The Miami Herald
July 21, 2001

Bolivia faces a 'deficit in leadership'

 Associated Press

 LA PAZ, Bolivia -- It's no longer on the front page of every newspaper. Few are talking about it in the streets. The average Bolivian seems little affected. The health of Bolivia's 75-year-old leader appears to have become an afterthought to the average Bolivian. But to those whose life is politics, the country is in crisis.

 It is unclear whether Gen. Hugo Banzer, currently being treated for cancer in Washington, D.C., will return to this impoverished, landlocked nation of 8 million to finish the one year left in his term as president.

 Banzer insists he is responding well to chemotherapy -- and has no plans to resign. Asked whether he was planning to turn over the presidency to Vice President Jorge Quiroga, he replied to reporters in Washington with an almost inaudible ``No.''

 But many here are wondering if the social tension always simmering beneath the surface could bubble up soon. Others question whether jockeying for power could lead to political instability or some kind of crisis down the road.


 Nothing seems out of the ordinary during a stroll through La Paz. Pigeons, workers on lunch break and professionals racing to their next appointments still fill the capital city's main plaza, which sits in front of the presidential palace where Banzer spent long days before being diagnosed with the lung cancer that spread to his liver.

 The president's absence from the palace since the end of June, and the prospect that he may not return for many more weeks -- or at all -- hasn't even fazed the average Bolivian.

 ``Since I'm not a politician, it doesn't affect me at all,'' said Mariano Cuaquira, 60 and unemployed, sitting on a park bench.

 Freddy Nina, an 18-year-old shoeshine boy, agreed: ``It affects those who get money from him, not us.''

 Banzer is not held in particularly high regard by many in Bolivia, where six out of 10 live in poverty.

 The president's popularity ratings have been low ever since he assumed office in 1997, in part because he hasn't shaken off his past: He led a dictatorship in the 1970s.

 Some say a power struggle has already begun. ``We're in a period of crisis,'' insisted Carlos Sánchez, secretary of the opposition Nationalist Revolutionary Movement.


 Never mind that government ministers insist that Banzer will come back to finish out his term. Others worry that power struggles within Quiroga's party, as well as
 heightening social discontent, are leading to a power vacuum.

 While Banzer is away for treatment, Quiroga is serving as acting president. But some say no one's really in charge.

 ``I do not think there is an institutional vacuum, but there is indeed a deficit in leadership,'' political analyst Jorge Lazarte said. ``Quiroga has not succeeded in convincing the country that he is in charge.''

 ``His ministers are the ones talking, but it's not always clear whether they are really talking on behalf of the president or just following their own political strategy,'' Lazarte added.

 Others put it more bluntly: ``There's really no one running the country,'' said Ricardo Blanco, 30, who works in communications at a La Paz university. ``They are fighting among themselves, and no one is listening to Quiroga.''

 Some say Banzer needs to step down.

 In an opinion poll taken by Marketing, an independent pollster, 44 percent of those asked want Banzer to resign and transfer power to Quiroga, while 22 percent would prefer he not quit.

 Others argue that Quiroga is just as incapable of finding permanent solutions to the massive social and economic problems plaguing the nation, especially as leftist
 leaders become more formidable after a recent decision to unite.

                                    © 2001