A TRIAL unprecedented in Latin America entered a new phase last week when Bolivia's Supreme Court began cross-examination of witnesses against the country's former ruler, Luis Garc'ia Meza. The charges against Mr. Garc'ia Meza, who came to power in a brutal coup on July 17, 1980, include robbing the state, genocide, massive human-rights abuses, and violating the Constitution.
In neighboring Argentina, five senior military officers, including two former presidents, are serving long prison sentences for committing human-rights violations during the ``dirty war'' of the 1970s. But the trial against Garc'ia Meza is considered to be the first in Latin American history in which a former dictator has been tried for carrying out a coup.
In the past, Bolivia has been synonymous with political instability, suffering more than 180 coups in its 164 years since independence. But since 1982, civilian rule has slowly been strengthened.
``The importance of the trial is not just that it helps to consolidate democracy in Bolivia,'' says Bishop Rolando Villena, president of the Bolivian Permanent Assembly of Human Rights (APDHB), one of the 10 civilian organizations to instigate the trial.
``If Garc'ia Meza is finally sentenced, it will act as a warning to the military in all the Southern Cone countries not to venture into the political arena in the future.''
The trial comes at a time of low spirits for those in South America pushing for prison sentences for former military strong men. On April 16, the people of Uruguay narrowly voted for granting an amnesty to Army rulers accused of human-rights abuses in the 1970s.
In Paraguay, a recent avalanche of testimonies from victims of General Stroessner's 34-year dictatorship - and even the discovery of clandestine cemeteries where opponents were buried - are unlikely to prompt the new President, Army General Andr'es Rodr'iguez, to begin any trials.
Argentina's new President, Carlos Sa'ul Menem, recently hinted that he may pardon the Argentine military when he said, ``I cannot even see birds imprisoned.''
But despite the unfavorable trend in neighboring countries, Bishop Villena is optimistic. ``The Garc'ia Meza case will help to establish whether the South American military are the owners of the state or merely part of the state institutions,'' he says.
Three years and two months have already passed since the trial began. One of the main reasons for the delay has been the lack of legal precedent for trying a dictator. Garc'ia Meza is facing a complicated array of charges. He is charged with violating the Constitution by launching the coup, which the APDHB says was partly financed with cocaine money.
The headquarters of the Bolivian Workers Confederation (the COB) was raided the same day as the presidential palace, and three union leaders were killed. Simon Reyes, the present general secretary of the COB, was arrested that day and detained for four months. ``If Garc'ia Meza remains unpunished,'' he warns, ``there's nothing to stop the same sort of thing happening in the future.''
The whereabouts of the two chief defendants - Garc'ia Meza, and his interior minister, Luis Arce G'omez - are a mystery, although both are thought to be in Bolivia. Garc'ia Meza escaped after the Bolivian Congress ordered his arrest in January, when he failed to appear in court in a separate case being brought against him for stealing the diaries of the revolutionary leader, Che Guevara.
The police located Garc'ia Meza in the city of Sucre, but he sought refuge with the local military.
Another phase of the trial will deal with the accusation of genocide, concerning the murder in La Paz on Jan. 15, 1981, of eight leaders of the Revolutionary Movement of the Left (MIR). That massacre met with universal denunciation, and hastened the end of Garc'ia Meza's one year rule.
``We were about to finish the meeting when 20 paramilitaries burst into the room,'' says Gloria Ardaya, a former deputy and the only survivor of the massacre. ``I had the instinct to hide under a bed, but the others were machine-gunned to death.''
Ms. Ardaya is one of many Bolivians worried that the trial may drag on without final sentence. ``There are many people with a lot to lose from the case,'' she says.
The right-wing National Democratic Action (ADN) party of Gen. Hugo Banzer, himself a dictator from 1971 to 1978, recently voted in congress against ordering Garc'ia Meza's arrest. Ardaya says that ADN deputies enjoyed close relations with the Garc'ia Meza regime.
Should General Banzer become Bolivia's next president after the legislative vote Aug. 6, a final sentence is highly unlikely.
``Banzer may try to use the trial to clean his image,'' says Bishop Villena of the APDHB, ``but he wouldn't let the final stage be reached.''