'De facto' president-cum-dictator


After seven years as Bolivia's de facto president-cum-dictator General Hugo Banzer Suárez who died on May 5th aged 75, formed his own party in the late 1970s. He returned to the presidency via the ballot box in 1997, a post he quit last August.

He was born on May 10th, 1926, in Concepción, in Bolivia's eastern province of Santa Cruz, the grandson of German immigrants and the son of an officer. He was a star pupil at military academy.

In 1952, the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) ousted a military junta and, in power, embarked on a reform programme. Hugo Banzer, meanwhile, was training at the Pentagon's School of the Americas in Panama and the Armoured Cavalry School at Fort Hood, Texas. By his mid-30s he was colonel of the 4th Cavalry Regiment, with a speciality in logistics - and the Pentagon's Order of Military Merit.

In 1964, the army overthrew the MNR and General Rene Barrientos took power. Hugo Banzer was education and culture minister from 1964-'66. After a spell as military attaché in Washington, DC, he became director of Bolivia's army college.

By 1971 coups and counter-coups brought leftist General Juan José Torres to power, alarming the right, several neighbouring governments and the US. With their backing, Hugo Banzer overthrew Torres (later murdered, allegedly on Hugo Banzer's orders) and installed the longest lasting regime the nation had seen in more than a century.

Initially, he governed via the "Nationalist Popular Front" between the increasingly right-wing MNR and the Fascist Bolivian Socialist Falange. But in 1974 he ousted civilian parties and formed a notoriously brutal military regime - although the scale of killing was small in comparison with what was taking place in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

His regime is accused of 100 "disappearances", 39 murders and more than 400 deaths. Universities were closed for a year, and foreign priests and nuns sympathetic to "liberation theology" deported. In 1974, at least 80-100 peasants protesting at price rises were killed. He denied all knowledge of it, but there is abundant evidence that Hugo Banzer's Bolivia was involved in Operation Condor, through which South American dictatorships eliminated each others' exiled opponents. In his dictatorship's first year, he received double the military assistance from the US than the previous dozen years put together.

After a short-lived boom, the economy was soon again in trouble. And there was pressure from US President Jimmy Carter for a return to democracy. In 1978, he called elections. Fraud in favour of his candidate led to a fresh cycle of coups and he was exiled briefly in Argentina.

In 1980, just as a civilian government was about to indict him for corruption and human rights violations, his luck improved. Backed by Fascists, cocaine smugglers and the Argentine military, General Luis Garcia Meza came to power, and Hugo Banzer came home.

The key men behind Garcia Meza were the Nazi "butcher of Lyons" Klaus Altmann (Barbie), and Bolivia's cocaine king, Roberto Suarez. In power, Hugo Banzer had protected Barbie against French extradition requests and the country's cocaine exports had grown steadily. Several of his allies and relatives were linked to the trade.

He survived the disintegration of the Garcia Meza "narcocracy" and the indictment of Barbie, Suarez and Meza. During the following 15 years his Nationalist Democratic Alliance polled a fairly steady 20 per cent in democratic elections, and was involved in several coalition governments. In alliance with the formerly leftist MIR - also suspected of drugs involvement - he edged towards the ultimate prize.

In 1997, heading a seven-party coalition, he took office, as civilian president. He had criticised rightist economic policies, but in power, was soon battling with old adversaries in the unions and the "popular movement". By 2000 there were suspension of rights and clashes between security forces and demonstrators.

He never expressed the slightest remorse. "Coups are a consequence of a power vacuum," he declared. "Today, that is not the situation."

He is survived by his wife, and three daughters. His two sons died in accidents.

Gen Hugo Banzer Suárez: born 1926; died, May 2002