This article was last modified on September 19, 2008.

Empire Strikes First: Bolivia

The following article appears in the October 2008 issue of The Scene.

Not long ago, I brought to readers’ attention the case of Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, a Haitian death squad leader who walked the streets of America without fear of prosecution or expulsion. Since then, Constant has been found guilty of mortgage fraud and sentenced to up to fifteen years in prison, followed by deportation to Haiti. But his case is by no means unique, and this month we cover two former Bolivian leaders who fled to America after violently crushing political protest at home and who are currently avoiding calls for their extradition. This is the story of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, Minister of Defense Sanchez Berzain and the so-called “Gas Wars” of 2003.

2003 was a year of civil and political unrest in Bolivia, featuring a president who had been elected with less than a quarter of the popular vote. Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, the new leader, decided to export Bolivia’s natural gas reserves — the second largest in Latin America — to North America, rather than nationalize them, effectively selling out his own people, the majority living in poverty. To further complicate things, the pipelines were to run through Chile, which had been in poor relations with Bolivia for the past hundred years.

Already by March, over thirty people were killed and another 200 injured by government forces. What are now known as the “Gas Wars” erupted in September and continued into October. Taking to the streets, Bolivians rose up against the natural gas plan, also demanding the release of political prisoners and a revised coca law. The people’s protests climaxed, with Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain turning the military on their own people, wielding only sticks and stones, with a death toll of 67 and over 500 injured. By the end of his presidency, more people had died with Sanchez de Lozada at the helm than under any other Bolivian leader, including dictators.

The Bolivians were not new to protests against foreign investment. In 2000, they fought and won against those who had sought to privatize their water. And in February 2003, they successfully kept down a tax proposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Covering their tails, the president and defense minister released a decree on October 11, declaring a state of emergency. The decree had some illegal aspects to it, however, including the absence of approval from other ministers. Procedure also dictated that such a decree would have to be made public immediately via the Official Gazette of Bolivia, but did not appear there for another six days.

The best evidence that the government went too far are the words of Carlos Mesa, Bolivia’s vice president at the time. Calling for his boss to resign on October 13, he said, “Neither as a citizen nor as a man of principles can I accept that, faced with popular pressure, the response should be death.” What went on behind the scenes is unknown, but ultimately Mesa’s plea was heard.

When not even the military could keep the population civil, Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain fled the country for Miami on October 17, 2003, the day their call for a state of emergency became public. Acceptance in America was no surprise to anyone following the conflict, as Washington had consistently supported Bolivia’s “right” to crush their opposition.

The historic importance of the Gas Wars should not be overlooked. “The Gas War was a key turning point in Bolivian politics,” I am told by Jennifer Collins, professor of political science at UW-Stevens Point. “It represented the death of the old political order, the old parties and political elites, and set the stage for the assumption of power through democratic means of a completely new political force, [Evo] Morales and his MAS [socialist] party, that was born in the social movement struggle and which represents Bolivia’s poor majority.”

Morales, a congressman at the time, came to power in part because Mesa, the ascended president, refused to nationalize the natural gas reserves as the people had demanded. Under pressure from Morales, Mesa eventually resigned, too. Today the natural gas reserves are still a hot button issue, with Morales’ opposition claiming that he does not distribute the profits fairly to regions run by different political parties.

Since the Gas Wars, the new leadership has called for the old leaders’ extradition. The Bolivian Congress voted in the majority in 2004 to launch a legal case, and the Supreme Court issued arrest warrants. The United States has ignored all attempts to bring these men to justice.

Families of Gas War victims, with the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed a lawsuit against Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain in September 2007. The court documents state that “extrajudicial killings… were part of a pattern and practice of widespread, systematic attacks against the civilian population” and detail use of sharpshooters, home invasions, and sniping civilians from helicopters.

Interestingly, one defense attorney is Gregory Craig, currently serving as senior foreign policy adviser to Senator Barack Obama. What effect this unfortunate relationship has on Obama’s presidential campaign is unknown, and any speculation would be outside the scope of this article.

President Sanchez de Lozada and Minister Berzain, safely living in America since 2003, were granted asylum, which became known to the Bolivian people on June 3, 2008, when their lawyers put out a press release. The release claimed that due to asylum, Berzain, a refugee, could not be prosecuted. A refugee is defined as anyone who cannot return to their native land “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of … political opinion.” That Berzain and Sanchez de Lozada would be persecuted is not in question, but to equate persecution of a people by the leaders and persecution of leaders by their people is to imply that those who are elected cannot be held accountable for any criminal actions they take while in office. Essentially, that’s America legalizing foreign dictatorships or human rights abuses ex post facto.

It should be noted that none other than Sanchez de Lozada himself had signed an extradition treaty with America, undermining his current position opposing such an extradition.

President Morales expressed his thoughts to the people on June 8. “We would like for, not just the U.S. Ambassador, but also the U.S. government to help us to bring to justice those that have hurt Bolivia a great deal,” he said. The Bolivian people reacted on the following morning, with thousands upon thousands of protesters surrounding the US Embassy, demanding extradition for the accused. The protest degenerated after three hours into a riot with firecrackers, rocks and extensive property damage. Police were forced to use tear gas and water cannons in a noticeably proportionate response. While the mob’s methods may have been inappropriate, there was no denying the passion and determination in their beliefs.

Bolivia is not simply an impoverished country, but a country with a strong nationalism and a rich indigenous history; only fifteen percent are of European descent. This is the largest proportion of native peoples of any South American country. The people have a lasting tradition of avoiding European and American influence, and it would not serve America’s best interest to deny the people their right to put leaders on trial. Our relationship with South America is fractured and we cannot afford to strain our diplomatic ties any further. With this in mind, and also stressing the legal necessity of being able to hold leaders accountable, there is no alternative but extradition for Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain. If this game of north-south political tug-of-war continues, America will no doubt inevitably lose. As we should have learned from the Cold War, the only winning move is not to play.

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