In Bolivia, A President Is Forced To Leave

Published: Mon 20 Oct 2003 12:40 AM
The Democracy Center On-Line
Volume 51 - October 18, 2003
By Jim Shultz
Friday, October 17 - midnight
At midday no one knew how Friday would turnout here. The whole nation tried to decipher the mysterious and cryptic messages coming out of the Presidential Palace. Was President Gonzalo Sànchez de Lozada going to resign. Was he going to declare a formal state of martial law and send out even more tanks and troops in his desperate attempt to keep hold on power? No one new. Everyone speculated. What was clear was that whatever was going to happen it was gong to happen soon.
On Thursday the US Embassy in Bolivia issued an announcement, the first like it that anyone could remember, suggesting that all American citizens leave the country. I vowed that we would never leave without our dogs Simone and Little Bear. None of the Americans I knew were taking the suggestion seriously anyway.
At around three I walked into the city center, through streets lined with burning tires, acrid smoke, a scattering of people, no cars and, surprisingly, no rifle-wielding police. No police can be a good sign or a really bad one - a storm gathering just out of sight.
I went to Iglesia San Francisco (the Church of St. Francis) to visit friends who were part of a much-publicized hunger strike demanding that the President, Gonzalo Sànchez de Lozada (Goni for short), resign. Twenty or so people were stretched out uncomfortably on tiny mattresses stacked two high to provide cushion against the dusty hardwood floor of the church's second floor loft. A priest, human rights workers, activists, others, some of whom had been at this risky work of resistance since Bolivia's dark days of dictatorship. The media announced that the President would speak at 4pm. Martial law or an escape to Florida? Which would Goni pick?
Like most things in Bolivia, the President's expected speech to the nation didn't happen on-time (in the end, not by a long shot). All eyes were glued to a small color TV in the corner, while a plastic fan mounted on top waved methodically from side to side, cutting through air filled with cigarette smoke. Cigarettes help ease the pains of hunger. So does chewing coca leaves, which were in small plastic bags lying around at various places on the floor. So does wondering if the President is going to declare martial law and send in police to arrest you.
As the hour passed to 5 o'clock and no President appeared, reports increased that he was preparing to flee the country - no speech to the nation required. Hope rose. Television stations held live cameras on the Congress chamber in La Paz, where representatives milled about. Something was supposed to happen soon, but no one knew what. The channel we were watching left the scenes of Congress members chatting to show some commercials, one of which was a promotion for old reruns of Bay Watch. Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff were now woven into the fabric of Bolivian history, in a weird and appropriate way. At its heart this really was a struggle about how Bolivia does and does not want to integrate itself with the outside world. Maybe Bay Watch helps with hunger pains.
My friends finally asked the question - "Will you join us in our hunger strike?" Hmmm, it was 5pm and it was starting to look pretty certain that the President was packing for Miami. I had also spent the last two days pretty much horizontal with some sort of Bolivian bug and my appetite was still solidly in hibernation. Joining a hunger strike for a couple of hours when I wasn't even hungry seemed like a free pass to nobility. "Sure, I'm with you." Never forget that in Bolivia things ALWAYS take longer than you think. ALWAYS.
"This would be an enormous victory," Father Luis Sanchez, one of the hunger strikers told me, as reports continued to rise about the President's imminent departure. "We are moving out of an oligarchy that has lasted for decades."
This public uprising, against an unpopular deal to sell Bolivian natural gas to California, was Bolivia's third major war over globalization in as many years. In 2000 the people of Cochabamba forced the corporate titan Bechtel to leave after it took over the city's water system and imposed massive increases in people's water bills. In February of this year huge protests nationwide blocked implementation of an austerity package forced on Bolivia by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This battle over gas looked like it might topple a President. Each time the targets grew more important and each time the death toll climbed painfully higher.
I left the hunger strikers, now improbably one of them. On the street talk began to turn to the man who it seemed was about to become the nation's leader, Vice President Carlos Mesa. Mesa had dramatically broken ranks with the President days earlier over the killings.
I have met Bolivia's new President twice. The first time he was eating a Whopper. My teenage daughter Elizabeth and I were in the Miami airport last March, catching our overnight flight back home to Bolivia. I turned to Elizabeth and said, "Hey Elly, see that tall bearded man in the Burger King, all by himself finishing up his Whopper. That's the Vice-President of your country."
This didn't impress her all that much. I, on the other hand, kind of liked the idea of a damn-near head of state sitting by himself at Burger King. It seemed humble. You won't catch Dick Cheney eating alone at Burger King. He probably has food tasters just for the pickles. I later introduced Elizabeth to Bolivia's Vice-President while we standing together in the airport security line. I bet Dick Cheney never stands in airport security lines. Secret Service agents do it for him.
The second time I met still-Vice President Mesa was last May, when I interviewed him for an investigation The Democracy Center is carrying out about the bloody anti-IMF revolt the previous February. The glass doors leading from the street into the Vice-Presidential sanctuary were still blown out from the protests. Sitting in his palatial chambers, with his monogrammed cuffs and gold cuff links, he seemed a good deal more regal than in his leather jacket at Burger King.
A well-known television journalist and historian, Mesa was formal and cautious in his communication with me. He also sounded no less conservative on globalization matters than the President. The IMF's economic logic was basically sound. No, Bolivia could not increase taxes on foreign oil companies. But he did confess that the government had warned the IMF that its austerity plan would provoke violent political reaction. But they just wouldn't listen, he told me.
I came to regret my hunger strike pledge around 9pm when it was clear that no one had a clue when the President's resignation would be announced. In anticipation of it, however, the activists assembled in the crowded labor office where I sat started to being in buckets of "chicha", the drink of fermented corn for which Cochabamba is famous. It was only a matter of time before I would be offered, with great insistence, one large wooden bowlful after another (yes, I said bowl, not glass).
This is one of those situations in which you violate every rule you ever told your teenagers about group pressure and alcohol. Faced with a choice between having a stomach from hell and being a social outcast in a room of two dozen cheering Bolivians about to topple a President, I chugged down each successive bowl with a smile. A little food down there to soak it up would have been nice, but a pledge is a pledge.
Finally, at about 10pm the President's much-awaited letter to the Congress arrived. This was not one of those quick, one-sentence resignations, the kind that Richard Nixon dropped off before heading to San Clemente. This was a two-page bitter rant that blamed everyone in the country, but the President himself, for the bloody disaster he had presided over. Several opposition members started cursing at the podium where the letter was being read. It looked for a moment like the Congress itself might become a parody of the street conflicts that had led to this day.
One by one each Representative and Senator had to vote yes or no on accepting the resignation. One of the few remaining supporters of the President used her voting moment to angrily denounce her opponents as "narco-traffickers and terrorists." This was met with louder shouts of "Assassin, Assassin, Assassin", all this played out live on TV before the nation.
By then Bolivia's fallen President was aboard the overnight flight preparing to takeoff for Miami. Perhaps he was headed to Disney World. That would seem an appropriate destination for a man who seemed to have lapsed into a fantasy land of his own at the end. Thursday he told CNN that no one had died by his military's hands in three days. Corpses and grief-stricken families testified otherwise.
Unfortunately the US Embassy and the US Ambassador in Bolivia were living in that same fantasy world about Bolivian events. In fact, the US played a strong roll in creating the fantasy, backing Sànchez de Lozada as a stalwart democrat even as 90% of his nation and much of his own government had deserted him. Even after the deposed President was fleeing his own people on a plane headed north, the Embassy proclaimed, "We commend ex-President Sanchez de Lozada for his commitment to democracy and to the well being of his country." I wish I could ask the Ambassador what part of democracy and well being includes having the army kill more than 70 of its citizens, many at point blank range.
If Americans want answers to why so many people in the world seem to hate America, looking at the Embassy's maneuvers in Bolivia is a good place to start. It seems likely that Sànchez de Lozada would have left a good deal earlier if he didn't have the US cheering in his ear and official State Department pronouncements encouraging him to stay. A lot of good people died in those extra days and that seems a very high price to pay the keep "Head of mission when President resigned" off someone's diplomatic resume.
At 10:30pm Carlos Mesa, was sworn in as President of Bolivia. He spoke for 30 minutes without notes. Among the people I was with and spoke with right afterwards, he won over even those who were his toughest audience. He began by asking for a moment of silence for those killed in the last month, calling them, "The men and women of Bolivia who gave their lives fighting for democracy and justice." He committed to a binding popular vote on the gas deal, pledged a government in which corruption would not be tolerated and agreed to a popular constitutional convention in which even cutting the length of his own presidency would be up for discussion.
This was neither the man I'd met at Burger King nor the man I had interviewed in May. The new President, one of Bolivia's most respected national historians, seemed to have a keen sense of the improbable historical opportunity thrust by circumstance upon both he and the country. He declared, "We are not a nation of equals," and seemed honestly dedicated to the difficult work of changing that.
The issue now is - are those empty promises or are they real. It will be up to social movements to hold the new President to them.
"This is a victory in a battle, like other battles we have won, but we haven't won the war," Oscar Olivera told me, a leader in the anti-Bechtel water revolt. "We are trying to recover democracy through peaceful means. This is the hour for Bolivians to offer proposals about what kind of country we want to have." This last month has been a painful, sorrowful, violent, and tense time in Bolivia. While there is still much to be seen about whether the departure of one President and the arrival of a new one will actually make a difference, this bloody month did end up with something many did not expect - hope.
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SAN FRANCISCO: P.O. Box 22157 San Francisco, CA 94122
BOLIVIA: Casilla 5283, Cochabamba, Bolivia
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