Bolivia’s former president revisits alma mater

By Daniel Gilbert

Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, A.B. 52 and twice-elected president of Bolivia, spoke to a standing-room only crowd at the International House’s Home Room on Monday evening, continuing the Latin American Briefing Series sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies.

Sanchez de Lozada, who studied philosophy at the University, resigned the Bolivian presidency under pressure from popular riots a year ago after election to his second presidential term in 2002. Now a political exile living in Washington, D.C., Sanchez de Lozada spoke without bitterness about his service record in his native country, and explained why he became a politician.

The son of a diplomat, Sanchez de Lozada moved to the U.S. with his father, who was first exiled from Bolivia by a military coup. After his father’s experience, Sanchez de Lozada said he promised himself never to become a diplomat or politician. Instead, he produced films, and later started a mining company, Compañía Minera del Sur, S.A., now the largest private mining company in Bolivia. A wealthy man, Sanchez de Lozada entered politics in 1979.

“It didn’t make sense to be the richest man in the poorest country,” he said. “You have to have a sense of responsibility; you cannot have responsibility without power.”

Following this decision, Sanchez de Lozada became a member of the Bolivian Congress, was elected president of the Senate, and was influential as minister of planning and coordination during the economic austerity reforms of the Paz Estenssoro administration.

Sanchez de Lozada defended himself against accusations of being a “Washington Consensus neoliberal.” “I am not a neoliberal,” he said. “In the first place, I don’t know enough about economics. They just branded me that way because I came from the University of Chicago.” Sanchez de Lozada, who was instrumental in the country’s adoption of a free market economic model, added that while economic problems are easy to solve when they are big, fine tunings are considerably more difficult.

In clarifying his economic views, Sanchez de Lozada stated that orthodoxy in free market reforms has created lasting problems in Bolivia. He emphasized the importance of a new paradigm based on social equity, for which economic growth is an important catalyst.

“Elections are about three things: jobs, corruption, and, I think, personal security. Of the three, jobs, or economic growth, is the most important,” he said.

Sanchez de Lozada also attributed a weighty importance to local government. “A society must be democratic, participative, and decentralized. Like a tree, you can only sustain a big tree if it has deep roots.” He noted that strong local government has reinforced democracy in the U.S. and other developed countries.

Arguing that free market reforms and democratic governments need each other, Sanchez de Lozada said that the former takes the brunt of decisions away from politicians, enabling them to perform their duties with greater freedom. “Can you imagine a president that could determine if it would rain or shine from one day to the next? He would never win another election,” Sanchez de Lozada said, noting the conflict that would result between farmers and other social entities. Instead, the “dark forces of the market” provide an important shield for leaders from some consequences of their reforms, according to Sanchez de Lozada.

As for possible aid from the U.S. government, Sanchez de Lozada remains despondent: “The second Bush government, I am convinced, will ignore Latin America,” he said. “That is their plan. But I don’t know if they will be able to.”