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On 6 September, the U.S. government denied a 2008 petition from Bolivia to extradite ex-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to the Andean nation to face long-standing criminal charges.
Sánchez de Lozada, known on the home front as “Goni,” fled the country in 2003 as a result of massive popular uprisings. Such a victory astounded social movements that were feeling strapped by recently established legal mechanisms: in 1995 the World Trade Organization had been established with the power to deny the rights of any person, community, or nation-state to challenge the supremacy of corporations in their transnational marketplace, and the capacity of the people of Bolivia to go to battle to protect their own water and gas against privatization – and to eject a corrupt government in the process — was one of the earlier skirmishes to restore hope for popular movements.
Inside Bolivia, Goni is regarded as one of the nation’s shadier dictators. The charge against him is genocide: commanding a vicious military attack in October 2003 on protesters and citizens, resulting in 67 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and a general state of public terror. He is also thought to have embezzled huge sums of government funds from the central bank, and some believe that he was involved in high-level narco-trafficking.
Since his seat-of-the-pants flight out of the El Alto airport, though, the ex-president has resided in luxurious digs in Florida, close to his ex-ministers Carlos Sánchez Berzaín and Jorge Berindoague. His U.S. lawyer, Ana C. Reyes, explained the rejection, declaring that the petition to extradite was motivated by “politics.” “The methods adopted by a democratically-elected government in 2003,” she insisted, “were appropriate and necessary for the dangers to the public given a dangerous situation with hostages and rebellious armies causing chaos and threatening lives.”
Meanwhile, Bolivian attorney for the families of victims, Rogelio Mayta, expressed indignation and indicated that a double standard is in operation in the U.S., its stance for “democracy” in sharp contrast to its negation of any possibility for justice.
The reaction from President Evo Morales was surprisingly low-key. “It’s not possible that, as the message from the United States says, civil society is responsible for military actions,” he stated at a school graduation ceremony on September 7. “I do not share the conclusion of the government of the U.S., and using pretexts they are trying to convert the U.S. into a refuge for delinquents, where it is a paradise for impunity.”
But his usual drama-filled tirade against U.S. imperialism was missing. According to an article published by the Andean Information Network (“Lessons from Bolivia’s ‘Black October’ 2003,” October 24, 2006), the Morales administration is suffering from its own “morally egregious and disastrous” use of the military as an arm of law enforcement against citizens; it has commanded soldiers to clear squatting settlements, quell social protests, and, in the much-complained-about style of the U.S. DEA, eradicate coca plants.
And yet, in a nation where seemingly irreconcilable divisions regarding public policy provide the daily fodder of political life, the U.S.´s refusal to send Goni home to face charges may be the most unifying anti-U.S. event of the season. Too, Nobel Peace Prize recipients Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Rigoberta Menchú have weighed in, pronouncing their dissatisfaction with the decision. And on September 8, the U.S. Department of State made a conciliatory move, oddly contradicting Ana Reyes´ stated reasoning for the denial. Instead, State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell is proposing that U.S. legal teams help Bolivian officials rewrite the petition in a more effective manner, pointing out procedural errors as the cause for refusal, while Bolivia´s ex-prosecutor in the case, Milton Mendoza, explains that the crimes claimed in the 2008 petition do not match criminal law in the U.S.
After a weekend of outrage and cynicism — and now with a glimmer of anticipation against the Illimani sky — one might imagine the day when Goni flies into the airport at El Alto, the city where the 2003 massacre took place, to face a monumental blend of grief, anger, and triumph.
Chellis Glendinning is the author of five books, including When Technology Wounds, Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economyand Chiva: A Village Takes on the Global Heroin Trade. She may be contacted via www.chellisglendinning.org.