In October 2003, the intensely pro-US president of Bolivia, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, sent his security forces to suppress growing popular protests against the government's energy and globalization policies. Using high-powered rifles and machine guns, his military forces killed 67 men, women and children, and injured 400 more, almost all of whom were poor and from the nation's indigenous Aymara communities. Dozens of protesters had been killed by government forces in the prior months when troops were sent to suppress them.
The resulting outrage over what became known as "the Gas Wars" drove Sanchez de Lozada from office and then into exile in the United States, where he was welcomed by his close allies in the Bush administration. He has lived under a shield of asylum in the US ever since.
The Bolivians, however, have never stopped attempting to bring their former leader to justice for what they insist are his genocide and crimes against humanity: namely, ordering the killing of indigenous peaceful protesters in cold blood (as Time Magazine put it: "according to witnesses, the military fired indiscriminately and without warning in El Alto neighborhoods"). In 2007, Bolivian prosecutors formally charged him with genocide for the October 2003 incident, charges which were approved by the nation's supreme court.
Bolivia then demanded his extradition from the US for him to stand trial. That demand, ironically, was made pursuant to an extradition treaty signed by Sánchez de Lozada himself with the US. Civil lawsuits have also been filed against him in the US on behalf of the surviving victims.
The view that Sánchez de Lozada must be extradited from the US to stand trial is a political consensus in Bolivia, shared by the government and the main opposition party alike. But on Friday night, the Bolivian government revealed that it had just been notified by the Obama administration that the US government has refused Bolivia's extradition request:
"'Yesterday (Thursday), a document arrived from the United States, rejecting the extradition of people who have done a lot of damage to Bolivia,' leftist [President Evo] Morales, an outspoken critic of US foreign policy in Latin America, said in a speech.
"Calling the United States a 'paradise of impunity' and a 'refuge for criminals,' Morales said Washington turned down the extradition request on the grounds that a civilian leader cannot be tried for crimes committed by the military …
"Sanchez de Lozada's extradition was also demanded by opposition leaders in Bolivia and they criticized the US decision.
"Rogelio Mayta, a lawyer representing victims of the 2003 violence, said 'the US protection' of Sanchez de Lozada was not surprising.
"'It's yet another display of the US government's double moral standard,' he said."
Because he has yet to be tried, I have no opinion on whether Sánchez de Lozada is guilty of the crimes with which he has been formally charged (Bolivian courts have convicted several other military officers on genocide charges in connection with these shootings). But the refusal of the Obama administration to allow him to stand trial for what are obviously very serious criminal allegations is completely consistent with American conceptions of justice and is worth examining for that reason.
Let's begin with two vital facts about the former Bolivian leader.
First, Sánchez de Lozada was exactly the type of America-revering-and-obeying leader the US has always wanted for other nations, especially smaller ones with important energy resources. When he was driven into exile in October 2003, the New York Times described him as "Washington's most stalwart ally in South America".
The former leader – a multimillionaire mining executive who, having been educated in the US, spoke Spanish with a heavy American accent – was a loyal partner in America's drug war in the region. More importantly, the former leader himself was a vehement proponent and relentless crusader for free trade and free market policies favored by the US: policies that the nation's indigenous poor long believed (with substantial basis) resulted in their impoverishment while enriching Bolivia's small Europeanized elite.
It was Sánchez de Lozada's forced exile that ultimately led to the 2006 election and 2009 landslide re-election of Morales, a figure the New York Times in October 2003 described as one "regarded by Washington as its main enemy". Morales has been as vehement an opponent of globalization and free trade as Sánchez de Lozada was a proponent, and has constantly opposed US interference in his region and elsewhere (in 2011, Morales called for the revocation of Obama's Nobel Peace Prize as a result of the intervention in Libya).
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So, this extradition refusal is, in one sense, a classic and common case of the US exploiting pretenses of law and justice to protect its own leaders and those of its key allies from the rule of law, even when faced with allegations of the most egregious wrongdoing. If the Obama DOJ so aggressively shielded accused Bush war criminals from all forms of accountability, it is hardly surprising that it does the same for loyal US puppets. That a government that defies US dictates is thwarted and angered in the process is just an added bonus. That, too, is par for the course.
But there's another important aspect of this case that distinguishes it from the standard immunity Washington gifts to itself and its friends. When he ran for president in 2002, Sánchez de Lozada was deeply unpopular among the vast majority of Bolivians as a result of his prior four-year term as president in the 1990s. To find a way to win despite this, he hired the consulting firm owned and operated by three of Washington's most well-connected Democratic party operatives: James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Bob Shrum. He asked them to import the tactics of American politics into Bolivia to ensure his election victory.
As detailed by a 2006 New York Times review of a film about the Democratic operatives' involvement in Bolivia's election, their strategy was two-fold: first, destroy the reputations of his two opponents so as to depress the enthusiasm of Bolivia's poor for either of them; and then mobilize Sánchez de Lozada's base of elites to ensure he wins by a tiny margin. That strategy worked, as he was elected with a paltry 22.5% of the popular vote. From the Times review:
"'[The film] asks a more probing question: whether Mr Carville and company, in selling a pro-globalization, pro-American candidate, can export American-style campaigning and values to a country so fundamentally different from the United States …
"'It's a very explosive film in Bolivia because it shows close up a very deliberate strategy,' said Jim Shultz, an American political analyst in Bolivia who recently saw the film with a group of friends. 'The film is especially explosive because it's about a candidate – so identified with the United States and so hated by so many Bolivians – being put into office by the political manipulations of US consultants.'
"Mauro Quispe, 33, a cabdriver in La Paz, said he saw slices of the film on the television news, and it raised his ire. 'I was stunned,' he said. 'He was being advised by the Americans, and everything they said was in English.'"
There's no evidence, at least of which I'm aware, that any of these Democratic operatives intervened on behalf of their former client in his extradition pleas to the Obama administration, but it rather obviously did not hurt. At the very least, shielding a former leader deposed by his own people from standing trial for allegedly gunning down unarmed civilians takes on an even uglier image when that former leader had recently had leading US Democratic operatives on his payroll.
Then, there are the very revealing parallels between this case and the recent decision by Ecuador to grant asylum to Julian Assange, until his fears of political persecution from being extradited to Sweden are resolved. Remember all those voices who were so deeply outraged at Ecuador's decision? Given that he faces criminal charges in Sweden, they proclaimed, protecting Assange with asylum constitutes a violent assault on the rule of law.
Do you think any of the people who attacked Ecuador on that ground will raise a peep of protest at what the US did here in shielding this former leader from facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity back in his own country? In contrast to Ecuador – which is fervently seeking an agreement to allow Assange to go to Sweden to face those allegations while simultaneously protecting his political rights – the US has done nothing, and is doing nothing, to ensure that Sánchez de Lozada will ever have to face trial. To the contrary, until Saturday, the US has steadfastly refused even to acknowledge Bolivia's extradition request, even though the crimes for which they want to try him are plainly within the scope of the two nations' extradition treaty.
Then there's the amazing fact that Democrats, who understandably scorn Mitt Romney for piling up massive personal wealth while he advocates policies harmful to the poor, continue in general to revere these types of Clintonites who, arguably to a lesser extent, have done the same. Indeed, Democrats spent all last week wildly praising Bill Clinton, who has made close to $100m in speaking fees alone by traveling the globe, speaking to hedge funds, and advocating globalization and free trade.
In this case, one finds both the prevailing rules and the prevailing orthodoxies of American justice. High-level leaders in the US government and those who serve their interests are exempt from the rule of law (even when accused of heinous acts of terrorism); only leaders who run afoul of US dictates should be held accountable.
Even in the civil case against him, an appellate court ultimately ruled that he was immune from damages or civil lawsuits, overturning a lower court ruling that there were sufficient allegations of genocide and war crimes against him to allow the suit to proceed. As usual, US federal courts are the leaders in ensuring that the most politically well-connected are shielded from the consequences of their acts.
Relatedly, we find the prevailing sentiment that asylum is something that is only to be granted by the US and its western allies against unfriendly governments. The notion that one may need asylum from the US or the west – or that small Latin American countries unfavorable to the US can grant it rather than have it granted against them – is offensive and perverse to all good and decent western citizens, who know that political persecution is something that happens only far away from them.
The protection of this accused former leader will likely generate little controversy in the US because it was the by-product of the actions of both the Bush and Obama administrations, and because it comports so fully with how American justice functions. The only surprising thing would have been if there had been a different outcome.