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Goodbye Mr. Bolivian President

Monday, August 6, 2001 01.12

Goodbye Mr. Bolivian president

Banzer’s health forces his resignation today, leaving behind an unraveling Bolivia

Banzer may be indicted for crimes against humanity if cancer does not claim him first

Peasant roadblocks, civil unrest, unstable economy and weak government could spell trouble

Corruption ranking abysmal; 84th out of 91 nations surveyed

Banzer’s successor being tarnished by crackdown against campesinos

Bolivia is one of a score of Latin American nations that the State Department and White House somewhat jocosely term a “democracy.” However, as Bolivian president Hugo Banzer prematurely relinquishes his office on August sixth for reasons of health, he leaves behind a deeply flawed personal chronicle and a nation facing political and economic upheaval. During his presidency, Banzer continued, if to a lesser extent, to display the authoritarian bent of his 1971-1978 dictatorship by repeatedly using Bolivia’s security forces to crackdown on protesters, especially those opposing the eradication of the cultivation of the coca leaf, as well as to persecute Andean indigenous leaders. Although Banzer was far from a democrat, and his departure undoubtedly will be received joyously by most Bolivians, a strong democratic nation will not automatically arise in his wake, with Bolivia facing its worst crisis in 30 years.

His successor, Vice President Jorge Quiroga, while respected for his intelligence, is not particularly well liked by most of the population, and he can be expected to generally continue the iron fist approach favored by Banzer. In fact, Quiroga has been, in effect, running the country in Banzer’ s absence and thus shares responsibility for the security forces’ excesses. Today, Bolivia is a country without a functioning economy, with its institutions coming apart as a result of corruption, cronyism, and human rights abuses.

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Banzer’s rights abuses

During the 1970s, in a country that had no modern tradition of internal violence, Hugo Banzer headed a right-wing military dictatorship that carried out the murders of at least 468 individuals, detained close to 2000 political prisoners, and “disappeared” at least 60 more without a trace. What’s more, Banzer displayed a complete disregard for a free press by cracking down on opposition newspapers and radio stations, causing almost 70 journalists to flee into exile along with leftist politicians and trade unionists. In achieving this atrocious record, Banzer stated, “These acts happen, but not because of the government…and those that are afflicted with the deprivation of their freedom or life are not saints. They are not little angels…but came to alter the established order, whether constitutional or de facto.”

As Banzer receives chemotherapy for his cancer at Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, who earlier had indicted Augusto Pinochet, may yet be successful in his legal action against the former Bolivian strongman for his flagrant human rights violations during his reign of terror in the 1970s. But health problems may claim him before Garzon puts his extradition request into motion.

Political forecast for Bolivia

The erection of roadblocks by dissident campesinos creates one of the country's most urgent problems. The roadblocks are a manifestation of the frustration within the farming and indigenous communities that reflect the country’s current economic and political dysfunction. On July 30th, Bolivian farm workers and governmental officials extended by ten days a July 20th truce, which resulted in suspending the blockade of a major section of the Pan-American Highway by neighboring campesinos, in order to negotiate a list of peasant demands. These demands, which have inspired considerable debate, include $500 million in agricultural credits, the approval of several bills for development projects for local communities, as well as a request for the repeal of Supreme Decree No. 21060 (enacted in 1985 under Victor Paz Estenssoro, which deregularized the national economy by introducing the free market and austerity). Because this decree served as Bolivia’s model for its neo-liberal policies, as well as paving the way to achieve macroeconomic stability through the implementation of complementary monetary, fiscal, exchange rate and wage policies, the new government is not likely to reverse course on upholding it, and neither is it likely that the protesters will acquiesce.

The most recent episodes of road stoppage, which began on June 22, all but closed down the transportation of goods through the La Paz and Altiplano regions. During the 30-day blockade, Bolivia’s tourism industry was extremely hard-hit, especially in the direction of Santuario de Copacabana and Lake Titicaca, with an estimated loss of $400,000 a day, further damaging the country’s already crippled economy. Meanwhile, clashes between protesters and military personnel resulted in two deaths, several wounded, and numerous arrests by the national police. Nevertheless, with the strong possibility of a breakdown in negotiations between the government and protesters, along with the resignation of Banzer, a new perhaps weak government will unlikely be able to alleviate the nation’s multiple social ills in short order. Failing to provide adequate job opportunities to the populace due to a continually sagging economy, the situation under the new president may deteriorate before it has time to incrementally improve.

In a nation where six out of ten people live in poverty and for the most part remain outside of the cash economy, others are facing the grinding reality of securing a tough livelihood through small-scale agriculture. As a result, much of the population has become alienated from the political process in this largely rural nation. In terms of Bolivia’s lack of public rectitude, Transparency International’s corruption index recently ranked the country 84 out of the 91 nations posted, making it one of the most corrupt nations in the world. Furthermore, the Bolivian government does less for its population than most other equally poor nations. Many inhabitants lack access to such basic services as potable water, sewage, electricity and primary health care, with the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) being about $1,036. The government, with a burdensome foreign debt to service, is still unwilling or unable to alleviate glaring examples of economic disparity within the nation.

Banzer and criminal ties

Another aspect of Banzer's controversial career was his ties with former Nazi Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie-Altman, nicknamed the “Butcher of Lyon,” who earlier had found refuge in Bolivia. Banzer not only shielded Barbie-Altman from France’s extradition filings for his putative crimes against humanity, but also employed the war criminal’s ruthless services in counterinsurgency operations and provided him with both a squad of uniformed bodyguards and a diplomatic passport enabling him to travel throughout Europe in the 1970s.

The record must read that in Bolivia, the average adolescent petty thief pays a far higher price than even the most notorious member of the nation’s military who is known to be guilty of atrocious crimes against civilians during the Banzer dictatorship. Nevertheless, decades later and after retiring from the military, Banzer, the beneficiary of the bloody 1971 military coup that overthrew the populist General Juan Jose Torres, was elected to the presidency in 1997 after several attempts at the top office. Presently, the Bolivian president, who once had a near feverish popularity which now has all but dissipated, sits in Washington undergoing treatment for what is considered a terminal illness.

Bolivians had been anxiously awaiting Banzer’s future plans to unfold, so that when Minister of Information Manfredo Kempff announced that the president would resign on Bolivia’s independence day, August 6th, this disclosure came as no great surprise. It may have been motivated by the possibility that the Bolivian Congress would have voted on August 11th against renewing Banzer’s authorization to vacate his office for another 30-day period under provisions of the country’s constitution. In addition, many well-informed Bolivians maintained that aside from last weekend’s visit to Sucre to announce his resignation and to celebrate Bolivian independence day, Banzer would never return to his nation in any permanent public capacity.

The Banzer presidency

During his current presidency, and under strong U.S. influence, Banzer was credited with eradicating the “underground economy” that produced and exported coca, an ingredient for cocaine. Although Banzer’s supporters point to this action as placing the economy on a more sustainable basis, it also could be argued that his policies pushed countless numbers of small farmers deeper into poverty, proving detrimental to both the rural area’s standard of living and the native Andean cultures, within which the coca leaf is an integral part.

During the last five years, the Banzer administration has presided over a system where corruption and cronyism ran rampant, and where a democratically-elected president, along with his military, couldn’t resist sanctioning human rights abuses. For example, under the direction of a joint policy orchestrated between Washington and La Paz, named Operation Dignity, the Bolivian military implemented a U.S.-designed counternarcotic enforcement program against the cocaleros (coca farmers), in the ecologically-fragile Chapare region. Even though farmers had been growing this plant for centuries, Banzer ordered the military to eliminate it, which they did with gusto. According to vocal Bolivian farmers, some cocaleros were killed in this process. In other Andean nations, the farmers were afforded the option of replacing coca crops with legal ones, but in Bolivia, the military stormed the illicit fields and systematically uprooted the plants.

In September of 2000, Banzer responded to those protesting his coca eradication policies that had created roadblocks by ordering a state crackdown on the demonstrators. In the ensuing melee with police, 20 were killed, 200 were left injured and numerous protesters were imprisoned. In April, clashes with police left two more dead and the Catholic Church was moved to issue a plea to the authorities for a peaceful resolution of the dispute instead of their utilization of brute force.

Under Banzer, treatment of indigenous protesters was often characterized by human rights abuses. For example, the situation surrounding Sure-Yani Eduardo Poroso Flores, a leader of the Leco Aguachile peoples, attracted much attention earlier this year, and is merely one more case of the abusive nature of the regime. Claiming that he was arrested and tortured in Bolivia for leading protests, Flores later fled to Ecuador and eventually ended up in London asking for political asylum with the support of several human rights organizations. He had antagonized the Bolivian government by continually castigating it for its antipathetic policy towards indigenous cultures.

Banzer’s successor

Upon Banzer’s resignation, Vice President Jorge Quiroga will assume the role of head of state. Quiroga, 41, has been running Bolivia on a de facto basis in Banzer's absence and will complete the presidential term, which ends in August of 2002. Generally, Bolivians see Quiroga, a former IBM executive and a graduate of Texas A&M University, as bright but not particularly inspiring. Recently, Bolivian business leaders had stepped up their call for Banzer’s resignation, citing that his illness and non-functioning in office were aggravating the nation’s grave economic difficulties. The combination of Banzer’s absence and the downturn in the country’s ability to normally function has further destabilized the society.

However, there’s a possibility that Quiroga may be able to put the nation on an improved economic and political track. For example, in 1997 when Transparency International ranked Bolivia as the second most corrupt nation in the world, rather than meeting the accusation with outrage, Quiroga invited the anti-corruption group to visit Bolivia and offer solutions to the country’s endemic problems. Furthermore, he solicited the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank to launch a $200 million program to help Bolivia fight corruption. With Quiroga as the new head of state, the Bolivian government may possess a greater ability to combat poverty, especially since it has somewhat improved its financial standing due to substantial debt relief. Last week, Quiroga initiated measures to carry out a government campaign against poverty. To enact this plan, the National General Treasury (TGN) is expected to disperse $50 million by December in order to put this program into motion, and to allocate $110 million dollars annually for 15 years to bridge the nation’s gaping economic disparity.

Yet, perhaps equally likely, Quiroga’s term may also be the setting for increased turmoil resulting from his role as an architect of the coca eradication operations. In recognition of this, the cocaleros may try to make the next year miserable for Quiroga. Further hindering any economic and political development that he may have in mind, Quiroga will only serve until the next regularly scheduled elections (in one year) because the Bolivian Constitution stipulates that an acting president cannot serve consecutive terms. Hence, the prospects for Bolivian economic and political recovery in the near future remain bleak, even if Quiroga delivers on his pledge to effectively govern. The possibility of members of rival political factions joining forces to pass essential legislation notwithstanding, the battle to promote economic prosperity and political stability in Bolivia will still be analogous to swimming up a waterfall. If the handling of the roadblock confrontation is any test, Quiroga has failed to meet his first challenge.

COHA Research Group, Kevin Considine lead researcher

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