Ovando was born in Cobija from an upper-middle class family of immigrants parents from Extremadura, Spain and Piedmont, Italy. He started his long military career in the early 1930s, when he served in the Chaco War against Paraguay. Originally rather apolitical, he was chosen (among others) to lead the reconstituted Armed Forces of Bolivia in the aftermath of the 1952 Revolution that installed in power the reformist Revolutionary Nationalist Movement party, better known as the MNR. Ovando lived through the relative deprivation, reduced budgets, and loss of prestige of the defeated Bolivian army during the early years of MNR rule. By the early 1960s, President Víctor Paz Estenssoro came to rely more heavily on the military in the face of growing political divisions among the governing elites. Equally as important in this rebirth was the considerable pressure exerted by the United States to modernize and equip the troops for a decidedly more political role: that of fighting possible Cuba-styled Communist insurgencies.