Hugo Bánzer Suárez: 1926—: Politician
Ailing Bolivian president Hugo Bánzer Suárez resigned in August of 2001 after a long and sometimes controversial political career. A top military officer who engineered a 1971 coup, Bánzer led Bolivia through seven years of harsh military rule. Nearly twenty years after yet another military coup forced him from office—and after Bolivia had implemented sweeping democratic reforms—Bánzer was elected president. Over the next four years, he won praise for allowing Bolivia's progress toward a full democracy to flourish. Diagnosed with cancer at age 76, Bánzer resigned from office for the second time and his Vice President, Jorge Quiroga Ramírez, was named to succeed him. The handover continued Bolivia's relatively recent tradition in peaceful transitions of political power.
Long Military Career
Bánzer was born in 1926 into a Spanish ranching family. They lived in Concepción, in the largely agrarian Santa Cruz province. He was sent to La Paz, Bolivia's largest city, for schooling, and then entered the Bolivian Army Military College. He became a cavalry lieutenant in the army upon graduation, and enjoyed a successful military career for a number of years. Postwar-era involvement in South American political affairs on the part of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), brought Bánzer to the attention of American "advisors" interested in keeping leftist movements from gaining ground on the continent, and he was invited to attend the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Panama. He also studied at the Armored Cavalry School in Ft. Hood, Texas in 1960, and at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia.
Bánzer served as Bolivia's minister of education from 1964 to 1966, but his first cabinet post also came at the onset of a period of notorious political instability in the country: 16 governments came and went over the next 19 years. "Some lasted only days, even hours," explained a report in the Economist. "Vociferous working-class and peasant movements gave the generals all the excuse they needed to overthrow left-wing civilian governments, often with American encouragement, as part of a struggle against communism." Bánzer was named as Bolivia's military attaché in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, a prestigious post. Returning home in 1969, he was named commander of the military school of the Bolivian Army. The following year, he was exiled after a coup by General Juan José Torres; in response, he planned his own successful military takeover, which occurred on August 22, 1971.
At a Glance . . .
Born May 10, 1926, in Concepción, Santa Cruz, Bolivia; married; Yolanda Prada; children: five. Education: Earned degrees from Bolivian Army Military College, Military School of Argentine Republic, U.S. Army School of the Americas (Panama), Armored Cavalry School (Ft. Hood, TX), 1960, School of High Command of the Bolivian Army, School of the Americas (Ft. Benning, GA), School of National Superior Studies of Bolivia. Politics: National Democratic Action Party, Bolivia. Military Service: Joined Bolivian Army; made commander of Fourth Cavalry Regiment; served as military attaché, Bolivian Embassy to the United States, 1960s; commander-in-chief, Armed Forces of Bolivia; commander, military school of the Bolivian Army after 1969; chief of intelligence dept. of the Bolivian Army; also served as chief of high command, departmental commander division, and military professor.
Career: Bolivian minister of education, 1964-66; became president of Bolivia in a military coup, 1971, left office, 1978; served as Bolivia's ambassador to Argentina, 1978-97; National Democratic Action Party, Bolivia, founder, 1979, and chair; president, Political Council of the Patriotic Alliance, 1989; elected president, 1997, retired, August 2001.
Awards: Recipient, gold medal of Mayor's Office of Sucre, Bolivia; gold medal of the Ret. Magistery; Guerrilleros Lanza medal; El Condor de los Andes award, government of Bolivia; Army Merit medal, United States military; also decorated by the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
Bánzer's seven-year regime was one of the longest in Bolivian history; since becoming a nation in 1825, power had changed hands, often by coup, nearly 200 times. His rule was marked by typical hallmarks of repression amongst South American autocracies: universities were closed, the press was controlled, and political parties had little power. Furthermore, human-rights abuses occurred; 15,000 were arrested, and 19,000 were forced to flee. Bánzer was also accused of allowing the drug-trafficking trade to flourish in order to bolster Bolivia's economy after exports from one main crop, cotton, diminished. Bolivia suffers a statistical honor as the poorest nation in South America. Once part of the Spanish Empire and a thriving center of the tin mining trade, it is home to a majority of Amerindians, comprising half of its population of 8 million, who are mostly of Quechua and Aymara ethnicity. About 30 percent of Bolivians are mestizo, or mixed heritage, while families of European descent, like Bánzer's, make up the remaining 15 percent of the populace. Rich in resources, it is landlocked and lacks a large infrastructure because of mountainous Andes terrain and jungle topography. Its neighbors are Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, and Peru, each of which has also endured its own political or economic woes in the modern era.
During the 1970s Bolivia under Bánzer became one of the world's largest suppliers of cocaine on the illegal international market; the drug is made from plants grown for centuries by Quechua and Aymara farmers. In 1975, his private secretary was found to be carrying a large amount of cocaine at the Montreal airport, and Bánzer's son-in-law was also found in possession of the drug. Yet perhaps the most notorious incident of Bánzer's military regime was a crackdown on a peasant rebellion in the Cochabamba Valley in 1974. Fighter planes and armored vehicles dispersed crowds gathered to protest price increases, and 200 died—and none among that number were military personnel. It came to be known as the "massacre of the valley." Bánzer also worried some for forging political ties with General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, who became ruler of Chile in a bloody 1973 coup. The two countries had warred in 1883 over a section of the Pacific coastline, and Chile emerged victorious. Bánzer unsuccessfully tried to regain the territory in a 1976 summit on the border, and the two generals famously embraced for press photographers.
Ousted from Office
Still, Bánzer's 1971-78 rule ushered in a period of stability for Bolivia. His economic policies stabilized the economy, and the country enjoyed short-term benefits from U.S. foreign aid and high oil prices. But when the economy began to falter, protesters went on hunger strikes, and there were widespread calls for democratic elections. Bánzer complied and held elections in 1978, in which he did not run but instead backed a general. That candidate, Juan Pereda, won, but Bánzer's government declared the election fraudulent, and nullified the vote. In response, Pereda led a coup that ousted Bánzer.
Bánzer served as Bolivia's ambassador to Argentina from 1978 to 1997, but also moved toward the political mainstream soon after his ouster. He formed the National Democratic Action Party of Bolivia (ADN) in 1979, and he ran for election in every presidential contest after a constitutional government was restored in 1982. Though he failed to win, candidates of his ADN party usually took a number of seats in the Bolivian Congress. The party made peace with workers and peasants, and forged coalitions with the other leading political groups, such as Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR). That alliance gave Bánzer and his party control of the country's economic policy for four years between 1989 and 1993.
Later in the 1990s, Bolivia began to enact some free-market reforms under a new president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. This involved selling off parts of large state-run utilities to private investors. Public sentiment was opposed to some of these economic policies, for the reforms seemed to benefit only a small, elite class of Bolivians and foreign investors. The country remained desperately impoverished: two out of three Bolivians still lived below the poverty level, the annual average income was just $800, 20 percent of adults were illiterate, and one child in three in the rural and mountain areas suffered from malnutrition.
Bánzer was elected in 1997—although not by a popular vote. He and the ADN took a thin majority of the votes, besting MNR candidate Juan Carlos Duran, former president Jaime Paz Zamora, and Ivo Kuljis, a millionaire from the agrarian center of Bolivia. Bolivia's constitution specifies that a presidential candidate must win over half the popular vote, or the election will then be decided by Congress. Amidst some worries from international observers about the return of a former dictator, Bánzer was approved by Congress and was sworn in for his five-year term on Bolivia's Independence Day, August 6.
A New Era
Bánzer's four years in office proved to be something of a surprise for his detractors. Instead of reviving the harsh autocratic rule of his earlier presidency, he worked to ensure progress on human-rights laws, and championed a reform of the judiciary with a new criminal-law procedure code. He strengthened ties to the United States, and complied with American and United Nations strategies to eliminate Bolivia's drug trade. This move—which sometimes involved paramilitary raids on Aymara or Quechua coca farms, whose families had been growing the plant for centuries—was an unpopular strategy in the countryside. The resulting decline in the coca trade brought economic hardship and ensuing violence.
Bánzer's presidency was marred by his prior association with Pinochet. In October of 1998, Pinochet was arrested in London, and a judge in Spain ordered him extradited there to stand trial for human-rights abuses stemming from his presidency. Pinochet was eventually returned to Chile and placed under house arrest. but the Spanish legal case presented evidence that linked Bánzer to Chile's infamous "Operation Condor" in the 1970s. This was an attempt by Chilean military intelligence to eliminate political threats to the Pinochet regime, which was said to have been supported by the CIA. Allegedly Bánzer and leaders of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay agreed to return political refugees to their home countries—where they were usually harassed and often imprisoned; some died in custody.
Bánzer denied any knowledge of Operation Condor and asserted that the charges were baseless, according to a report in the Economist. He claimed instead "that he is the victim of an international socialist conspiracy to defame him," the magazine reported. "In off-the-cuff remarks, he also blamed certain unnamed European governments for providing shelter to these supposed far-left libellers." Bánzer was criticized both at home and abroad for these statements, which were viewed as a setback for progress on human-rights issues in the country. Some members of Bolivia's Congress had been part of that younger generation in South America targeted by Operation Condor, and had even been jailed during Bánzer's own regime.
On a more positive note, Bánzer backed down when protests in Cochabamba Valley once again threatened to turn deadly. A plan to privatize the water system and build a dam there would have yielded increased water charges for residents, and protests in April of 2000 grew into a road blockade. Bánzer sent in army troops, and protesters fought back, setting fire to government vehicles. Anti-government sentiment across Bolivia gathered force, and there were several strikes, including one by its police force. As a result, Bánzer's government was forced to make some concessions, and the dam project was canceled.
Resigned Due to Poor Health
In 2001 Bánzer read a statement before Congress that called for further constitutional amendments to change the country's electoral system, making it fully democratic. His 50-point plan was viewed, however, as a concession and stop-gap measure in the face of a growing movement for further reform. As a report in the Economist noted, the backdown of Bánzer's government the previous year in the Cochabamba Valley protests inspired "new political movements—formed to lobby for water rights, more power for indigenous Indians, or stronger measures against corruption" to challenge the government on other fronts. "Many people want a broad referendum on how the country should be governed," the Economist article continued, "and there are even demands for a constituent assembly."
Bánzer's days in office were limited, however: he had been diagnosed with lung and liver cancer. He went to the United States for treatment in July of 2001, and received chemotherapy at the esteemed Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He returned to La Paz and resigned his office on August 6, 2001. His vice president, Jorge Quiroga Ramírez, took over to complete the remainder of the term. Telegraph correspondent Jeremy McDermott quoted Bánzer as saying when he arrived back in the country, "I want Bolivians to remember me simply as the sower of realities, not illusions."
Current Leaders of Nations, Gale, 1998.
Dallas Morning News, August 2, 2001.
Economist, July 1, 1989; June 5, 1993; May 31, 1997; August 9, 1997; November 7, 1998; February 27, 1999; April 15, 2000; February 24, 2001.
Independent (London, England), July 22, 1998.
New York Times, March 14, 1999.
Oil Daily, July 10, 2001; July 30, 2001.
Telegraph (U.K.), August 7, 2001.
Washington Post, July 28, 2001.
World Press Review, June 2000.
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