Bolivian's Dark Past Starts to Catch Up With Him
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS
LA PAZ, Bolivia
-- When Hugo Banzer was democratically elected president in 1997, two
decades after his military dictatorship, most Bolivians seemed more interested in economic
issues than in past human-rights abuses.
of 200 Bolivians during Banzer's rule from 1971 to 1978 was only a minor
in the election campaign, by which time the former general had largely succeeded in polishing his
But then last
October another former dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet of neighboring Chile,
arrested in London on a Spanish judge's charge that he had led an effort to kidnap and kill leftists in
five South American countries in the 1970s, and Banzer's fortunes began to change.
quickly massed outside the Spanish Embassy in La Paz carrying signs that
"Banzer to trial." Now he is being besieged by allegations from local human-rights groups, the press
and even senior congressional members of his ruling coalition that he knowingly participated in joint
operations with the Chilean and Argentine military governments -- as part of a larger regional effort
called Operation Condor -- that led to the deaths of at least 36 people.
has not incited the same heated debate in this Andean nation of 8 million
people as in
Chile and Argentina, in large part because the scale of the human-rights abuses was far smaller. But
the charges and bad publicity are particularly distracting and embarrassing for Banzer since they
come at a time when he is seeking to attract foreign investment and aid to bolster one of South
America's weakest economies.
One leftist political
party participating in Banzer's government is going through a wrenching
debate about whether to supply the Spanish judge investigating Pinochet with evidence of Bolivian
involvement in Operation Condor that could eventually lead to Banzer's indictment in Spain.
Banzer has repeatedly
denied knowledge of Operation Condor, and no firm evidence has yet been
made public that links him directly to any disappearances. But already the allegations that his
previous government coordinated operations with Pinochet have jeopardized vital economic aid from
Holland, Belgium and Denmark.
efforts in recent weeks to silence criticism of his past performance as
dictator, both in the local media and on the floor of the lower house of Congress, have opened
questions about his commitment to open government and democratic reform.
inability to accept criticism for his past has reopened a wound," said
Toranzo Roca, a leading Bolivian political scientist and economist. "It's not as painful a wound as
Chile's, but the entire episode is generating complications for Banzer's government."
Garzon, the Spanish judge trying to extradite Pinochet from Great Britain,
where he is
now being held, has gathered evidence linking Banzer's first government to the kidnapping of seven
Bolivians -- three student leaders, a mining-union organizer and three guerrillas -- who were
transferred to Chile for execution.
government was apparently interested in interrogating the seven Bolivians
previously had close ties to members of the socialist government of President Salvador Allende,
which was overthrown in a 1973 coup.
activists and the head of the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies' human-rights
commission say a total of six Argentines were picked up by Bolivian security forces here and
transferred to Argentina for execution. Meanwhile, they say a total of 23 Bolivians disappeared while
they were living in exile in Argentina.
was organized by the Chilean secret intelligence service primarily to hunt
Chilean political exiles living in neighboring countries. According to Garzon, the military regimes of
Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia participated in the operation to eliminate their own
leftist activists, especially those living in exile.
After he was
overthrown in a military coup in 1978, Banzer shed his uniform and dedicated
to organizing a moderately conservative party. The abuses during the first Banzer government were
largely forgotten by 1981 because of the repression of a much harsher military regime that followed,
led by Gen. Luis Garcia Meza, who was strongly influenced by cocaine traffickers as well as Klaus
Barbie, a Nazi exile known as the Butcher of Lyons.
In the 1985 presidential
elections, Banzer won a narrow plurality of the vote but was prevented
taking office by the Congress. Rather than take the advice of party hard-liners who pushed for a
coup, Banzer accepted the results.
Since the 1997
election, the Banzer government has won strong applause from the Clinton
administration and U.N. officials for starting an aggressive coca eradication campaign. But for all of
his effort to reform his image, the old ghosts are beginning to return.
arrest, La Prensa, a Bolivian daily newspaper, began publishing a series
about Bolivia's role in Operation Condor. Allies of Banzer quietly threatened to cut off government
advertising in the newspaper. Three reporters considered unfriendly to the government were then
dismissed, and the paper's aggressive coverage stopped.
Chamber of Deputies overwhelmingly approved a resolution Nov. 25 asking
human-rights panel to assemble evidence on Bolivian involvement in Operation Condor and then
hand it over to Garzon. But after the commission came up with its evidence, senior government
officials lobbied hard against any congressional transfer of documents to the Spanish judge.
The Chamber of
Deputies reversed itself in a resolution Feb. 23. It added, however, that
Revolutionary Leftist Movement, or MIR, a government-aligned party that pushed for the original
congressional resolution, could offer Garzon the documentation.
The party executive
committee is now debating the issue, with members in its left wing arguing
they cannot forget that three of the seven Bolivians killed in Chile were members of the party. That
some current Banzer allies are seeking justice for dissidents who opposed the first Banzer
government shows how much politics has changed here over the last three decades.
Hugo Carvajal, president of the Chamber of Deputies, warned in an interview
the government put strong pressure on his party not to send the documents to Spain "it will generate
friction in the governing coalition." Carvajal, who himself was arrested and tortured as a student
leader in the 1970s, added, "Historical memory is important, and this is a matter of dignity, so I
won't keep quiet."
R, a monthly magazine, published an entire issue on Operation Condor that
featured a collage cover showing Pinochet with a portrait of Banzer in full military uniform hung on a
wall over his shoulder.
Editors of the
magazine accused Interior Ministry agents of trying to break into their
confiscate 1,000 issues before they were delivered to newsstands, a charge the government denies.
Guido Nayar Prado threatened to take the magazine to court for defaming
president with a cover he characterized as a fake. Embarrassed by the wide press coverage that
followed, Banzer told his minister to drop his threat.
In an interview,
Nayar Prado said, "They put the pictures of the two presidents together
readers into thinking that Banzer and Pinochet were the same, which is a lie."