Do 20 years of participation in democracy erase a dictator's sins?
That's the question Bolivians have grappled with since Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London Oct. 16 at the request of Spanish authorities. A British judge later disallowed the arrest, although an appeal is pending.
Bolivian human rights activists accuse President Hugo Banzer, who headed a 1971-1978 dictatorship, of human rights violations similar to those for which a judge in Spain wants to try Mr. Pinochet. "All dictatorships are the same," says Loyola Guzmn, president of the Association of Relatives of Those Detained, Disappeared and Martyred for Democracy.
But Mr. Banzer's supporters say his participation in democracy differentiates him from Pinochet. Comparing the two "is a total and absolute heresy," Vice President Jorge Quiroga told reporters.
The two generals' stories have much in common. Both seized power from left-wing governments in early-1970s military coups and are blamed for tortures, deaths, and disappearances - hundreds in Banzer's case and thousands in Pinochet's.
After experiencing national and international pressures, both dictators called democratic elections. Banzer then went on to campaign in six presidential elections, finally winning the presidency last year. Pinochet, after narrowly losing a referendum, stepped from dictator to head of the military and then to senator-for-life.
Banzer at first avoided comment on Pinochet's arrest. Three days after it, when reporters waited for him in front of the presidential palace, he left through the back door. Vice President Quiroga explained that the president was too busy celebrating La Paz's 450th anniversary. The same explanation was given for Banzer's decision not to attend the Iberoamerican summit on globalization in Portugal Oct. 17-18. Some had suggested he feared being arrested there.
When Banzer finally addressed the Pinochet arrest, he denied "on my honor as a man" all knowledge of Operation Condor - the core of Spanish charges against Pinochet - in which South American dictators allegedly cooperated to repress opponents.
Few believed Banzer.
But Bolivia is much less politically polarized than Chile, where many people are known as Pinochetistas. Interviewed on Sunday, a medical student said: "They [Pinochet and Banzer] are old men now. It'd be absurd to put them in prison." A secretary said, "We need a person who'll govern us with a strong hand."
Human rights activists say that trying Banzer in Bolivia would be difficult. A pre-1971 law places a statute of limitations on the trial of ex-leaders.