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Banzer Leaves Behind Fragmented Bolivia Government - 2001-07-28


Bolivia's president Hugo Banzer Suárez declared his intention to resign from his hospital bed in Washington Friday and will hand over power to his vice president Jorge Quiroga Ramirez next month.

The resignation has been forced on the president by his failing health. The discovery of advanced and inoperable cancer in his left lung and liver was diagnosed at Washington D.C.'s Walter Reed hospital in early July. The likelihood of a prolonged absence and generally poor prognosis for the 75-year-old president's recovery led to growing calls for his resignation in recent days.

Mr. Banzer's decision to stand down comes at the end of four of his five-year democratically-elected presidential term of office. He plans to return to Bolivia to address the nation one last time as its leader, during the country's Independence Day celebrations on August 6.

Vice President Quirog will have a difficult task presiding over Bolivia's fragmented coalition government. Although a member of Mr. Banzer's ruling Acción Democrática Nacionalista party, Mr. Quiroga represents the modern reformist wing of his party. At 41 years of age, his U.S.-educated technocratic approach to government has little in common with Mr. Banzer's old guard ministers and supporters.

Ex-general Banzer previously ruled Bolivia during much of the 1970s as a repressive military dictator. This time around, he sought to erase memories of the past and restore his reputation by adopting a conciliatory approach to social conflicts. His government's crowning achievement is the successful eradication of a much of the country's illegal coca crop, the raw material used to produce cocaine. Despite widespread angry protests, coca eradication was almost bloodless and carried out in a remarkably short three-year period.

In almost all other areas, Mr. Banzer's leadership fell short. His government failed to deliver on promises of rapid economic growth. Instead, the economy has been declining steadily, while unemployment and crime rate rose.

Public confidence in the government also has been undermined by a series of corruption scandals and cabinet resignations. Bolivia was ranked 84th out of 91 countries in the Berlin-based Transparency International's annual corruption survey in June, its worst rating ever.

Mr. Quiroga has promised a government under his leadership would not be just a caretaker regime. As president, he is expected to make changes to the cabinet. He plans to push through pending institutional reforms and do more to bolster public spending on poverty relief.

Mr. Banzer's absence is expected to lead to a more open and approachable style of presidency, but the new leader is unlikely to accomplish much before the general election to be held next June.