What Hollywood ignores about Bolivia's ex-president

'Our Brand Is Crisis' tells only part of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada's story

by Linda Farthing @LCFarthing
Former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada is back in the limelight, thanks to the recent release of "Our Brand Is Crisis." The Hollywood version of the insightful 2005 documentary does, at best, a mediocre job of telling the story about how U.S. political strategists helped deliver Sánchez de Lozada, popularly known as Goni, a narrow win in the 2002 presidential election.

While the film attempts to convey the documentary's powerful message about the PR branding of democracy, this is largely lost in a formulaic and bland script. Instead, petty rivalries dominate the plot, exemplified by an absurd bus chase and a night of drunken high jinks. The American protagonist, played by Sandra Bullock, has a predictable redemptive moment after she becomes disenchanted once and for all with the political consulting business. Improbably, she resolves this by becoming a Latin American solidarity activist.

The real-life U.S. strategists behind Goni's win were the powerful Democratic Party operatives James Carville, Stanley Greenberg and Bob Shrum, who advised the candidate, a mining magnate and Bolivia's richest man. Another Goni adviser, Mark Feierstein, is currently President Barack Obama's senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council.

What the film doesn't portray is what Goni would most like everyone to forget: A year after the well-paid campaign consultants went home, 68 people were killed and 400 injured when he unleashed the military on unarmed protesters.

In October 2003, Bolivia witnessed an uprising over Goni's negotiations to export natural gas destined for Southern California through the country's historic enemy, Chile. As the rebellion spread, Goni fled to the U.S., where he has since lived comfortably in the wealthy Washington, D.C., suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland. He continued to cultivate his ties to high-level Democrats, including one of his attorneys, Gregory Craig, who later served as Obama's White House counsel. This paid off in June 2008, when the U.S. quietly granted political asylum to one of Goni's former ministers and closest associates, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín.

Since 2003, the Bolivian government has lobbied the U.S. to extradite Goni and his collaborators so they can face charges back home. Victims' families march every year on the anniversary of the shootings. The calls for accountability are particularly strong in El Alto, where the bulk of the killings took place. The country's current president, Evo Morales, once joked to Thomas Shannon, at the time the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, "If you send back Goni, you'll be made mayor of El Alto."

The U.S. rejected Bolivia's extradition request for Goni, Sánchez Berzaín and another former minister, Jorge Berindoague Alcocer, in 2012. The reason given was that the Bolivian accusations of genocide do not conform to the terms of the 1995 extradition treaty between the two countries, but critics suggest that Goni is being protected by the U.S. government.

After 12 years, the president responsible for a mass killing is finally being forced to defend his actions.
Morales, who was propelled into office by the 2003 protests, responded by lambasting the U.S. as a "paradise of impunity" and a "refuge for criminals." Vicki Aillon, who worked closely on the case, reported, "The U.S. government, through the Department of State and the embassy, blocked us at every turn." She added, "Because of Goni's high level political connections, chances were slim we could ever succeed." The Bolivian government submitted a revised request in July 2014.

Further complicating the bleak prospects for extradition, Morales has been at loggerheads with the U.S. since he was first elected in late 2005. His administration tossed out U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg in 2008, accusing him of supporting a right-wing uprising in Bolivia's eastern lowlands. By 2009, the Drug Enforcement Administration was gone too, followed by the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2013.

This September, revelations surfaced that the U.S. targeted Morales in a DEA drug sting. This came shortly after meetings between Morales and U.S. Charge d'Affaires Peter Brennan that suggested that diplomatic relations could be on the mend.

In 2004 two-thirds of Bolivia's Congress, dominated by members of Goni's party, approved a trial of responsibility against him and his principal collaborators. The Bolivian Supreme Court's unanimous verdict in the case in August 2011 led to the imprisonment of two ex-ministers and five military commanders. With tears in his eyes, Patricio Quispe of the families' association told the local press, "No government will ever again feel it has the right to murder its own citizens."

A coalition of lawyers from Harvard Law School, the Center for Constitutional Rights and private firms won a ruling in 2009 from the U.S. District Court for Southern Florida that the victims of October 2003 have a viable civil claim against Goni and his collaborators. "It's a powerful example of how international law is making it harder to escape accountability simply by fleeing to another country," Harvard's James Cavallaro said. The victory was only temporary, however: In May 2011, the ruling was reversed on appeal.

The U.S. lawyers and the victims' families refuse to give up. "As long as the plaintiffs want to keep going" says Judith Chomsky, a cooperating attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, "we will pursue every available remedy in this case." A new federal civil suit was filed in 2014 seeking compensatory and punitive damages under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act.

By May 2015, the case had progressed sufficiently that Goni, agreed to give a two-day deposition to a group of human rights lawyers and members of the victims' families in Washington. Although Goni, now 85, was often vague about the facts, the victims' families were heartened. After 12 years, they were seeing the man they hold responsible for the deaths of their loved ones finally forced to defend his actions.

Linda Farthing is the author of three books on Bolivia. The latest is "Evo's Bolivia: Continuity and Change."