Obituary: Hernn Siles Zuazo

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Duncan Green's otherwise very fair and accurate obituary of Hernn Siles Zuazo [19 August] is a little too sparse in its praise, writes Professor James Dunkerley. Siles was a man who uniquely contrived to be president of Bolivia three times without ever ordering the execution or exile of his enemies, despite the fact that he was himself shot at, jailed, exiled and kidnapped from his teens until his seventies. At Siles' funeral last week Vice-President Victor Hugo Crdenas - once a fierce opponent - reflected the sentiments of many when he contrasted Siles' lack of conventional "policy success" with his singular example of political negotiation, compromise and genuine co-operation in a violent era.

After being thrice elected to the presidency in the late 1970s, Siles was finally permitted to take office in October 1982, only to confront an appalling economic situation, the cocaine barons in top gear, and Ronald Reagan at his most aggressive. Nobody other than General Pinochet had hitherto attempted a real neo-liberal stabilisation plan except, of course, Siles himself in 1956-57. Small wonder then that he now opted to try and "manage inflation", and allow the long- suffering citizens of Bolivia some democratic rights after 18 years of dictatorship, placing economic management second to political freedom. Today, of course, this is neither popular nor fashionable, but in 1982- 84 it was both plausible and sane.

Siles was a shy man and a devout Christian. His hunger strikes were an effort to break the cycles of violence that had gripped Bolivia since independence, and he had a fair measure of success. Bolivia today palpably remains in the thrall of the cocaine mafia, and it is far quieter and more peaceful than either Peru or Colombia. Siles' death, the repatriation of his remains from Uruguay, and his burial have triggered a remarkable expression of sentiment in the country. He is the first of the leaders of the 1952 Revolution to die, but it would seem that he is recognised as the most simptico and generous.

I vividly recall the day in 1982 when Hernn Siles finally took office and admonished the exaltant crowd who had driven the army from power with their strikes and were now booing the military band in attendance at the inauguration. "Be kind to them", he said. It is a good injunction, albeit one spurned by the big men of realpolitik and falsely thought to be a recipe for impunity and inertia. Hernn Siles was always suspicious of the left's need for heroes and he loathed the right's love of authority. He went against the grain, and he did so bravely.