The Exile in Maryland
Bolivia’s Deposed President Three Years Later
I have only seen Bolivia’s deposed ex-President, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, in person once. It was about a year ago and he was alone in the Miami airport, waiting for the same flight as me to Washington. He seemed like any other business traveler – a tired looking man who attracted no special public attention.
Three years ago this week, on October 17, 2003, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was boarding a very different flight to Washington. For a month, Bolivia had been exploding in protest against Sánchez de Lozada’s plans to export bargain-priced Bolivian gas through Chile and onward to California. Troops under presidential orders to stop those protests killed at least sixty people and left hundreds of others wounded. The killings sparked such public outrage that even his own Vice-President broke with him.
That night, as a tense nation watched events unfold on their televisions; Sánchez de Lozada resigned his presidency, boarded a private jet, and fled to political exile in the suburbs of Maryland, just outside the US capital.
Three years later the ex-leader known here as “Goni” (and often as “El Gringo” for the sharp American accent he picked up living in the US a good part of his life) faces murder charges in Bolivia for his actions during Black October. He is under a legal order from the Bolivian government to return for trial. But thanks to the political graces of the Bush Administration, the man accused of murder remains a happy protected resident of Center Street in Chevy Chase.
Shelter for the Killer, “No Entry” for the Man Who Lost his Bother
In September I spent a day in La Paz with one of the people who wants Sánchez de Lozada to come home and stand trial. Juan Patricio Quispe Mamani is a humble man, a house-builder in his early thirties who never engaged in political issues until that October three years ago when government troops shot and killed his older brother Constantine.
Today Juan Patricio is a leader in a campaign by the families of those killed to bring the ex-President to justice. Reluctantly, he had agreed to a request by the other families to represent them in a delegation to Washington, to press the case with members of the US Congress, media, and human rights groups that Goni needed to be sent back.
He also was intent on going right to Goni’s Maryland doorstep. “I want to go right to his house,” he told me. “I want to look him in the eye so that he can know exactly what it meant for my brother to be killed.”
Juan Patricio never got the chance, however. The same US government that gives shelter to the ex-president charged with murder denied an entry visa to the man who lost his brother. Despite being backed with sponsorship letters from US religious groups, well-known Washington organizations, and even a letter from House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Juan Patricio was told he didn’t meet the required prerequisites to visit the USA. Without expensive housing titles in his name or large sums in a bank account, Embassy officials dismissed him as just another Bolivian looking to become an undocumented immigrant.
A Word – “Impunity”
The broad pubic demand in Bolivia that the ex-President be sent home and tried is not about vengeance. It is about a word – impunidad. There are words that we have hidden away in English language dictionaries; words that we just don’t use much. Impunity is one of them. But here, as in much of Latin America, the Spanish version of that word touches deep and painful memories.
In the 1970s, Chilean General Augusto Pinochet led a coup and dictatorship that killed and brutally tortured thousands. But it took twenty-five years and a brave Spanish judge to even put him through the inconvenience of fifteen months of house arrest in a London mansion. Bolivia’s own Pinochet, Hugo Banzer Suarez, also directed widespread killings and torture in the 1970s. He not only escaped trial; he squeezed himself back into the Presidential Place again two decades later as a “democrat”, with less than a quarter of the popular vote.
“Bringing Goni to trial is important,” one of the Bolivian activists told me, “to send a message to all leaders present and future that there will be no impunity for murder, for violations of human rights.”
A year and a half ago Bolivian officials filed a formal request with the US government that it serve Sánchez de Lozada with the legal papers demanding that he return to Bolivia. The Bush administration still hasn’t passed along those papers, nor has it offered any response to that request.
Meanwhile, Sánchez de Lozada has a new life hobnobbing at Washington embassy parties and offering occasional speeches on democracy to US university audiences. He tells listeners that he was dispatched from his country by “a coup”, even though the tanks and soldiers were all on his side.
Sánchez de Lozada has discovered, however, that he is not quite as untouchable as he thought.
In November of last year Bolivia’s ex-President was caught by surprise at a Princeton University cocktail party by a group of US activists who walked in the door and served him with copies of the legal papers from Bolivia that the Bush administration is still sitting on. One witness described Sánchez de Lozada as “visibly shaken”. Digital photos of Goni being handed the papers were flashed to Bolivia and appeared in many of the country’s newspapers the next day.
Earlier this month, while Juan Patricio wasn’t able to make it to Goni’s door, a group of Bolivian and US activists went in his place. The ex-president was either conveniently elsewhere or well prepared to not answer when the doorbell rang. As a welcome he left a water sprinkler spraying a flood across his white-painted porch, a barrier that deterred no one from finishing Juan Patricio’s intended journey, or from paying a visit to parishioners at the Catholic Church down the street. Goni’s anonymity in the neighborhood is over.
I think that the Bush Administration will never send Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada back to Bolivia. I know from sources inside the administration that its long silence on the case is just the prequel to an announcement down the road that it doesn’t believe Goni can get a fair trial in his home country. Chevy Chase is likely to remain Goni’s home for many years to come. But he will spend those years looking over his shoulder for the next moment when regular citizens will find him and confront him with the memory of Black October.
This week, to mark the third anniversary of the killings and to draw public attention to the Goni case, events are being held in seventeen cities on four continents – from protests, to campus teach-ins, to video showings. The grief that Sánchez de Lozada left behind that October night remains unhealed for the families of the dead. Until he is brought to justice they will not rest, nor will he.
For more information on the Sánchez de Lozada case and events marking this week’s anniversary, visit: