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Former Bolivian Leader Banzer Dies

May 5, 2002

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LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) _ Former President Hugo Banzer, a dictator turned democratically elected leader know for eradicating drug crops in this poor Andean nation, died of a heart attack Sunday, his doctor said. He was 75.

The two-time president, who had long battled cancer, died surrounded by his family in Santa Cruz, a tropical city in eastern Bolivia, hours after waking up in pain around midnight, said doctor Freddy Terrazas.

The cancer forced him to resign as president on Aug. 6, 2001, a year before his term ended. In an emotional ceremony, Banzer handed over the presidential medallion and sash to then-Vice President Jorge Quiroga on Bolivia’s Independence Day.

``If you note some emotion in me, it is not from weakness nor fear of anything,″ Banzer had said, his hands shaking and voice quivering, ``but rather because of the immense love I have for Bolivia.″

Banzer, a cigarette smoker, was diagnosed in July 2001 by doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington with lung cancer that had spread to his liver. He underwent chemotherapy treatments in Washington and returned permanently to his home in Santa Cruz in December.

In February, doctors announced that the cancer had spread to his brain and throughout his body.

A dictator in 1971-78, during which time he survived 13 coup attempts, Banzer re-entered politics after Latin American dictatorships declined _ this time as a democrat. After running in every election in the 1980s and 1990s, Banzer finally won the presidency in 1997.

Always a controversial figure, Banzer is likely to be remembered both with fondness and dislike. Supporters say he did more to strengthen Bolivian democracy than any of his political predecessors, pointing particularly to his success in eradicating coca, used to make cocaine.

Critics, however, contend that Banzer never lost his autocratic streak, saying that even as a democratically elected leader he abused human rights, succumbed to corruption and failed to represent his poor, indigenous constituents.

Banzer was born May 10, 1926, in Concepcion, a sleepy ranching town in Santa Cruz province. Bound for a career in the military, he went to the Bolivian Army Military High School in La Paz, graduating as a cavalry lieutenant.

His lengthy, often criticized relationship with the United States began when he was sent to the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas in Panama. He received more U.S. training at Fort Hood, Texas, in 1960. After commanding the 4th Cavalry Regiment in Bolivia for several years he was sent to Washington as a military attache.

In 1964, Banzer was appointed minister of education and in 1969, he became director of the military academy, a prestigious post he held until dismissed in January 1971 by leftist president, Gen. Juan Jose Torres.

The conservative Banzer began to rally other officers against Torres, seizing the La Paz military headquarters in a failed coup that got him exiled to Argentina. In August 1971, Banzer sneaked back into Bolivia to lead a coup that ousted Torres, naming himself president.

Banzer’s military rule ushered in violent repression of opponents. Censors clamped down on the media, and in 1974 Banzer prohibited all political activity. Those who rebelled became targets for ``disappearances″ blamed on state security agents.

Widely accepted figures say that during Banzer’s 1971-78 tenure, 19,000 people sought asylum in foreign countries, 15,000 were arrested and at least 200 were killed for political reasons.

In 1973-76, Banzer enjoyed a major economic boom as the country began exporting natural gas and agricultural products and benefitting from rising tin and oil prices. The boom helped Banzer solidify his political base of Bolivia’s middle and upper classes.

Banzer was overthrown in 1978. Bolivia stumbled into turmoil that saw presidents come and go before democracy regained its foothold in 1982, and with it came a new Banzer.

In the 1985 presidential election, he came in first, but with less than 50 percent of the vote _ the constitutional requirement for the presidency. Rather than seize office, Banzer stepped back and allowed Congress to elect Victor Paz Estenssoro as president.

In 1997, Banzer came in first again, with about 20 percent of the vote, and this time was democratically voted into the presidency by Congress.

Though many praised Banzer for embracing democracy in his second term as president, his past still haunted him.

Evidence presented in 1999 linked his previous regime to the notorious Plan Condor, which allegedly involved joint operations and exchange of information among South American military dictatorships in the 1970s aimed at kidnapping, torturing and assassinating leftists and dissidents in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay.

His last presidential term was plagued by social discontent, with coca farmers, miners, senior citizens, teachers and peasants rising in protest.

Under Banzer’s U.S.-backed Dignity Plan, the army wiped out 106,000 acres of coca in the Chapare, once one of the world’s largest illegal coca-growing areas.

His commitment to taking Bolivia out of the South American cocaine-circuit by 2002 won him unwavering support from some _ particularly the U.S. government _ but others criticized the plan for damaging the economy and leading to human rights abuses.

Banzer’s funeral is scheduled for Monday in Santa Cruz.

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