and-drink