NEWS

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October 20, 2003

Bolivian President ousted after civil unrest, flees to U.S.

Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (A.B. 52) resigned as president of Bolivia Friday after a month of protests left the country in a state of civil unrest.

Vice President Carlos Mesa assumed the presidency following Sánchez de Lozada's resignation. According to media reports, Mesa has been more successful in the past few days in quelling the social upheaval.

Sánchez de Lozada, 73, also known as "Goni," said he was experiencing "shock and shame" following the turn of events that drove him from his elected seat. The infighting followed Sánchez de Lozada's September decision to export Bolivian gas through Chile—the South American nation's traditional enemy.

Opponents argued that the $5 billion plan would be unfavorable to Bolivia, giving an unequal share of the benefits to Chile. They claimed that the royalties paid to Bolivia would be too low, according to Dain Borges, associate professor in the Department of History and director of the Center for Latin American Studies.

Nearly 80 people, mostly coca growers and labor leaders, have been killed since the demonstrations began about a month ago. Riots closed highways and stopped commercial flights in and out of La Paz, causing food and fuel shortages across the country. Sánchez de Lozada finally resigned after several politicians, including Mesa, withdrew their support because they disagreed with Sánchez de Lozada's methods of attempting to quiet the protests.

"This was a disgraceful massacre, and Goni could not, did not, stop it," Borges said in an e-mail interview.

Popular bitterness with Sánchez de Lozada can be traced to his first presidency, from 1993 until 1997. It was then that he fulfilled a promise to carry out reforms in medicine, and he was able to pin down inflation by selling off shares of state companies to private groups that raised foreign capital.

Similarly, Sánchez de Lozada downsized the payroll in state mining companies by laying off tens of thousands of unionized mine workers. He also raised Bolivian hopes with a pension reform and with revenue sharing that sent funds to small towns, Borges said.

Anticipating social upheaval in response to his latest round of reforms, Sánchez de Lozada turned to President Bush for help.

"I told him, ‘Forgive me for using this visit to ask you for $150 million, which is the gap we have in our budget because of the instability of the electoral process,'" Sánchez de Lozada told the Miami Herald after his resignation. "I told him I dared to make that request because when I would come back asking for political asylum a year later he would ask me what had happened."

The U.S. government responded with just $10 million for anti-drug cultivation efforts.

Sánchez de Lozada was elected in August 2002 with just 22.5 percent of the Bolivian vote. Without a clear majority, the election was sent to the Bolivian Congress, where Sánchez de Lozada made a deal with another faction to win the run-off vote.

"If there had been a constitutional process for recall elections in Bolivia like that in the state of California, Sánchez de Lozada might have been voted out of office earlier. His approval rating was supposedly 8 percent," Borges said.

Unions, opposition parties, and independent movements began protesting from the beginning of Sánchez de Lozada's presidency, according to Borges, who added that in February there were riots in La Paz and government buildings were set ablaze. "Goni had to escape the government palace in an ambulance," Borges said.

Sánchez de Lozada, currently exiled in Miami, had helped to stabilize the Bolivian economy and stop hyperinflation in the mid-1980s when he served as the country's finance minister. Through his "shock therapy" program, Bolivia's economy was opened to international trade. But in his second presidency, he couldn't stop the five-year recession that South America's poorest country is currently facing.

Though born in La Paz, Sánchez de Lozada grew up primarily in the U.S. because his father refused to live under the various military governments that had taken control of his native country. Sánchez de Lozada studied philosophy and English literature at the College, and he returned to Bolivia shortly after his graduation in 1952. He initially pursued filmmaking and aerial photography before entering the political arena, where he has been criticized for speaking Spanish with a slight American accent.

Tamar Herzog, a professor in the Department of History, attributed the Bolivian crisis to a larger trend in Latin American politics, one that she believes started in the mid- 1990s.

"Ecuadorians already dismissed two presidents by rioting in the streets, and in Venezuela attempts to do the same were unsuccessful," Herzog said. "Some people say that this is also what brought down Fujimori [a former president of Peru]."

The Center for Latin American Studies will hold a briefing roundtable on the Bolivian crisis at the International House on Friday, October 24, from 2 to 4 p.m.

Experts on the panel will include David Mores, political science professor from the University of California, San Diego; Andrew Orta, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign,;Kevin Healy, Bolivia's representative for the Inter-American Foundation; and Alan Kolata, chair of the Department of Anthropology at the U of C.

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