Black October

Victims of a Bolivian massacre seek justice in Miami.

It is, in fact, one of the most notable civil suits ever filed against a former head of state residing in the United States. If successful, it could re-energize the concept of "universal jurisdiction" — the idea that foreign leaders, no matter where they live, should be held accountable for crimes committed in their homelands.

Although the case has generated scant interest in Miami, it is being closely watched in La Paz and Washington. Sánchez de Lozada was among the staunchest of U.S. allies in Latin America, helping to turn Bolivia into a test lab for America's ideas on how to fix the region's economies. That he and his former defense minister are here today is an embarrassment, to say the least, to both the Bush and Clinton administrations, which is perhaps the reason the pair is represented by none other than Greg Craig, whom President-Elect Barack Obama has already named his White House chief counsel.

Of course, there is another side of the story. To hear Sánchez de Lozada tell it, the real culprit of Black October is none other than Evo Morales, the current president of Bolivia. It was Morales, Sánchez de Lozada says, who whipped the indigenous protesters into a frenzy over government plans to privatize gas drilling and exportation, leading groups that blocked roads and sparked bloody confrontations with the military. A soldier was the first casualty in the conflict, Sánchez de Lozada's legal team maintains; the army merely tried to keep chaos at bay in their homeland, they say.

Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, the former defense minister of Bolivia
Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, the former defense minister of Bolivia
Bolivian police launch tear gas at protesters during a march through downtown La Paz.
AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd
Bolivian police launch tear gas at protesters during a march through downtown La Paz.

In the former president's telling, Morales twisted the truth of what happened during Black October for his political gain, using public unrest over the incident to seize the presidency and run his political opponents out of the country.

But for the three Aymara Indians seated in the front row, these political machinations mean little. They have flown thousands of miles to be here today. Once they leave Miami, they will travel to Washington, D.C., where they will plead with U.S. lawmakers to extradite Sánchez de Lozada and Berzaín back to Bolivia. They have come to the States seeking justice, and they intend to get it.


Bolivia, a land roughly seven times the size of Florida, is bracketed by snowbound Andes peaks to the south and the rain-soaked Amazon basin to the north. It is among the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America. From its earliest days, tensions between wealthy European colonizers and native Indians have divided the nation.

Bolivia broke from Spanish rule in 1825, but that would hardly bring stability to the region. Over the next 160 years, the country would weather more than 200 coups and countercoups. Democratic rule was restored in 1982, but since then, Bolivia's leaders have struggled mightily to govern a sharply divided land.

In the Eighties, foreign companies discovered huge natural gas deposits, and Bolivia seemed poised to transform from the redheaded stepchild of South America into a thriving and prosperous energy hub.

President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, or Goni, was the man Washington entrusted to push for privatization of gas lines, promising his people that foreign investment would mean more schools and economic development for poor villages outside the capital.

In the early days of his first term, Goni, a son of privilege who had grown up in the States, earned plaudits from the West for his comprehensive economic reforms, which privatized many businesses and invited in global corporations — including, prominently, Enron. For the young Clinton administration, Goni's policies represented the heart of what the United States hoped to accomplish across sluggish Latin American markets.

But those same initiatives only deepened divisions between the mostly white ruling class of Bolivia and the impoverished Aymaras and Quechuas in the western highlands. Indian leaders in desperately poor mountain villages had never forgotten the Spanish who raped the land for silver, and Goni's promises of trickle-down wealth from foreign investment had so far failed to materialize.

Goni left executive office in 1997 after one term, with the nation's economy still in turmoil. Five years later, he pulled off a stunning comeback in the 2002 elections, with the help of some expensive hired guns out of Washington: James Carville's political team — Greenberg Carville Shrum — which had helped Clinton win the presidency five years beforehand. In the final tally, Goni picked up 22.46 percent of the votes — just enough to win, but not enough to ensure popular support.

"With those electoral returns, Goni was illegitimate from the start," says Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami expert on Bolivian politics.

By 2003, a long-simmering feud over what to do with Bolivia's natural gas deposits had reached a boil. Goni wanted to bring in foreign companies to pipe the gas through neighboring Chile, to the sea, and eventually to California, but indigenous protesters — who despised foreign companies and Chile with equal aplomb — vowed to stop him. In early 2003, a young, charismatic Aymara coca farmer named Evo Morales (who had come in second to Goni in the election a year before) began gathering indigenous groups to block the plans, pushing instead for nationalization. With little political clout, Morales turned to civil disobedience: Protesters destroyed roads and barricaded towns in the highlands around La Paz, seeking to choke the economy until their demands were met.

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