Archive for May, 2009

Was it plain murder?

May 28, 2009

So says Gen. (r) Gary Prado, the Ranger company officer who defeated Che Guevara’s warfare in Bolivia

The Bolivia army officer who in 1967 captured Ernesto Che Guevara in Bolivia’s southeastern jungle believes the death of three alleged hitmen on April 16 in Santa Cruz was an outright assassination. If there were any evidence supporting President Evo Morales claim that the group planned to kill him, they disappeared in the predawn hours police stormed the hotel Las Americas where the alleged plotters stayed killing three of five alleged assassins-to-be, he told me. Ever since the bloody episode Bolivians have been living in shock day after day. Scant details of the police action have emerged. But in its wake the government has launched an all-out anti-terror campaign that some leaders charge is only a distraction to divert the attention of Bolivians away from their ever ending economic plights. Opposition parties claim that it is actually a government plot to allow it run undisturbed the race for presidential elections December 6.


Gen. Gary Prado Salmón agreed to talk on the record with no specific agenda but knowing that a main topic would be his opinion about the events of last April 16, whose sequels are still playing heavily in Bolivians daily lives. He was working ahead of a lecture for his students at the Private University of Santa Cruz (UPSA) as I arrived in his house. I looked for him because I wanted to hear his views about the events that have been gripping Bolivians. His credentials are well backed up since long. Not only because of his professional performance in La Higuera and his outstanding military career (the walls of his office display pictures of his years as a Ranger officer and also of his time in London as Bolivian Ambassador) . He has also been commander of Bolivia’s 8th Army Division, one of the country’s most powerful units. And it soon will be 35 years of an action of him and a group of young officers trying to force the military regimen headed by Gen. Hugo Banzer to put the country on a democratic path. The action, which took place on June 4, 1974, did not succeed immediately but on the long run it led to restoring democracy in a country plagued by dictators and caudillos.

My first question was what he really knew of the May 16 police onslaught. “The government has changed his script so often these weeks that one doesn’t know what to believe. First, it was supposed to be a magnicide, that a team had arrived in Bolivia with the mission of killing him. The President went to Cumana, Venezuela, to complain to Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro: ‘I was going to be murdered.’ But that script has now disappeared completely from the official versions. It has turned out that there is not a slightest sign that a magnicide was on the making. There is no evidence that (Bolivian-Hungarian) Eduardo Rozsa, (Irish) Michael Dwyer, and (Romanian-Hungarian) Arpad Magyarosi were a terrorist group. But the government is still using politically the idea that those people were terrorists, even though there is no evidence either that terrorism was their business. Rozsa himself says he came to Santa Cruz to defend this region.”

Then, I said, if a jury had to decide, it would have no basis to sustain that theory beyond any reasonable doubt…

“Absolutely”, he said. “There is no evidence supporting that. If there was any, it was assassinated that day. For me, what happened at the hotel was an outright execution. Don’t forget that they were under control, it was known for months who they were, police said its agents watched them out. Well, they could have been arrested on the street, in a restaurant, or entering or leaving the hotel. Four or five people would have been enough to take care of them. They carried no guns when going out. At best they would have had a personal arm hiding in their clothes. So, they could have been caught easily alive. At least Rozsa, who was the main target, should have been caught alive. But they blew the door, entered the room and killed him. Why they didn’t want to catch him alive and have him confess what had brought him down here? Wouldn’t have been good for them to have him alive? There is a tortuous brain behind the handling all this. Well, at some point they (people involved) will have to show up and tell the truth. Otherwise we would have to say that police are so inept that the agents chickened out and broke in shooting out and killed them right there. One of two: it was a police stupidity or there was an express order for execution.”

I reminded him the episode he himself tells in his book about the guerrilla warfare about the final clash with Guevara’s, when the guerrilla leader cried: “Don’t shoot. I am Che”. The Argentine-Cuban leader was central in the insurgency and he captured him alive.

“I had order to kill no one”, he said, adding: “Two days before I had captured to guerrillas –Camba and Leon- and sent them to Vallegrande. From there they were moved to Camiri and became witnesses in the trial against Regis Debray. Why, the practice back then was to take prisoners. Then the government made a decision: To execute him. And the execution was carried out. I wasn’t at La Higuera at the time, but as soon as it became obvious that it wasn’t possible to cover the sun with a finger, then- president Rene Barrientos had the courage of announcing: ‘I have ordered it, because it was the best for Bolivia. He assumed the whole responsibility”.

A paradox

Then I asked him what could be expected, especially when there are not so many certainties and a lot of doubts still linger.

“At some point truth may surface. I think the police who acted in the episode will say something. They are people who are known up there (in La Paz) and will be identified. Here (in Bolivia) we are not prone to keep secrets. What is paradoxical is that one hears the President lambasting foreigners who come here wanting to destroy the country, looking to impose things different from what we are. And then he goes to pay homage to Ché Guevara. It is a blatant contradiction! How is that? He should have paid homage to (Eduardo) Rozsa as well, for he belongs to the same line of thought.”

Gen. Prado moves on a raw nerge, hyper sensitive for those who fought –and won- the battle over Che. “Is there any difference between Che Guevara’s guerrilla, which was a foreign movement…he came here…to impose his model, and that of these guys who came, as they say, to contribute to the defense of a region they considered threatened?” Placing both on the balance, the latter “would be little angels compared to Che. Why, Rozsa and the others came to served their region, they say, which they believe was threatened. The others, instead, were called in by nobody. They came in all alone thinking that here they would do whatever they wanted. These are different things and you cannot laud one and devilish the other. Either both are good or both are mean. Any invader is bad”.

-Do forensic reports about the bullets trajectory tell anything?

-They do, and a lot. First of all, it is being said there was a shooting lasting 20 minutes. That is a lot. However, only fifty shots have been accounted for. Jeeez! Twenty minutes and just fifty one shots. Not even three per minute, for thirty men. There could have been thousands. A hand machine-gun throws out up to six hundred shots per minute if you handle it correctly!

-Do investigators perceive these incongruencies?

-No. Investigators do not take them into account. Besides, the police chief threatens you: ‘This is the official report and whoever doubts about it will go to jail!’ Then, who is the investigator who wants to get involved in this and risking prison for expressing doubts about the police report? That is the point we have reached. ..were about to become a nation of donkeys who accept anything. Here, nobody seems surprised with the things the government says and does. We simply look at ourselves and shrug. We are witnessing a series of juridical aberrations, irregularities, violations of the Constitutions by the government, whatever you want. But since there is no one to complain, we are unprotected before a government that moves on step by step toward the goal of consolidating the country model they have dreamed about.

Our conversation switched back to the times when Interior Minister Luis Arce Gomez, of former dictator Luis Garcia Mesa, recommended all citizens to keep their will under their arms all the time.

“We are at the best times (of a dictatorship) …Because threats are permanent. He who dares to challenge it is subject of threat from authorities, from social movements who apply their own justice. Look at dailies today (May 22) and read what has happened in Cliza: A police station has been burned down and police have left their arms. They run away leaving their arms behind! We had to flee, they say. But, give me a break, at least don’t abandon your weapons. But they left their arms and looters seize them. There you have a town where people does whatever they want. They don’t respect police. But police were fifty armed men. Come on! And they could do nothing. And so you soon are told that in another place someone has been killed. Oh, yes. Community justice! We are immersed in this…one cannot show surprise when the nation’s President says: ‘If I am told that something I am doing is wrong, what can I do? I keep doing it. We will straighten it out later on. Let’s have the lawyers do it.”

I told him that a Venezuelan president, the late Romulo Betancourt, became famous for his command: Shoot now, ask later.

“Let me tell you another huge aberration. It was said by the President about 10 days now. All have to prove their innocence…! The principle of presuming one’s innocence until proved otherwise is universal, one of the most precious triumphs of civilization against injustice and authoritarianism. Not now. Now you have to demonstrate your innocence. And who has said anything? I haven’t read a lawyer, a judge saying, ‘Hey, this president is crazy. How can he say that? Nobody has uttered a word. Our capacity of surprise has touched limits and is filled out.”

I wrapped the matter up recalling the name of an Italian movie I saw years ago: We are all under Parole (L’istruttoria e chiusa), of Damiano Damiani…

“Right. We are all on parole and have to prove we are not guilty of whatevfer the government charges you with. One has to be careful because you might be arrested at any time and taken to La Paz. Not even the juridical principle of being tried in the place where the alleged crime allegedly took placed. No. You will be taken to La Paz.

-And you underline that citizens do not show any surprise, let alone react… What is left as an option?

-We are being left with not so many. We still have an electoral process (presidential elections, on Dec. 6) which I still don’t see clear, according to the latest information. Yet it is a process upon which many people are still hopeful. However, let me give you a tip I see today on the dailies. Oruro (state) disagrees with the biometric electoral registration. No, they say, we don’t want foreigners…we will hold our elections as we want… (The biometric system was agreed by all political parties represented at congress after, in the past two plebiscites, thousands of elders, people over 100 years, were allegedly voting in areas where President Morales won overwhelmingly. This in a country where life expectancy goes up to 67).

-According to their uses and customs….

-Yes. This is all a joke. Our neighbors look at us in awe, pity and concern. It is not pleasant to have roaming around you a factor of agitation. With Peru, let’s don’t talk about it. And (Brazil’s president) Lula says: ‘We will not be subject to the whims of nobody,’ when he boasts about Brazil becoming energy-self-sufficient soon (which means Brazil could no longer need buying Bolivian natural gas.) Those expressions make you feel he is tired of that jazz of playing the victim, which our President believes are an absolute truth.”

-What are the pluses?

-I think the fact that there is more people participation. We all now feel as participants, that we have to do something for we are all citizens. It is perceivable in conversations, interviews, in what you see every day. On the other hand you still have those peasants led b y the government by means of its social movements. This peasants mass is active basically because its leaders are nicely paid. However, they, the peasants, have received nothing from this government, except for one supreme decree here or there. But no real benefits… They still believe this is their government and with it they are moving forward. But there will be a time of reckoning, when they realize they have been used and that this is the same pongueaje (using peasants just for political purposes) of the past. Exactly. During MNR times (1952-1964) ballots favoring opposition leaders disappeared from electoral boxes replaced with MNR pink ballots. It was never known how many voters were registered or how many cast their vote.

-But all that broke down at some point.

-The same will happen here. There is now the community vote and we don’t seem to care. However, at some point we will all cry: Democracy is not that. Democracy means one citizen one vote. It means a secret vote, not mass vote. You don’t line up peasants and say: mark here and cast your vote this way. That is not democracy. Nor are the uses and customs Indians have. Incas did not vote. It is paradoxical it is all not handled by Quechua people, who are the majority among Bolivian indians. It is all handled by Aymara leaders, who are a minority but are charging retroactively the occupation they suffered from Quechuas during 300 years before Christopher Columbus. Aymaras are on command. That is OK, but let’s have them commanding on the highlands. They cannot impose their will, their rule and customs over a whole and diverse country.”

After a brief pause, he continues: “Imagine, to return to the community customs. It is the grandiose dream of a community republic. But look. In a community people do not prosper. They just survive keeping on a subsistence level. It is a pity. There are no incentives. We see it across the Altiplano communities. Men should to own their own stuff. Moved by that they work harder. Most Aymara who come down to Santa Cruz work hard and prosper. It is a personal effort, which doesn’t get along with uses and customs of their original community. But that is a thousand-year old model. Man, it doesn’t work anymore.”

“Because of that form of community stagnated, and so its members stagnated. Because in community you get your food working hard or not so hard anyway. You will have your share all the same, because you are a community member. As long as you abide by the community rules, it will be all right. But if you don’t, you will be whipped. A country like that is not viable”.