Shielding Goni

Pub date April 8, 2009
WriterNick Buxton

Top Democratic Party pollster Stanley Greenberg rolled into San Francisco last month to promote his latest book, Dispatches from the War Room — In the trenches with five extraordinary leaders (2009, St. Martin’s Press). The slight, bespectacled man spoke at the Commonwealth Club, sharing what he hoped were "honest and frank" accounts of working with leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton.

While he happily pontificated on the lessons these experiences held for President Barack Obama, he was a bit more defensive on why he had proudly featured in the book Gonzalo "Goni" Sánchez de Lozada, former president of Bolivia who is currently wanted for his role in a massacre of 67 people in October 2003.

Greenberg was drafted in 2002 to help Goni, a wealthy University of Chicago-educated businessman, get elected president during a time of social upheaval created largely by U.S.-backed neoliberal economic policies. Branding Goni as the only man who could "resolve the crisis," Greenberg and other U.S. political consultants helped their client scrape an electoral victory with just 23 percent of the popular vote.

The deaths took place less than a year later when Goni announced deeply unpopular plans to privatize the country’s natural gas reserves and give foreign corporations more control over Bolivia’s resources. Road blockades erected by protesters in the poorest outlying neighborhoods of the high altitude city of La Paz effectively cut off supplies. Goni signed a decree that instructed the army to clear the roads and promised "indemnification for any damage to property and persons which might occur." That effective carte blanche resulted in the army shooting live ammunition indiscriminately at men, women, and children.

Military repression brought to a head one of the country’s bloodiest years, in which more than 150 people died in social protests. Rising popular anger led Goni to flee the country to exile in the United States. He has since lived comfortably in Chevy Chase, Md., protected by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Greenberg admits in the book that the violence caused him "to take stock," yet he ends up saying he is now "more certain of my course and his [Goni’s]." He concludes: "I am proud of what we did to help Goni become President." From the podium at the Commonwealth Club, he blamed the atrocities on the supposed "parallel violence" by the protestors.

It seems a surprising conclusion for a man who is supposedly in touch with the electorate. Goni is universally reviled in Bolivia as a corrupt and arrogant politician who devalued Bolivian lives. Even Goni’s Vice President Carlos Mesa denounced him and swore that he would never use violence to enforce policies. Two-thirds of Bolivia’s Congress — including many who had formed part of Goni’s coalition — approved a trial seeking responsibility for the massacres. Disgust at Goni’s "free market" (or neoliberal) economic and social policies, which increased poverty and inequality, was partly behind the landslide 2005 electoral victory of one of the leaders of the protest movements, Evo Morales.

Yet sadly, Greenberg’s positive spin of Goni seems to be a view that is widely shared with the Democratic Party. At a Washington launch event for Greenberg’s book, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also appeared to hold Goni in high esteem, warmly welcoming him to the event and calling him a "very special man." Goni’s former defense lawyer, Gregory Craig, is now Obama’s White House counsel. The Democrats’ historic loyalty to one of their favored pro-American friends seems to outweigh their commitment to human rights and fair legal process.

Rogelio Mayta, the resolute lawyer representing the families whose loved ones were killed in October 2003, tries to give Pelosi the benefit of the doubt. "We want to believe in the good faith of … Pelosi and believe that these praises are due to misinformation rather than a concrete line of action and thinking by the U.S. government," he said.

Yet the anger of Eloy Rojas, who lost his eight-year-old daughter when troops entered his village and started shooting indiscriminately, is harder to hide. "Every effort that allies of Sánchez de Lozada make to present the ex-president as a victim and an honest man is for us an offense. It is an offense against the pain and suffering that his terrible actions had for our lives. His determination to defend his and other people’s economic interests meant that he stopped valuing peoples’ lives … That is why we continue to seek justice."

In March, Bolivian families who lost loved ones marked a significant milestone in their struggle to end the legacy of impunity for political elites like Goni. After five years of navigating political games and legal loopholes, a date was set for the trial of responsibility for Goni and seven of his ministers. Yet the main defendant, Goni, will be missing because the U.S. government has ignored requests for extradition for several years.

Many in the U.S. and worldwide continue to hope that Obama’s inauguration will mark a new chapter in relations worldwide, especially in Latin America, where there has been a new wave of resistance against U.S. attempts to impose its economic interests. Obama has made some important first steps in ordering closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and reinvigorating the use of diplomacy in regions such as the Middle East. But if he really wants to start a new chapter of international relations rooted in human rights, he doesn’t need to travel abroad. He just needs to respond to Bolivia’s lawful request for extradition and send home the man who lives just seven miles from the White House. 2

Nick Buxton is a British journalist who was based in Bolivia for many years before moving to San Francisco last year. His blog, Open Veins, is at