May 27, 2001

Reformed Bolivian dictator still stirs angry passions

                 LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) -- Sweat glistening on their bare chests, four men
                 hang from makeshift wooden crosses outside a colonial-era church,
                 tattered rags binding their arms and legs.

                 Signs in shaky cursive dangle above them, one labeling a politician a "friend of
                 the rich, enemy of the poor," another simply stating: "Die, government."

                 It is lunchtime in La Paz, but these men have not eaten for more than a week.
                 They are on a hunger strike, along with 3,000 other retired and disabled
                 workers across Bolivia, to demand an increase in pensions that were promised
                 -- but never delivered -- by the government.

                 They say they are the crucified, not the constituents, of President Hugo
                 Banzer's administration. It is a frequent lament these days as marches, strikes
                 and protests by coca farmers, union activists and Indian peasants reverberate
                 across the nation of 8 million people.

                 Three-quarters of Bolivians live in poverty, and many are disenchanted with the
                 former dictator's elected civilian government. Some contend Banzer, who
                 turned 75 on May 10, is showing the authoritarian bent of his dictatorship in the

                 Many people openly wonder if democracy has helped their lot in life.

                 "Democracy in Bolivia is for the rich," scoffed Apolinar Cerrogrande, 54, a
                 retired miner who spoke to reporters while hanging from one of the crosses.
                 "The poor just get oppressed."

                 Unlike other Latin American dictators from his era, Banzer returned to the
                 political game after dictatorship went out of style. This time, he decided to play
                 by the rules.

                 "Here's a man who ran a really nasty military regime, then gets out and comes
                 back to actively engage in straight, old-fashioned democracy," said Herbert
                 Klein, a history professor at Columbia University in New York who has studied
                 Bolivia for more than 40 years.

                 Yet many question the sincerity of Banzer's transition, and critics point out
                 streaks of the old strongman in the rule of the retired general that have added to
                 a high disapproval rating.

                 His past is well known.

                 In 1971, Banzer led a coup to oust leftist Juan Jose Torres and named himself
                 president. His military rule ushered in violent repression of the opposition as
                 universities closed for "reorganization." In 1974, he prohibited all political
                 activity, and those who rebelled became targets for "disappearances" blamed on
                 state security agents.

                 "His systematic targeting of opposition groups was pretty ruthless," said
                 Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian analyst at Florida International University in Miami.
                 "His word was law."

                 After Banzer was overthrown in 1978, Bolivia stumbled into turmoil that saw
                 presidents come and go, one of them the infamous dictator Luis Garcia Meza,
                 now imprisoned for atrocities during his 1980-81 rule.

                 Democracy regained its foothold in 1982, and with it came a new Banzer.

                 Three years earlier, Banzer had formed a political party, National Democratic
                 Action. He returned from Argentina, where he had gone after his ouster,
                 determined to win the presidency on democratic terms. He ran in every election.

                 A turning point came in the 1985 election. The former dictator came in first, yet
                 with less than 50 percent of the vote -- the constitutional requirement for the
                 presidency. Rather than seize office anyway, which many of his right-wing
                 military supporters were ready to do, Banzer supported Congress when it
                 elected Victor Paz Estenssoro as president.

                 In 1997, Banzer came in first again, with about 20 percent of the vote, and this
                 time was democratically voted into the presidency by Congress.

                 "I think he is a man who is not easily defeated," U.S. Ambassador Manuel
                 Rocha said, noting Banzer had surmounted the tragic loss of two sons -- one to
                 a car accident, the other to an accidental shooting while cleaning his gun.

                 Many believe Banzer has indeed strengthened democracy in Bolivia since
                 beginning his current term. They applaud him for upholding the national office
                 of ombudsman, currently filled by a woman who has frequently criticized
                 Banzer's government.

                 "This was a fantastic development, one of the better things that has happened in
                 Banzer's democracy," Gamarra said.

                 His critics argue that Banzer's embrace of democratic rule has done little to
                 improve the lives of average Bolivians.

                 The poverty plaguing the nation has worsened under his tenure. Corruption and
                 cronyism have not gone away, and the gap between rich and poor remains

                 For the majority that is poor and Indian, luxury is staying in school beyond age
                 12 or taking a bus instead of walking. The wealthy elite, those who frequent the
                 best restaurants, drive the newest cars and rule the country, have little in
                 common with most of their compatriots.

                 What could be a uniting factor, democracy, has instead left many feeling left

                 "The government simply doesn't think about us," said Timotea Carvajal, 65, a
                 mother of 10 who tries to make a living on the dlrs 2.50 she earns daily selling
                 candy on the streets of El Alto, Bolivia's fastest growing city.

                 When throngs of protesters like Carvajal fill the streets, banners in hand and
                 faces defiant, usually they are met by police in riot gear, armed with tear gas
                 and ready to fire.

                 Large-scale protests in April and September of last year led Banzer to order a
                 crackdown that resulted in clashes that killed 20 people and injured more than
                 200. This year, demonstrations in April resulted in two more deaths, prompting
                 the Roman Catholic Church to plead with the government for peaceful

                 Recent opinion polls in Bolivia's four major cities found large majorities think
                 Banzer's government has made things worse. Many said Banzer should resign,
                 but he has flatly refused to step down before the end of his term August 6,

                 "Banzer today has to be one of the most unpopular presidents this country has
                 seen," said Waldo Albarracin, a lawyer and president of the Permanent
                 Assembly for Human Rights in Bolivia.

                 Even Banzer's critics agree he hasn't had an easy go of it, at least as far the
                 economy is concerned.

                 His first years in office were marked by the Asian economic crisis and the
                 ensuing Brazilian currency devaluation that walloped South American nations.
                 And poverty and high unemployment existed here well before Banzer stepped
                 back into the presidential palace.

                 Yet his firm decision to eradicate Bolivia's illegal coca growing has had a
                 profound effect on the economy. That alone has stripped the nation of nearly
                 dlrs 300 million a year, leaving many farmers jobless and angry.

                 Under Banzer's U.S.-backed Dignity Plan, the army wiped out 106,000 acres
                 (42,400 hectares) of coca in the Chapare, once one of the world's largest
                 coca-growing areas. His commitment to taking Bolivia out of the South
                 American cocaine-circuit by 2002 has won him unwavering support from the
                 U.S. government, which many say has buoyed him during the social conflicts
                 that might have ousted lesser governments.

                 Banzer's positive relationship with Washington has helped keep money rolling
                 into Bolivia. According to U.S. Embassy figures, U.S. assistance has averaged
                 dlrs 115 million a year over the past five years.

                 Despite the aid, Bolivia remains an impoverished nation with only flickering
                 hopes of ending the enduring cycles of social tensions.

                 Many people remain disillusioned and distrustful of the nation's democratic
                 institutions. The church, the media and even the military rank higher on
                 confidence surveys than do the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the

                 This lack of faith in democracy has led many Bolivians to see no harm in urging
                 Banzer to resign, since they feel he has done nothing for them while in office.

                 "Banzer was an assassin before," said Carvajal, 65. "He'd probably like for all of
                 us to die of hunger."

                   Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.