Why are top Democrats protecting Bolivia’s former president from facing trial for the massacres he ordered?


Top Democratic Party pollster Stanley Greenberg has been busy on the talk circuit recently promoting his latest book, Dispatches from the War Room – In the trenches with five extraordinary leaders (2009, St. Martin’s Press). The slight, bespectacled man spoke at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in March, sharing what he hoped were “honest and frank” accounts of working with leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton.

 

While he happily pontificated on the lessons these experiences held for President Barack Obama, he was a bit more defensive on why he had proudly featured in the book Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada, former President of Bolivia who is currently wanted for his role in a massacre of 67 people in October 2003. Greenberg was drafted in 2002 to help Goni, a Chicago-educated and wealthy businessman, get elected president during a time of social upheaval created largely by U.S.-backed "free market" economic policies (known as neoliberalism). Branding Goni as the only man who could “resolve the crisis,” Greenberg and other US political consultants helped their client scrape an electoral victory with just 23 percent of the popular vote.

 

The deaths took place less than a year later when Goni announced deeply unpopular plans to give foreign corporations more control over Bolivia’s natural gas resources. Road blockades erected by protesters in the poorest neighbourhoods of the high altitude city of El Alto effectively cut off supplies. Goni signed a decree that instructed the army to clear the roads and promised “indemnification for any damage to property and persons which might occur.” That effective carte blanche resulted in the army shooting live ammunition indiscriminately at men, women and children.  

 

Military repression brought to a head one of the country’s bloodiest years, in which more than 100 people died in social protests. Rising popular anger led Goni to flee the country to exile in the US. He has since lived comfortably in Chevy Chase, Maryland protected by Republicans and Democrats alike. Greenberg admits in the book that the violence caused him “to take stock,” yet he ends up saying he is now “more certain of my course and his [Goni’s].” He concludes: “I am proud of what we did to help Goni become President.” From the podium at the Commonwealth Club, he blamed the atrocities on the supposed “parallel violence” by the unarmed protestors.

 

It seems a surprising conclusion for a man who is supposedly in-touch with the electorate. Goni is reviled by most Bolivians as a corrupt and arrogant politician who devalued human life. Even Goni’s Vice President Carlos Mesa denounced him and swore that he would never use violence to enforce policies. Two-thirds of Bolivia’s Congress – including many who had formed part of Goni’s coalition – approved a trial seeking responsibility for the massacres. Disgust at Goni’s neoliberal economic and social policies, which had increased poverty and inequality, was partly behind the landslide 2005 electoral victory of one of the leaders of Bolivia‘s many social movements, Evo Morales.

 

Yet sadly Greenberg’s positive spin of Goni seems to be a view that is widely shared with the Democratic Party. At a Washington launch event for Greenberg’s book, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also appeared to hold Goni in high esteem, warmly welcoming Goni to the event, calling him a “very special man.” Goni’s former defense lawyer, Gregory Craig, is now Obama’s White House Counsel. The Democrats’ historic loyalty to one of their favored pro-American friends seems to outweigh their commitment to human rights and fair legal process.

 

Rogelio Mayta, the resolute lawyer representing the families whose loved ones were killed in October 2003, tries to give Pelosi the benefit of the doubt: “We want to believe in the good faith of…Pelosi and believe that these praises are due to misinformation rather than a concrete line of action and thinking by the US government.”

 

Yet the anger of Eloy Rojas, who lost his eight-year-old daughter when troops entered his village and started shooting indiscriminately, is harder to hide. “Every effort that allies of Sanchez de Lozada make to present the ex-President as a victim and an honest man is for us an offense. It is an offense against the pain and suffering that his terrible actions had for our lives. His determination to defend his and other peoples’ economic interests meant that he stopped valuing peoples’ lives…That is why we continue to seek justice.”

 

In March, Bolivian families who lost loved ones marked a significant milestone in their struggle to end the legacy of impunity for political elites like Goni. After five years of navigating political games and legal loopholes, a date was set for the trial of responsibility for Goni and seven of his ministers. Yet the main defendant, Goni, will be missing as the US government has ignored requests for extradition for several years.

 

Many in the US and worldwide continue to hope that Obama’s inauguration will mark a new chapter in relations worldwide, especially in Latin America, where there has been a new wave of resistance against US attempts to impose its economic interests. Obama has made some important first steps in ordering closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and re-invigorating the use of diplomacy in regions such as the Middle East. But if he really wants to start a new chapter of international relations rooted in human rights, he doesn’t need to travel abroad. He just needs to respond to Bolivia’s lawful request for extradition and send home the man that lives just seven miles from the White House.

 

 

Nick Buxton is a British journalist who spent four years in Bolivian between 2005 and 2008. He currently lives in Davis, California and works for the Transnational Institute

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