May 5, 2002

Former Bolivian dictator Banzer dies

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) --Former Bolivian President Hugo Banzer, a dictator turned
democratically elected leader, died of a heart attack early Sunday in Santa Cruz,
eastern Bolivia, according to his doctor.

He had been suffering from lung cancer that spread to his brain and throughout his
body. The two-time president, who will be best remembered for eradicating coca in
this Andean nation, was 75.

Banzer died at 5 a.m. in Santa Cruz, a tropical city in eastern Bolivia, said his doctor,
Freddy Terrazas. He died surrounded by his family in his home, where he had been
spending his last days after Terrazas announced in late February that his cancer had
spread to his brain.

Banzer's illness had forced him to resign the presidency on August 6, 2001, a year
before his term was due to end. He handed over power to then-Vice President Jorge

A dictator in 1971-78, Banzer re-entered politics after Latin American dictatorships
went out of style -- this time, as a democrat. After running in every democratic
election in the 1980s and '90s, Banzer finally won the presidency in 1997.

Always a controversial figure, Banzer will be remembered in both glowing and
glowering terms. Supporters say he did more to strengthen Bolivian democracy than
any of his political predecessors, pointing particularly to his success in eradicating
coca, a traditional leaf in Andean society that is also the base for cocaine.

Critics, however, contend Banzer never lost his autocratic streak, saying that even as
a democrat he abused human rights, succumbed to corruption and failed to represent
his impoverished, indigenous constituents.

In August 1971, Banzer led a coup that ousted the president, Gen. Juan Jose Torres,
and named himself leader.

Banzer's military rule ushered in violent repression of his opposition. Universities
closed for "reorganization," censors clamped down on the media, and in 1974 Banzer
prohibited all political activity. Those who rebelled became targets for
"disappearances" blamed on state security agents.

Widely accepted figures say that during Banzer's 1971-78 tenure, 19,000 people
were forced to seek asylum in foreign countries, 15,000 were arrested and at least
200 were killed for political reasons.

After surviving 13 coup attempts and failing to regain Bolivia's access to the sea
from Chile, Banzer was overthrown in 1978.

Tumultuous term

Democracy regained its foothold in 1982, and in 1997, Banzer was democratically
voted into the presidency by Congress.

His presidential term was plagued by social discontent in Bolivia, with coca farmers,
miners, senior citizens, teachers and peasants rising in protest.

Under Banzer's U.S.-backed Dignity Plan, the army wiped out 106,000 acres of coca
-- the crop used as the base for cocaine -- in the Chapare, once one of the world's
largest illegal coca-growing areas. His commitment to taking Bolivia out of the South
American cocaine-circuit by 2002 won him unwavering support from some --
particularly the U.S. government -- but others criticized the plan for its devastation
of the economy and ensuing human rights abuses.

Large-scale protests led by coca farmers and indigenous activists in April and
September of 2000 led Banzer to order a crackdown that resulted in clashes that
killed 20 people and injured more than 200. Demonstrations, strikes and road
blockades continued in 2001, with more deaths and many unhappy constituents
calling for Banzer to resign.

Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.