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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
"This was a fantastic development, one of the better things that has happened
Banzer's democracy," Gamarra said.
His critics argue that Banzer's embrace of democratic rule has done little
improve the lives of average Bolivians.
The poverty plaguing the nation has worsened under his tenure. Corruption
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
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
"The government simply doesn't think about us," said Timotea Carvajal,
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
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
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
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
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
economy is concerned.
His first years in office were marked by the Asian economic crisis and
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
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
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.