Hugo Banzer, 75; Bolivian Dictator Turned President

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hugo Banzer Suarez, the general who ruled Bolivia as an ironfisted dictator in the 1970s and returned from exile and ignominy a generation later to become the democratically elected president, died of a heart attack Sunday. He was 75.

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

Banzer had long suffered from lung cancer, an illness that forced him to step down as president in August. In his emotional resignation speech, he offered words of apology and reconciliation to the victims of his dictatorship.

"To my political adversaries, those from before and those from today, who believe they were hurt, and to those I may have injured without meaning to, I offer my extended hand," Banzer said in Sucre, one of the nation's two capitals.

Estimates of the number of people who disappeared, were tortured or killed during the seven years Banzer ruled Bolivia in the 1970s range from 200 to 1,000. Tens of thousands of Bolivians were exiled during that time, which saw a boom in the Andean nation's cocaine trade.

Banzer's political ascendancy was intertwined with the drama and farce of Bolivian politics during one of its worst periods of instability, an era when a succession of coups and counter-coups brought military men to power.

Some of the generals ruled for months, weeks or hours. Banzer proved more resilient than most, though his early reign marked the beginning of the end of military control of the government.

The son of a well-off family of German descent--his grandfather, Georg Banzer, immigrated to Bolivia at the end of the 19th century--Banzer was born May 10, 1926, in Concepcion, a northeastern town in the tropical lowlands.

After being accepted to military school at age 14 and receiving several military scholarships, Banzer rose quickly through the ranks of the Bolivian army. He trained with the U.S. armed forces at Ft. Hood, Texas, and in the Panama Canal Zone. He became a colonel at 35.

In the 1960s, Banzer held a number of high posts, including minister of education, in the regime of Air Force Gen. Rene Barrientos, a childhood friend who ruled Bolivia from 1964 until his death in a helicopter crash in 1969.

In October 1970, Banzer was a member of a military junta that took power for just six hours before being ousted in a counter-coup by a leftist general, Juan Jose Torres. Banzer remained in the army and led another coup just three months later. It failed. He then went into exile, fleeing to Argentina.

Seven months later, Banzer slipped back into Bolivia and seized power in another coup; the country has seen some 190 in its history. Dozens of people were killed in the violent uprising.

As president, Banzer moved quickly to suppress opposition, ordering the detention of labor and peasant leaders and suspending civil rights. "Those who were deprived of their freedom or life were not saints, they were not little angels," Banzer said several years later. "They tried to alter the established order."

Banzer's coup allegedly was backed by the nation's cocaine barons, then growing in power and influence. During his dictatorship, high-ranking members of the Bolivian armed forces reputedly grew rich off the cocaine trade.

At the same time, his rule saw a period of unprecedented growth in the Bolivian economy, fueled by the rise in world mineral prices and the expansion of economic infrastructure and social programs.

Banzer drew Bolivia closer to dictatorships in neighboring Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay, though he would later deny being part of "Operation Condor," a shadowy alliance of right-wing intelligence agencies that sought to eliminate leftists in South America.

In 1977, under pressure from President Carter, Banzer announced that Bolivia would hold elections the following year.

Banzer's handpicked candidate, Gen. Juan Pereda Asbun, won amid widespread allegations of electoral fraud. With opposition parties demanding new elections, Banzer resigned before his term ended. More coups, counter-coups and caretaker governments followed.

Banzer would dedicate most of his remaining political career to returning to power through legal means, founding the Nationalist Democratic Action party in 1979. That year he ran for president, finishing third with just 13% of the vote.

As Bolivia slipped further into political chaos, Banzer remained a powerful figure. He was a symbol of past stability as the nation was ravaged by a five-figure inflation rate and a seemingly unending series of strikes and demonstrations.

Exiled by a military regime in 1981, he returned to Bolivia the following year, when the country returned to democratic rule.

In 1985, Banzer won 28% of the vote, a narrow plurality, in the presidential election. But he lost out when the election fell to Congress, where a center-left coalition brought Victor Paz Estenssoro to power.

After two more failed attempts, Banzer finally won election in 1997, thanks to an unlikely "mega-coalition" with leftist and populist parties. Banzer recast himself as a centrist reformer. He created a post of human rights ombudsman and revised criminal procedures.

His crackdown on coca, the crop used in cocaine production, won support from the U.S. government and some Bolivians, but also led to widespread unrest in rural Bolivia.

Critics said his stated commitment to take Bolivia out of the South American cocaine circuit by this year would damage the economy and foster human rights abuses.

But despite whatever reforms he offered, Banzer could not escape his past. An Argentine judge sought his extradition on charges that, during his 1970s dictatorship, the Bolivian government had conspired with other South American military regimes to eliminate political opponents.

Banzer denied the charges and his attorney general rejected the extradition request in January.

Although Banzer, a cigarette smoker, had undergone chemotherapy treatments last year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., his family feared he would be extradited if he traveled to the United States for additional cancer treatment this year.

With his lung cancer having spread to his brain, Banzer announced in February that he would spend his last days in Santa Cruz, near his birthplace.

Banzer's funeral is scheduled today in Santa Cruz.

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