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
Barrientos made much of his peasant background and the fact that he was an orphan in his early teens. Crude and anti-intellectual to the point of vulgarity, he typifies ‘machismo’ or the Latin cult of masculinity. Right wing in his political and economic orientation, he demagogically adopted a populist vocabulary and style (as had the mnr before him), calling himself a ‘revolutionary’ and an ‘anti-imperialist’, and presented himself as the saviour of the peasants and workers. He visited the forgotten villages of the backlands, often piloting his own helicopter. The whirlybird was generally believed to be part of the us financing of the campaign. Barrientos spent a lot of money, and there was little doubt that it was provided by a combination of the us embassy and the government tills themselves.
Barrientos is a 1945 graduate of the us Air Force Flying School at Randolph Field, Texas, and he has served as a military attaché in Washington on several occasions. United States officials see Barrientos as a step towards getting things under control in chaotic Bolivia. Defence Secretary Robert S. MacNamara has praised Barrientos more than once. Sipping cocktails at a July 4th cocktail party, embassy officials in La Paz heralded the results of the elections and called Barrientos their ‘friend’ just as Paz had been a friend before him. Barrientos can be expected to take few actions against us interests, which have filled in the profitable investment gap created when the mnr let it be known that their revolution had nothing to do with social control of the means of production. The Bolivian Gulf Oil Company, for example, is solidly entrenched in exploiting rich oil deposits in the tropical lowlands of Eastern Bolivia, and government policy for the imminent exploitation of accompanying natural gas deposits promises to keep Gulf happy.