Bernardino Bilbao Rioja, unsung hero

Jorge EspinozaJorge Espinoza writes in El Diario:

Bernardino Bilbao Rioja, unsung hero

Bernardino Bilbao RiojaBernardino Bilbao Rioja was a prominent personality in the political-military sphere in Bolivian history. Born in Arampampa, Potosi, May 20, 1895. At 17, he entered the Military Academy of the Army in the city of La Paz, before being awarded a scholarship to Chile, graduating in that country as artillery second lieutenant in 1918. In 1919 he received the brevet of military pilot and aircraft in Chile.

In 1926, with the rank of major, Bilbao organized and founded the Military Aviation School, where he served as an instructor, he was one of the pioneers in the Bolivian aviation. In 1930, Bilbao was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army of Bolivia, also taking in the same year as Director of the Military Aviation School. The same year, after the overthrow of Hernando Siles, President Carlos Blanco appointed him as Acting Minister of War, soon to be in the same government Minister of Public Works and Communications.

Chaco War

In 1932 he moved to Villamontes as Aviation Inspector General to organize aviation and military transport. Then he commanded troops in different battles: Canada Strongest, Kilometer 7 and retake of Alihuatá, where his courage, his organizational skills, his gift to raise the flagging fighting spirit of its soldiers and its strategic vision, were instrumental in the Bolivian victories.

For fear of the unstoppable advance of the Paraguayan army commanded by its famous Gral. Jose Felix Estigarribia, some families left the cities of Sucre and Santa Cruz. And at the gates of Villamontes, Estigarribia prepared a frontal attack to take the country’s most important oil region, its ultimate goal. Despite the desire to detract his merits, the jealousy and envy of other military leaders, for his successes in several battles, it was decided to give him the command of the action to Col. Bilbao Rioja, which for the defense and battle of Villamontes, he had under his command five divisions and 26,000 fighters, the major force that any commander had until then.

The well-planned defense and battle of Villamontes by Bilbao Rioja, drove back the Paraguayan troops more than 100 kilometers between the January 16 and 21, 1935, winning the decisive battle of Villamontes and preserving oil fields, because soon after the peace armistice was signed.

Former President of Bolivia Carlos Blanco said: “But the Chaco War was the arena where the virtues of this illustrious leader have been revealed. All difficult, risky and decisive situation, had Colonel Bilbao, the head and heart capable of sacrifice and every effort in the direction of saving the national honor and integrity of the country: where he placed his sword, the enemy could not to advance”. Historian Ovidio Urioste in his work La Encrucijada [The Crossroad] (1942) states: “The General Bernardino Bilbao Rioja was the only Bolivian Chief who deserved to be President of the Republic, by his terms of honesty and recognized military value.”


As presidents of the country, followed many military that fought the VHaco War: David Toro, Germán Busch, Carlos Quintanilla, Enrique Peñaranda and Gualberto Villarroel. The war hero never took advantage of his immense popularity for political purposes. A few days of demobilization Bilbao left to be treated medically in England, where he worked for the Army as Military Adviser. He returned to the country in July 1939; on August 23 of that year, President Busch committed suicide. The Army proposed to Bilbao Rioja as Provisional President of the Republic. Bilbao rejected the invitation, in line with his political and military principles. The presidency was assumed by General. Carlos Quintanilla. The same year, Bilbao suffered a fierce beating in the Quemado Palace, was handcuffed and exiled to Arica, falsely accused of conspirator.

Despite widespread condemnation and civil and military uprisings demanding his return, the manipulations and infamies of his own colleagues prevented this from happening. Quintanilla appointed him as military attache in London, where he stayed seven years and graduated in Industrial Engineering in 1945. In 1946 he returned to Bolivia and went to the Army Reserve.

As a politician he participated in the Bolivian presidential elections of July 1951 with the Bolivian Socialist Falange political party (third place) and in the elections of June 1966 (second place). Soon after he retired to private life. He died in La Paz on May 13, 1983.

The government of Dr. Victor Paz in recognition of the actions waged by Bilbao in Alihuatá, Kilometer 7, Cañada Strongest and others enacted Law 824 of April 3, 1986 that “recognizes the degree of Marshal of Kilometer 7 to the great defender of petroleum and national honor to Mr. Major General Bernardino Bilbao Rioja”.

Homeland owes much to the forgotten General of the Army [Mariscal] Bilbao Rioja, who commanded the successful defense of the oil from the Chaco, which now constitute our breadwinner!

Personally, I had the unique privilege to have met General of the Army Bilbao, when he lived one block from my house in La Paz. He lived in the corner of Heroes del Acre street, in San Pedro neighborhood, La Paz. He invited me once to his house, where he showed me some of his books and was kind enough to respond the questions I teenager had…

The author of this wonderful historic piece, is totally right when he gives credit to General of the Army Bilbao for defending the wealth of Bolivia. Just think how our lives would have changed had we lost the Chaco oil… not even current ochlocracy would have had the time and opportunity to waste the $150 billion  dollars over the last ten years. A big chunk of that wealth came from the Chaco oil!

With great joy and respect, I welcome General of the Army Bernardino Bilbao Rioja to The Hall of Bolivian Fame!

Published by Bolivian Thoughts

Senior managerial experience on sustainable development projects.

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