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Home Facts SOA/WHINSEC Graduates Obituary: General Hugo Banzar Suarez; Bolivian Dictator Who Took Up Democracy
Obituary: General Hugo Banzar Suarez; Bolivian Dictator Who Took Up Democracy PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 06 May 2002 00:00
James Painter Banzer: ideological acrobatics

General Hugo Banzer Suarez was one of a very small number of Latin American dictators who later became president by the democratic route.

He ruled Bolivia from 1971 to 1978 (in a period known as the Banzerato), one of a crop of military strongmen who dominated South America at the time. Once ousted, most dictators seek quieter times, hoping the past does not catch up on them. But Banzer dedicated the rest of his life to shaking off his authoritarian (but not right -wing) past. It eventually paid off. After standing in six presidential elections over a period of almost 30 years, he finally triumphed in 1997.

The grandson of German immigrants, and the son of an army commander, Banzer was born in 1926 in Concepcin, an old Jesuit mission, not far from the centre of Bolivia's tropical east, Santa Cruz, then as now almost a separate country from the high plains around La Paz. Only 14, he joined the army college, where he was the smallest but most distinguished cadet.

Rapid promotions made him a colonel at 35, and head of the army college in 1969. His strong point was logistics. He spent several periods in the United States, first at the School of Americas in Panama (known pejoratively as "the school for coups"), and later as military attache in Washington in 1967 after he had served as Education Minister under President Rene Barrientos. This imbued him with a strong admiration for the US.

He seized power in a coup against the left-leaning government of General Juan Jose Torres in August 1971, and soon afterwards received unprecedented amounts of US aid. Initially he could count on the formal support of two parties, including the MNR (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement) which had overseen Bolivia's nationalist revolution in 1952. Brazil too was keen to enlarge its influence in Bolivia, and lent Banzer its support.

In November 1974, he performed an "autogolpe", dispensing with his civilian allies and passing several authoritarian laws not unlike those imposed by General Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Indeed, in many ways his regime was similar to those right across the Southern Cone: a free-market model with strong incentives for foreign investment, an avowal of Christian and nationalist values against the perceived threat of Communism, and a brutal response to virtually all opposition activity.

The cold statistics of repression are always imprecise, but at least 200 people were killed, 3,000 arrested, and thousands more exiled during the Banzerato. The worst incident was the so-called "massacre of the valley" in January 1974 when at least 80, possibly 200, Indian peasant farmers were killed by the army during protests against price rises. The level of terror was never as acute as in neighbouring Chile and Argentina, but Bolivia has always had a much smaller political class.

Banzer oversaw an important shift in the economy towards the agroindustrial and oil interests of his home base in Santa Cruz and the east. The economy grew at an average rate of about 5 per cent, but heavy borrowing, as throughout Latin America, left Bolivia saddled with a debt burden it is still trying to escape.

The growth of the 1970s expanded the urban middle class, which helped to give a constituency to the party Banzer himself founded in 1979, the ADN (Nationalist Democratic Action), as his personal vehicle. As trenchantly conservative as its leader, the ADN has successfully become one of the three main parties to dominate Bolivian politics since 1985.

Banzer won the highest share of the vote in 1985 (almost 29 per cent), but, in accordance with the electoral laws, the Bolivian Congress had the final say. It chose his long-term rival and second-placed candidate, Vctor Paz Estenssoro of the MNR. Paz promptly implemented a harsh neoliberal economic model, which slashed inflation from over 20,000 per cent to single digits. Banzer and the ADN formed a "Pact for Democracy" with the MNR, supporting the measures in the legislature, but not before ADN officials had complained of Paz's stealing their "big idea".

In the next presidential elections, in 1989, Banzer came second but, to keep out the MNR, he supported an ex-Marxist he had imprisoned in the 1970s, Jaime Paz Zamora. For the second time in four years, Banzer withdrew his challenge for the presidency, a decision paraded by his admirers as proof of his democratic virtue. In reality, he was all too often the candidate least likely to be approved by Congress because of his past.

The ideological acrobatics needed to cement the relationship between the former dictator and his victim proved no obstacle to the AND's signing a "Patriotic Accord" to give Jaime Paz the presidency. While Paz was the charismatic front man, Banzer often wielded the real power behind the throne.

Banzer retired from politics after defeat in the 1993 elections to the MNR. He was physically frail and apparently a broken man, still saddened by the death of his two sons in separate, tragic accidents. But he was coaxed back in 1995 to stand just once more as the ADN candidate in 1997. His dream came true when he both won the highest percentage of the vote and formed an alliance to support him.

His second term as president was dogged by corruption scandals, nepotism, frequent cabinet changes, three general strikes, several deaths during protests and calls for his resignation. He pursued the same neoliberal measures as his predecessors, but low economic growth failed to lift Bolivia out of its status as South America's poorest country. However, under huge pressure from the Washington, he did oversee drastic reductions in coca cultivation. He stepped down in August 2001 after being diagnosed with cancer.

A diminutive, dapper man, Banzer was more a good organiser than an inspired speaker. A recent biography crammed with his quotations hardly produced a memorable phrase. Indeed, he owed his electoral success more to his party machine and to slick, well-funded television campaigning.

In a country often mired in drug-related scandals, Banzer managed to avoid any mud sticking to his name. Several of his relatives, and many of his party, were clearly implicated in benefiting from Bolivia's coca- cocaine economy, but he personally was not. Indeed, when one brazen leader of a rival party recently accused him of being a trafficker, Banzer's response was to go round to his house, point a revolver at him and threaten to shoot him if he repeated the accusation. For Banzer, it was a matter of pride. But unsurprisingly, his critics said this proved he was incapable of abandoning his authoritarian instincts.

That was Banzer's great millstone. Most Bolivians could not shake off the constant doubt that, out of military uniform, civilian clothes did not really fit him. He was a devout Catholic, and on Good Friday 2000 he asked Bolivia for forgiveness for his crimes in the 1970s. He was not, and will not be, forgiven by his victims.

Hugo Banzer Suarez, soldier and politician: born Santa Cruz, Bolivia 10 May 1926; President of Bolivia 1971-78, 1997-2001; married 1962 Yolanda Prada (three daughters, and two sons deceased); died Santa Cruz 5 May 2002.

Copyright 2002 Newspaper Publishing PLC
The Independent (London)
Last Updated on Thursday, 30 May 2002 16:44

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