Whether or not the United States should extradite former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and his former defense minister, Carlos Sanchez Berzain, to stand in a ‘Trial of Responsibility’ concerning intense civil unrest in 2003 which resulted in government-ordered suppression of civilian protestors, is an issue which is at once emotionally and politically charged.
Bloodshed, Flight, and Asylum
In Bolivia, the year 2003 was filled with violence and chaos. Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada had narrowly won a second, non-consecutive presidential term the year before, with only 22.5 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, he interpreted this slender margin of victory as a mandate to move forward with exceptionally contentious policies involving the export of newly discovered natural gas to the U.S. and Mexico via Chile, along with a series of economic austerity measures. In a country demographically dominated by traditionally marginalized indigenous peoples (55 percent Quechua or Aymara, 30 percent mestizo, and 15 percent white, according to the CIA World Fact Book), where almost two-thirds of the population live in poverty, and which historically has had its natural resources plundered by a tiny, self-absorbed elite, Sanchez de Lozada was grossly negligent in failing to sell his economic plans to the populace. By the end of February 2003, more than 30 people had been killed and over 200 were injured by security forces and Sanchez de Lozada’s increasingly unpopular government was losing its grip on power. The ‘Gas Wars’ of September and ‘Black October’ delivered telling blows against Bolivia’s stability. Responding to widespread public protests, Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain again unleashed the military, this time resulting in 67 deaths and more than 500 injuries.
In reaction to this growing mayhem, tension began to mount, until the president and his defense minister suddenly fled the country on October 17, 2003. Throughout the growing stand-off, Washington staunchly supported the Sanchez de Lozada administration until the day he and Berzain went into exile, and has since allowed them to reside in this country. Both are accused by La Paz of ordering the use of flagrantly disproportionate and deadly force against the primarily indigenous protesters, who were wielding mostly sticks and stones. In 2004, a two-thirds majority in the Bolivian Congress voted to initiate a formal legal case against the two Bolivian leaders. The country’s Supreme Court has further declared them to be in contempt of court and accordingly issued warrants for their arrest. Although Letters Rogatory have been dispatched from Bolivian courts to U.S. authorities, the latter remains mostly silent and uncooperative. Ironically, Sanchez de Lozada signed a bilateral extradition treaty with the U.S. in 1995, during his first term as president. The treaty took effect in 1996.
On June 3, 2008, Berzain’s lawyers announced that the U.S. had, in fact, quietly granted the former defense minister political asylum in 2007; once Washington’s actions became known, they sparked demonstrations back in Bolivia, which were attended by thousands of protestors. The mainly indigenous demonstrators surrounded the U.S. Embassy and demanded the return of Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain. From the onset, it was widely believed that Sanchez de Lozada had been or soon would be granted political asylum. Both claimed to be bonafide “refugees” fleeing political persecution. Berzain has gone so far as to say that, due to his previous involvement in Bolivia’s counter-drug operations, if returned to Bolivia, he would be tortured or killed. But Bolivia is not known for drug-related violence, and the current Morales administration has continued crop eradication programs, even improving the interdiction process in the meantime. Meanwhile, U.S. government officials have insisted all along that the process of granting asylum is an apolitical, judicial matter, yet it is widely known that the Department of Justice consistently acts in accordance with politicized recommendations submitted by the Department of State when the asylum issue is being vetted. Citing privacy grounds, the U.S. refuses to disclose or discuss the former Bolivian politicians’ immigration status.
U.S. Civil Actions
On September 26, 2007, lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Harvard University filed civil cases in the U.S. against Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain on behalf of the families of ten Bolivian victims of Black October. The cases are being presented in accordance with the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act. The former president’s case was originally filed in a Maryland District Court, as he currently lives in Chevy Chase, MD. The lawsuit against Berzain was filed in a Florida District Court since the former defense minister now resides in Key Biscayne, Florida. On April 15th of this year, Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain’s mutual attorney, Greg Craig (see COHA’s recent article, “Obama Advisor Greg Craig: A Man of Merit,” by Research Associates Mike Katz and Chris Sweeney) succeeded in having Sanchez de Lozada’s lawsuit transferred to Florida, a venue likely to be more sympathetic to his client.
Both of the civil cases against the Bolivian emigrants seek compensatory and punitive damages based on charges of extrajudicial killing, crimes against humanity, violations of the rights to life, liberty, and security of person and freedom of assembly and association. Berzain is further accused of intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and negligence. General allegations in court documents assert that, “extrajudicial killings…were part of a pattern and practice of widespread, systematic attacks against the civilian population…[and that]…rather than taking necessary steps to prevent additional violence, [the defendants] escalated the attacks against the civilian population.” Specifically, these documents assert that the security forces under Lozada and Berzain heavily relied on machine guns and sharpshooters armed with high-powered rifles to restore order. It is noted that in Bolivia, usually officers, and not conscripts, carry automatic weapons. Some plaintiffs have claimed that their loved ones were killed in their own homes, often located far from the scenes of actual conflict, by a single bullet fired from considerable distance. It has been further noted that only officers are normally trained as sharpshooters. There also have been accusations made of shootings from helicopters.
The veracity of Sanchez de Lozada’s and Berzain’s accounts regarding the formal procedures they implemented during Black October has also been opened to question. The aforementioned court documents point out that the pair had authorized Executive Decree 27209 declaring a state of emergency on October 11, 2003, after falsely stating in the decree that there had been a full Council of Ministers meeting on that day when this demonstrably was not the case. The decree also states that all of the Cabinet ministers had signed the document on October 11th, when in truth some signatures were not obtained until days later. Additionally, Executive Decree 27209 was not presented to the public following proper legal procedures. The decree should have been immediately published in the Official Gazette of Bolivia, however it was not published until October 17th.
A Case for Extradition
Sanchez de Lozada’s own vice-president at the time, Carlos Mesa, publicly denounced the bloody suppression of protesters during Black October. Appearing on television the morning of October 13, 2003, Mesa bluntly stated, “Neither as a citizen nor as a man of principles can I accept that, faced with popular pressure, the response should be death.” In disavowing Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain’s methods, Mesa explicitly and powerfully brings into relief the decisions which led up to pursuing deeply divisive policies at gun-point.
Although Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain may have acted out of a professed concern for Bolivia’s macroeconomic health and a need to break a general strike that included the widespread setting up of roadblocks, their critics contend that the wanton actions that they sanctioned deserve unqualified condemnation and that they must stand trial. That Bolivia presents a singular setting in terms of geographic, political, economic, social, and ethnic divisions requiring special sensitivity because of the volatility of the mix, makes the case for extradition more, rather than less, urgent. Bolivia’s system of justice has suffered from endemic exclusion and impunity; the international community should demand and facilitate the pursuit of truth and justice there.
Ideally, a thorough inquiry, perhaps monitored by outside dignitaries and specialists, should assess Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain’s contention that President Morales and other leaders of Bolivia’s popular movement also bear a measure of responsibility for helping to provoke the ill-fated events of late 2003. If incitements to violence can be reasonably proven, the case against the former president and his defense minister might be weakened or even thrown out. However, even this would not completely absolve them of the responsibility to answer for their actions in Bolivian courts; at the most, it would only mean that culpability should, in some measure, be shared.
In granting Berzain asylum, the U.S. government has declared there to be well-founded fears that he—and, by logical extension, Sanchez de Lozada—would likely suffer political persecution in Bolivia. This assessment appears to be a political, not a legal, judgment made by the State Department and is yet another example of a politicized system of selective justice which serves the White House’s ideological prejudices.
Arguments that the charges against Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain are simply a political hit job concocted by Morales and that a fair trial is impossible under these conditions do not stand up to scrutiny. An effective refutation of these arguments can be found in The Andean Information Network’s June 23, 2008 article “AIN Critiques Gamarra…” wherein it is noted that a two-thirds majority of the Bolivian Congress sanctioned the charges against Sanchez de Lozada before Morales had been elected president, and at a time when the majority of Congress belonged to or were allied with the former’s political party; it was USAID itself which trained and certified many of the prosecutors now active in Bolivia’s criminal justice system; that no members of the Supreme Court are linked to Morales’ political party; and that there is no evidence of Morales firing any judges, so, arguably, any bias in Bolivia’s legal system is likely to arise out of a residual effect that most likely would benefit traditional elites like Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain.
Furthermore, legally allowing Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain to remain in the U.S. may exacerbate Bolivia’s internal divisions by encouraging the country’s factions to become further entrenched in their confrontational and often uncompromising positions. Although Bolivia’s western indigenous majority has, heretofore, been somewhat content with La Paz’s calls for national unity through peaceful means, Santa Cruz appears comparatively inflexible. Implicit or explicit support from Washington gives the latter region every reason to dig in their heels while providing the former reason to eschew conciliation and to push a harder line. Returning the erstwhile president and defense minister would send a message to Santa Cruz that negotiations over autonomy are necessary, while informing La Paz that the U.S. is capable of continuing what the State Department describes as “a tradition of cordial and cooperative relations.”
Unfortunately, the U.S.’s treatment of Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain is consistent with Washington’s mishandling of other notorious cases. The State Department finds it very difficult, indeed, to resist giving a political spin on issues that should otherwise rest on their legal merits. The scandalous U.S. failure to extradite even a self-confessed murderous terrorist like Cuban bomber Luis Posada Carriles (see COHA’s July 2008 article, “Selective Idealism/Selective Indignation…,” by Research Associate Elizabeth Reavey) and the protracted stall up to this day in the extradition of Haiti’s former rightist death squad leader Emmanuel “Toto” Constant are cases in point. Both individuals have had a history of involvement with the CIA and both cases apparently were given a highly politicized treatment by the State Department. Washington has earned a reputation for supporting or going easy on some unsavory Latin Americans, and it further tarnishes its name when the U.S. appears to be complicit in order to protect its former friends and collaborators. Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain are not unequivocally the same class of criminal as Carriles and Constant, but, as long as the U.S. refuses their extradition, the aforementioned trend, with its concomitant perceptions of U.S. callousness and recalcitrance, will be reinforced.
Unless Sanchez de Lozada, Berzain, and U.S. Department of State can provide Bolivia’s civil society and the international community with convincing evidence of the inadequacy and arbitrariness of that country’s courts, and the comparative standards used by Washington to determine the quality of other countries’ judicial performance, these former high Bolivian officials should be extradited. Bolivia’s current President, Evo Morales, was elected in 2005 with more than 53% of the vote (the highest percentage in the country’s history) and has just attracted over 67% of the vote in the August 10 recall referendum. The legitimacy of these democratic processes has not been seriously undermined and there is no reason to deny that Morales represents an authentic majority of Bolivians. While it has not been satisfactorily argued that Morales is furtively orchestrating the demands for Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain’s extradition or that a fair trial is impossible and that their physical safety would be seriously endangered, it is plain that Bolivia’s executive and judicial branches—and, deductively, the majority of Bolivians—are eager to acquire their testimony.