COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA — Retired Gen. Hugo Banzer Surez, who once ruled Bolivia as an iron-fisted dictator, has a good chance to become the nation's next democratically elected president.
Since Bolivia returned to democracy in 1982, the congenial General Banzer has convinced many Bolivians that he is no longer the man who governed by repression and torture from 1971 to 1978. He now leads most polls for the presidential election to be held next June. President Gonzalo Snchez de Lozada and his vice president, Victor Hugo Crdenas, legally cannot run until 2001.
"No other Latin American general has ever come out of a dirty war, cleansed his image, and become president," says Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivia expert and head of Latin American studies at Florida International University. "Banzer would be the first."
Unlike many Latin American dictators who were jailed, exiled, or retired in disgrace, Banzer has played a major role in Bolivia's burgeoning democracy. He founded the rightist Nationalist Democratic Action (ADN) party, which is the second-leading force in Congress. He has run for president five times and played kingmaker on two occasions.
In Bolivia's multiparty system, no candidate ever receives the required 51 percent needed for an outright victory, and the president is chosen by Congress after post-election coalitions are formed. In 1985, for example, Banzer won the popular vote but lost in the alliance that followed. Some observers say he then stopped hard-line ADN members from plotting a coup to topple then-president Victor Paz Estenssoro.
"Despite his authoritarian background, most would now agree that Banzer is the architect of contemporary Bolivian democracy," Mr. Gamarra says. "He has rewritten history and is seen as a democrat willing to step aside to let others govern."
On the campaign trail, the general reminds voters that he toppled a military dictatorship and not a democratic one in 1971 and that he brought economic stability to Bolivia, initiating free-market policies that spurred an average annual 6 percent growth rate. Ironically, he also espouses populist remedies for South America's poorest nation that would have landed him in jail during his rule.
"Wealth in this country is concentrated in too few hands," he told the Monitor while campaigning in Cochabamba, the nation's third-largest city. "We need more social programs for the poor."
Banzer's critics concede that his dictatorship didn't compare with the massive human-rights violations committed in Argentina or Chile. But they say he did rely on assassinations, torture, imprisonment, censorship, and forced exile of political opponents.
In a 1993 book documenting human rights violations committed by military regimes between 1965-81, author Federico Aguil described the Banzer years as "one of the blackest periods in Bolivian history" and "profoundly antidemocratic."
His book, "Never Again for Bolivia" claims that under Banzer, there were 39 political assassinations, 65 "disappeared," 429 deaths from confrontations with the Army and police, 3,059 detainees, and 663 political exiles.
Mr. Aguil, a Jesuit priest who heads the Cochabamba chapter of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, says Banzer should be tried for human rights crimes. "There are things that occur in history that are incomprehensible, and Banzer as a democratic president is one of them," he says.
Banzer, on the other hand, says he has no remorse for what "had to be done. There was chaos, anarchy, and a guerrilla movement. Authoritarian rule was the only solution. You can't combat guerrillas with flowers."
For now, the dictator-turned-democrat insists that this will be his last campaign and is working hard to win the votes and eventual alliances that he will need to become Bolivia's president.
"The ADN will negotiate body and soul with the devil," says La Paz, Bolivia-based analyst Carlos Toranzo, "to ensure that this time, Banzer is the winner."