- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2001

LA PAZ, Bolivia — 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 havent 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 Banzers administration. Its 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 dictators elected civilian government. Some contend that the retired general, who turned 75 on May 10, is showing the authoritarian bent of his dictatorship in the 1970s.

'Democracy for the rich'

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, Gen. Banzer returned to the political game after dictatorship went out of style. This time, he decided to play by the rules.
"Heres 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 who has studied Bolivia for more than 40 years.
Yet many question the sincerity of Gen. Banzers transition, and critics point out streaks of the old strongman in his present rule that have added to a high disapproval rating.
His past is well-known.

Led coup 30 years ago

In 1971, Gen. 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 Gen. 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 Gen. Banzer.
Three years earlier, Gen. 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.

Bowed to Congress

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, Gen. Banzer supported Congress when it elected Victor Paz Estenssoro as president.
In 1997, Gen. 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," said U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha, noting that Gen. 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 Gen. 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 Gen. Banzers government.
"This was a fantastic development, one of the better things that has happened in Banzers democracy," said Mr. Gamarra of Florida International University.

No gains for many

His critics argue that Gen. Banzers 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 wide.
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 out.
"The government simply doesnt think about us," said Timotea Carvajal, 65, a mother of 10 who tries to make a living on the $2.50 she earns daily selling candy on the streets of El Alto, Bolivias fastest growing city.

Police are heavy-handed

When throngs of protesters like Mrs. Carvajal fill the streets, banners in hand and faces defiant, they are usually 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 Gen. Banzer to order a crackdown that resulted in clashes that killed 20 persons 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 solutions.
Recent opinion polls in Bolivias four major cities found large majorities think Gen. Banzers government has made things worse. Many said Gen. Banzer should resign, but he has flatly refused to step down before the end of his term Aug. 6, 2002.
"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.

Economy hasn't helped

Even Gen. Banzers critics agree he hasnt 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 Gen. Banzer stepped back into the presidential palace.
Yet his firm decision to eradicate Bolivias illegal coca growing has had a profound effect on the economy. That alone has stripped the nation of nearly $300 million a year, leaving many farmers jobless and angry.
Under Gen. Banzers U.S.-backed Dignity Plan, the army wiped out 106,000 acres of coca in the Chapare, once one of the worlds 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.

A favorite of Washington

Gen. Banzers positive relationship with Washington has helped keep money rolling into Bolivia. According to U.S. Embassy figures, U.S. assistance has averaged $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 nations 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 government.
This lack of faith in democracy has led many Bolivians to see no harm in urging Gen. Banzer to resign, since they feel he has done nothing for them while in office.
"Banzer was an assassin before," said Mrs. Carvajal. "Hed probably like for all of us to die of hunger."


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