In Bolivia, U.S. is the bad guy


`Gringos': Many people in the second-poorest country in the hemisphere look to the north in placing blame for their suffering.

November 23, 2003|By Reed Lindsay | Reed Lindsay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

EL ALTO, Bolivia - On a crisp day in this 13,000-foot-high urban slum, several dozen people squeeze into a cramped classroom, men leaning on wooden crutches, women wrapped in black shawls, young men, taking turns speaking and crying.

One young man asks, in a broken voice, that justice be done for his dead father. A hefty indigenous woman wearing a black bowler hat shouts angry and desperate words in Aymara. A shirtless man, a white bandage where his right arm used to be, sobs uncontrollably.

Some wounded and others mourning, all are casualties of the violence that broke out recently when soldiers opened fire on unarmed crowds blocking roads to protest a government plan to export gas to the United States and Mexico through a Chilean port. Ultimately, they forced the ouster of President Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de Lozada on Oct. 17.

The people gathered here in this orange-bricked sprawl on the outskirts of the capital, La Paz, to plead for financial compensation and to demand that Sanchez de Lozada, and his hard-line defense minister, Carlos Sanchez Berzan, be brought to justice.

Many also blame the United States for their suffering.

"They assassinated my son," says Francisco Vargas Mamani, his eyes glazing with tears. "Sanchez de Lozada is a gringo, and he was instructed by the United States. They're the guilty ones. They're the leaders who incited Sanchez de Lozada's government into massacring us."

The days when the U.S. government supported iron-fisted dictatorships in Latin America appear to be over. But some Bolivians say they have hardly noticed the difference.

"More people in Bolivia have been killed during the democratic government than by the dictatorship," says Sarah Gonzalez, of the La Paz-based Permanent Human Rights Assembly, which is leading an investigation into the violence. "It's been totally demoralizing. We're well into the 21st century, globalization and all, and people are still being killed."

According to the assembly, about 70 unarmed protesters were shot dead by police and soldiers during one week last month, and more than 400 people were wounded.

As the violence worsened and the death toll of protesters soared, the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia expressed concern that the protests represented "an attack against democracy and the constitutional order."

The statement went on to offer "full support" for the Sanchez de Lozada administration and to say that "sticks and rocks are not a form of peaceful protest."

The United States continued to back Sanchez de Lozada publicly until Oct. 17, when unremitting demonstrations, whose ranks were swelled by members of the middle class outraged at the killings, drove him out of power.

The United States "supported a government that was killing its own people by the dozens, they kept that government in office probably a week longer than it would have lasted otherwise, and they further alienated the people of this country," says Jim Shultz, executive director of the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes civic participation and has chronicled recent conflicts in Bolivia.

Sanchez de Lozada fled to Miami after his resignation.

According to U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee, the United States has not censured the government for the killings because "whether the [Bolivian] government in this case went beyond what was necessary, we do not yet have enough information to say."

"A constitutional government has the right to defend itself," Greenlee said in an interview at the fortresslike embassy. "The United States was on the side of being careful about the forms ofdemocracy. This is a country with weak institutions. And these forms are important. When you lose the structures ... when you use demonstrations to threaten a president and throw him out because you don't like him, you risk losing everything."

Anti-imperialist rhetoric has flourished in Bolivia, where the U.S. government is widely seen as the principal power broker, coercing the government into adopting unpopular policies.

Perhaps no Bolivian government policy has been as unpopular as the forced eradication of coca plants, carried out in the subtropical region of Chapare as part of the U.S.-led war on drugs.

Moira Paz Estenssoro, a senator in Sanchez de Lozada's Nationalist Revolutionary Movement party, says the forced eradication of the region's main cash crop, which can be used to make cocaine, slashed the Bolivian economy by a third.

"We were left without 500, 600 million dollars in the economy and 40,000, 50,000 poor families without an activity," says Paz Estenssoro. "If you don't have certain agreements with the U.S., you have its veto in the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Consultative Group in Paris."

The region of the Chapare has been transformed into a militarized zone with highway checkpoints, a scattering of military bases and temporary camps, and jails overflowing with drug offenders.

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