Ousted Bolivian President Speaks Out

Former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who was forced to resign the presidency and flee his country less than two weeks ago, blamed his political opponents for threatening the stability of Bolivian democracy in a speech to 30 Georgetown students and professors in ICC on Monday night.

The resignation came on the heels of popular resistance to Sanchez de Lozada’s plan for the exportation of natural gas and his continued support for the U.S.-led drug war against cocaine suppliers operating throughout the Andean region.

Sanchez de Lozada, often called by his nickname, Goni, said that while he had limited himself to constitutional governance, the movement that helped topple his government was anti-democratic.

“I was playing according to the Marquis of Queensbury rules,” he said, “and my opponents were kickboxing.”

In particular, he said he viewed Evo Morales, the leader of the Bolivian coca growers’ federation, as a threat to the country’s 22 year-old democracy.

Sanchez de Lozada said Morales knows that he does not have enough support to win a future election and therefore looks to gain power by circumventing the democratic system.

Morales ran a close second to Sanchez de Lozada in the 2002 presidential election with a platform that denounced both the drug war and free market reforms.

Sanchez de Lozada also criticized Carlos Mesa, his former vice president.

Mesa, who distanced himself from Sanchez de Lozada as resistance grew in the final months, was elevated to president following the Oct. 17 resignation.

The former president, who grew up in the United States and graduated from the University of Chicago, seasoned his remarks with quotes by American authors and politicians.

Sanchez de Lozada had already served one presidential term between 1993 and 1997, but his second term, which began in August 2002, only lasted 14 months before its end. Among his accomplishments as president, he cited the passage of bilingual education, administrative decentralization and pension fund reforms.

But his efforts to capitalize on Bolivia’s vast natural gas resources sparked a national controversy that has yet to recede. Some Bolivians object to the construction of a gas pipeline through neighboring Chile, a traditional enemy that conquered the last of the Bolivian coastline more than a century ago. Others claim that the wealth generated from gas exports would disproportionately benefit multinational corporations.

Sanchez de Lozada denied those claims. He said that the Bolivian government would receive at least 60 percent of the revenue from natural gas exports.

Since coming to power, Mesa has said he will hold a national referendum to determine the fate of Bolivia’s natural gas. Mesa also intends to convene a constituent assembly in order to reform the political and electoral systems.

Sanchez de Lozada disagreed with both proposals, especially the constituent assembly.

“It’s unconstitutional, illegal and it could be the flashpoint for the breakup of the country,” he said.

Demonstrations against Sanchez de Lozada’s gas export plan began in Sept. 2003 and were led by indigenous leader Felipe Quispe. The protests became increasingly violent over the next two months and between 50 and 100 people died in clashes with government forces.

Sanchez de Lozada defended the security measures that he had taken. Demonstrators were installing road blocks and stranding hundreds of tourists and Bolivian citizens, he said.

“Buses were being stoned. People were being shot at,” he said.

Sanchez de Lozada also defended his drug policy. Eradication of coca fields was necessary, he said, because coca growers sell their leaves to producers of illegal drugs.

He did, however, concede that the U.S. and Bolivian governments have not done enough to make up for the hundreds of millions of dollars that the Bolivian economy has lost due to the destruction of coca fields.

During the discussion, Sanchez de Lozada repeatedly stressed the importance of strong and stable democratic institutions, a common theme from a speech he delivered last November in Gaston Hall. One of his political priorities, he said, was to gain a majority in Congress in order to demonstrate his national support and validate his policies. He enjoyed a two-thirds majority in Congress for much of his shortened second term.

His decision to resign, he said, was not only in response to the increasing number of violent demonstrations, but also out of respect for Bolivia’s democratic system. “I resigned when I lost my majority in the congress,” he said, and then added bluntly, “I obviously didn’t have a majority in the streets.”