Hugo Banzer (May 10, 1926 – May 5, 2002) was a Bolivian general and politician, twice serving as President of Bolivia, the first time from 1971 to 1978, and again from 1997 to 2001.
Banzer was native to the rural lowlands of the Santa Cruz Department. He attended military schools in Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil and the United States, including the Armored Cavalry School at Fort Hood, Texas. He took a Motor Officer Course at the School of the Americas. He was a descendant of the German immigrant Georg Banzer Schewetering.
Banzer was promoted to colonel in 1961, and appointed three years later to head the Ministry of Education and Culture in the government of General René Barrientos, a personal friend. Banzer became increasingly involved in politics, siding with the right wing of the Bolivian Army. He was also appointed director of the Military Academy and the Coronel Gualberto Villarroel Military School.
In 1970, President Juan José Torres was leading the country in a leftist direction, arousing the ire and mistrust of conservative anti-communist circles in Bolivia and, crucially, in the Nixon administration. He had called an Asamblea del Pueblo, or People's Assembly, in which representatives of specific "proletarian" sectors of society were represented (miners, unionized teachers, students, peasants). The Assembly was imbued with all the powers of a working parliament, even though the right-wing opponents of the regime tended to call it a gathering of virtual soviets. Torres also allowed labor leader, Juan Lechín, to resume his post as head of the Central Obrera Boliviana/Bolivian Workers' Union (COB). These measures, coupled with Ovando's earlier nationalization of Gulf Oil properties, angered his opponents even more, chief among whom was Banzer and his US supporters. In early 1971, a faction of the Bolivian military attempted to unseat the new president but failed, whereupon Banzer fled to Argentina, but did not give up his ambitions to the presidency.
Banzer first seized power in a military coup against the incumbent leftist president, Juan José Torres, in 1971, with assistance from Richard Nixon, the then-President of the United States who helped set up several right-wing military regimes in South America during this time period through Operation Condor. He would spend the next seven years ruling Bolivia as a military dictator.
Banzer banned all the left-leaning parties, suspended the powerful Central Obrera Boliviana, and closed the nation's universities. "Order" was now the paramount aim, and no means were spared to restore authority and stifle dissent. Banzer was able to rule with a measure of civilian support until 1974, when the main parties realized he did not intend to hold elections and was instead using them to perpetuate himself in power. At that point, Banzer dispensed with all pretenses and banned all political activity, exiled all major leaders (Paz Estenssoro included), and proceeded to rule henceforth solely with military support.
Banzer's rule from 1971 to 1978 was characterized by rampant human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. Several thousand Bolivians sought asylum in foreign countries, 3,000 political opponents were arrested, 200 were killed, and many more were tortured. In the basement of the Ministry of the Interior or "the horror chambers" around 2,000 political prisoners were held and tortured during the 1971-1978 military rule. Many remaining political opponents and anyone else Banzer perceived as a threat to his power either simply vanished, were kidnapped and imprisoned, tortured, or murdered. He also managed to form a diplomatic alliance with Augusto Pinochet of Chile.
Banzer was overthrown in another coup in July 1978 by a military/civilian coalition. After he was deposed, democratic elections were restored in Bolivia, and Banzer founded the Acción Democrática Nacionalista, or ADN political party. He ran for elections in 1979 and 1980, obtaining third place in both contests.
The former dictator ran again and finished second in 1993. Finally, in 1997, Banzer achieved his dream of becoming constitutionally-elected President of Bolivia, at the age of 71. Indeed, he was the first former dictator in Latin America's recent history to transition successfully to democratic politics and return to power by way of the ballot box. During his tenure he launched - under the guidelines outlined by the United States - a program to fight drug-trafficking in Bolivia which called for the eradication of coca, a controversial strategy. He also had the usual trouble with the unions. In 2001, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and even though he had earned a five-year term (he had himself agitated to legally enlarge the presidential term) had to resign on August 7, 2001. He was succeeded by his Vice-President Jorge Quiroga.
Banzer died of lung cancer at a medical clinic in Santa Cruz de la Sierra on May 5, 2002, aged 75. His remains were buried at the General Cemetery of Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz.