Bolivia's ruthless general sweeps back

Liberals are praying that it is not the start of a trend. Two decades after he headed one of South America's most ruthless military regimes, General Hugo Banzer is on the verge of returning to power in Bolivia.

He did it with bullets in 1971, leading a coup and ruling with an iron fist for seven years. Last Sunday, he did it at the ballot box, winning the presidential election at the head of the conservative Nationalist Democratic Action (ADN) party, although with less than one-quarter of the overall vote.

The failure of any candidate to score more than 50 per cent means that Bolivia's new congress - also elected on Sunday - will have to choose the president by 6 August. But all signs are that General Banzer, 71, will claim the presidential sash.

Vying for second place were Juan Carlos Duran, of the ruling National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) headed by the outgoing President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, and the former president Jaime Paz Zamora, of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR).

In a speech on Sunday night, General Banzer vowed "to respect the law and serve the Bolivian people". He admitted "we acted in an authoritarian way [in the Seventies] but there was no other way to do it". Questioned before the election about human rights abuses during his military regime - when hundreds of Bolivian liberals were killed or "disappeared" - he said: "My conscience is clear. If I ever ask for forgiveness, it will be to God only. I am a practising Christian. Thirty years ago, it was a political problem which required a violent approach ... Every human being makes mistakes. I never ordered anyone to mistreat anyone else."

Like his former counterparts in Argentina, Chile and Paraguay, General Banzer is fond of saying los desparecidos (the disappeared ones) emigrated and will eventually show up. Human rights groups say his atrocities were not on the same scale as those in Argentina or Chile. But they note that many Argentinian and Chilean leftists, artists and intellectuals who fled their countries either "disappeared" in Bolivia or were sent home by him to probable death.

Enough Bolivians appeared to have forgiven, forgotten or supported him to give him around 22 per cent of the vote to his nearest rival's 18 per cent. "Under Banzer, some people were slaughtered but at least there were jobs," one supporter said yesterday.

Diplomats expect few big policy shifts but say his return to power may damage Bolivia's image and hurt foreign investment. He has pledged to continue sweeping economic reforms initiated by President Sanchez de Lozada and to maintain a United States-backed crackdown on the traditional growing of coca leaf used to manufacture cocaine.

If appointed, Mr Banzer will be first of the Sixties and Seventies military dinosaurs to return to power at the ballot box. His old friend General Augusto Pinochet of Chile had said he might run for president but is now said to have backed off.

Of more concern to Latin America democrats is the tendency for civilian leaders to cling to power. Peru's Alberto Fujimori staged his own coup to stay in power in 1992. Argentina's Carlos Menem pushed through a constitutional change to get a second term and, though barred from a third straight term, says he may run again after a one-term gap. And in Brazil, congress recently cleared the way for President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to run again in a vote marred by allegations that congressmen were bribed.