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Hugo Bánzer Suárez: 1926—: Politician

Long Military Career

Bánzer was born in 1926 into a Spanish ranching family. They lived in Concepción, in the largely agrarian Santa Cruz province. He was sent to La Paz, Bolivia's largest city, for schooling, and then entered the Bolivian Army Military College. He became a cavalry lieutenant in the army upon graduation, and enjoyed a successful military career for a number of years. Postwar-era involvement in South American political affairs on the part of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), brought Bánzer to the attention of American "advisors" interested in keeping leftist movements from gaining ground on the continent, and he was invited to attend the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Panama. He also studied at the Armored Cavalry School in Ft. Hood, Texas in 1960, and at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia.

Bánzer served as Bolivia's minister of education from 1964 to 1966, but his first cabinet post also came at the onset of a period of notorious political instability in the country: 16 governments came and went over the next 19 years. "Some lasted only days, even hours," explained a report in the Economist. "Vociferous working-class and peasant movements gave the generals all the excuse they needed to overthrow left-wing civilian governments, often with American encouragement, as part of a struggle against communism." Bánzer was named as Bolivia's military attaché in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, a prestigious post. Returning home in 1969, he was named commander of the military school of the Bolivian Army. The following year, he was exiled after a coup by General Juan José Torres; in response, he planned his own successful military takeover, which occurred on August 22, 1971.

At a Glance . . .

Born May 10, 1926, in Concepción, Santa Cruz, Bolivia; married; Yolanda Prada; children: five. Education: Earned degrees from Bolivian Army Military College, Military School of Argentine Republic, U.S. Army School of the Americas (Panama), Armored Cavalry School (Ft. Hood, TX), 1960, School of High Command of the Bolivian Army, School of the Americas (Ft. Benning, GA), School of National Superior Studies of Bolivia. Politics: National Democratic Action Party, Bolivia. Military Service: Joined Bolivian Army; made commander of Fourth Cavalry Regiment; served as military attaché, Bolivian Embassy to the United States, 1960s; commander-in-chief, Armed Forces of Bolivia; commander, military school of the Bolivian Army after 1969; chief of intelligence dept. of the Bolivian Army; also served as chief of high command, departmental commander division, and military professor.

Career: Bolivian minister of education, 1964-66; became president of Bolivia in a military coup, 1971, left office, 1978; served as Bolivia's ambassador to Argentina, 1978-97; National Democratic Action Party, Bolivia, founder, 1979, and chair; president, Political Council of the Patriotic Alliance, 1989; elected president, 1997, retired, August 2001.

Awards: Recipient, gold medal of Mayor's Office of Sucre, Bolivia; gold medal of the Ret. Magistery; Guerrilleros Lanza medal; El Condor de los Andes award, government of Bolivia; Army Merit medal, United States military; also decorated by the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Bánzer's seven-year regime was one of the longest in Bolivian history; since becoming a nation in 1825, power had changed hands, often by coup, nearly 200 times. His rule was marked by typical hallmarks of repression amongst South American autocracies: universities were closed, the press was controlled, and political parties had little power. Furthermore, human-rights abuses occurred; 15,000 were arrested, and 19,000 were forced to flee. Bánzer was also accused of allowing the drug-trafficking trade to flourish in order to bolster Bolivia's economy after exports from one main crop, cotton, diminished. Bolivia suffers a statistical honor as the poorest nation in South America. Once part of the Spanish Empire and a thriving center of the tin mining trade, it is home to a majority of Amerindians, comprising half of its population of 8 million, who are mostly of Quechua and Aymara ethnicity. About 30 percent of Bolivians are mestizo, or mixed heritage, while families of European descent, like Bánzer's, make up the remaining 15 percent of the populace. Rich in resources, it is landlocked and lacks a large infrastructure because of mountainous Andes terrain and jungle topography. Its neighbors are Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, and Peru, each of which has also endured its own political or economic woes in the modern era.

During the 1970s Bolivia under Bánzer became one of the world's largest suppliers of cocaine on the illegal international market; the drug is made from plants grown for centuries by Quechua and Aymara farmers. In 1975, his private secretary was found to be carrying a large amount of cocaine at the Montreal airport, and Bánzer's son-in-law was also found in possession of the drug. Yet perhaps the most notorious incident of Bánzer's military regime was a crackdown on a peasant rebellion in the Cochabamba Valley in 1974. Fighter planes and armored vehicles dispersed crowds gathered to protest price increases, and 200 died—and none among that number were military personnel. It came to be known as the "massacre of the valley." Bánzer also worried some for forging political ties with General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, who became ruler of Chile in a bloody 1973 coup. The two countries had warred in 1883 over a section of the Pacific coastline, and Chile emerged victorious. Bánzer unsuccessfully tried to regain the territory in a 1976 summit on the border, and the two generals famously embraced for press photographers.

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