A quixotic investigation.
- By Benjamin SolowayBenjamin Soloway is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He worked previously in Indonesia as a web editor and Princeton in Asia journalism fellow at the Jakarta Globe. He has also lived in Brazil and Turkey. His work has been published in the Boston Globe, the New Republic, USA Today, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He studied history at Wesleyan University.
WASHINGTON — Twelve years ago this October, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, popularly known as Goni, resigned as president of Bolivia and boarded a commercial flight from La Paz to Washington, D.C. Just a year earlier, he’d been voted into office for a second time, after serving as president from 1993 to 1997. He won the 2002 vote by a narrow margin. Helping him engineer the victory was James Carville — the “Ragin’ Cajun” who ran Bill Clinton’s legendary 1992 presidential campaign, immortalized in the documentary film The War Room — and a cohort of other U.S. political strategists. Goni’s short second presidency ended with more than 60 people dead and hundreds injured as the military cracked down on opposition protests.
He hasn’t been back to Bolivia since. These days, he lives on a well-appointed suburban street in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside Washington.
Sánchez de Lozada could easily have faded into obscurity for the rest of his days. (In fact, it seems like that is exactly what he would have preferred to do.) The Bolivian government’s periodic attempts to extradite him over killings during the 2003 protests have been brushed aside by the Obama administration. But on Friday, Our Brand Is Crisis, a Hollywood dramedy bearing the same name as a 2005 documentary about Bolivia’s 2002 election, hit theaters nationwide. Loosely based on events depicted in the original documentary, Our Brand Is Crisis 2.0, produced by George Clooney, stars Sandra Bullock as a churlish political consultant and Billy Bob Thornton as her nemesis — an unlikely way for Goni to find himself back in the spotlight.
When I first heard about the new film, a thought struck me: I live in Washington. So does Goni. I should watch Bullock’s new movie with Bolivia’s ex-president and ask him how he reconciled his campaign promises with the bloody end to his time in power, how he felt about having his story repurposed for a Hollywood dramedy, and if he liked Bullock’s performance. I had two invitations to an early press screening. All I had to do was find the former president.
Bolivia, a rugged, landlocked, mostly rural, and mostly indigenous country spanning portions of the Amazon and the Andes, had a population of just over 8 million in 2002, with 59 percent of people living in poverty. By the time of his second presidential run, Sánchez de Lozada was already a towering figure in Bolivian politics, most recognized for his use of “shock therapy” to fight hyperinflation and for his reforms to increase popular participation. In 2002, he ran on a centrist, pro-U.S., pro-privatization platform, with messaging and strategy carefully honed by Greenberg Carville Shrum (GCS) — Carville’s consultancy at the time.
Sánchez de Lozada won a short-lived victory. In February 2003, he imposed an unpopular income tax recommended by the IMF, and, later in the year, his government negotiated a deal that proved wildly unpopular: an agreement to ship Bolivian gas abroad from a Chilean seaport. Uneasy calm finally tipped into chaos in October. Bolivia descended into turmoil as opposition activists and labor unions took to the streets. Protestors barricaded roads around La Paz, the seat of government. Essential supplies began to run out. The president deployed the military to quell the protests, and soldiers killed scores of people. “Nearly every last one” of those killed was shot, some at point-blank range, a coroner told the New York Times. Sánchez de Lozada’s time in Bolivia thus came to an end.
The United States was an obvious destination for Goni in exile. He had grown up in Iowa and other U.S. states. His father, Enrique, a Bolivian diplomat and later a political exile after speaking out against a military coup, taught at Williams College during the Great Depression and hobnobbed with Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal inner circle. Goni’s Spanish took on American inflections, which earned him the nickname “El Gringo” in Bolivia. He returned to his home country at the age of 21, after a youth abroad, to pursue commercial ventures, including purchasing a tin mine and founding a mining company, before following his father’s footsteps into government, winning a seat in parliament in 1979.
After Sánchez de Lozada fled his country in 2003, he returned to the sector that made him wealthy: mining. According to documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, he was listed in 2012 as the head of Petromina, a mining advisory firm housed in a nondescript office building some five blocks from the White House.
Petromina is where I started my search, after speaking with Bolivia experts and lawyers associated with Goni. The former were happy to talk, the latter less so, but neither could put me in touch with the ex-president. So, on a cold October afternoon, I walked over to the Petromina offices. (I had tried calling many times. Usually, no one picked up. One time, a receptionist told me she would pass along my request to the firm’s lawyers.)
A receptionist at the building’s front desk asked me what offices I was there to visit. “Petromina,” I said. “I am here to visit Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.” He asked if I had an appointment. I said, “No.” He called up to the Petromina offices, but no one picked up. I was no closer to meeting Goni than I had been when I set out to find him.
Two days later, I took a Lyft out to Goni’s house in Chevy Chase, after obtaining the address from a source in Bolivia. “Be careful. I’ve heard he sometimes turns on the lawn sprinklers when he gets visitors,” she warned.
The Lyft driver, a middle-aged man who identified himself only as MD, had worked for two years as a crime reporter in Bangladesh before moving to the United States. We struck up a conversation, and I explained my mission. He took immediate interest and offered me his advice as we made our way across the D.C.-Maryland border. “Just be honest and explain what you’re doing,” he said. “That way you’ll always get what you want.”
The house was large but not massive and made of brick, with a lawn that stretched around the sides. Most of the houses on the street were decked out for Halloween — fake spider webs, pumpkins, pillowcase-ghosts hanging from trees, bat decorations. The Goni residence was unadorned.
Several cars sat in the driveway, so I assumed the ex-president was home. I rang the doorbell a few times. The man who opened, wearing jeans and a grey T-shirt, identified himself as Mike and said he was Goni’s nephew. His uncle wasn’t home, he told me, and wouldn’t be home for a while. “He’s got a weird schedule,” Mike said. He wouldn’t say when Goni would return. I suspected that he was inside. Maybe just down the hall, listening. But I walked around the block to see what there was to see — not much — and made my way back to Washington.
I sent some questions to Goni’s son, who tentatively reached out to me after I’d started sniffing around: What role did U.S. political advisors play in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election? How has that role been misunderstood? Who is culpable for the deaths of protestors in 2003? I received no answer.
The closest I got to Goni himself was a person who wanted only to be identified as a source close to the former president. I asked him about the movie that George Clooney had produced. “I don’t think Goni is going to see the film,” he told me. “But if he does, I can almost predict that he’s going to say that he enjoyed some part of the movie. He understands the American sense of humor in many ways. He may also be offended or hurt, as the film has too much fiction that is unfair to what really happened.”
By some accounts, Sánchez de Lozada is a bit of a film buff. Before he entered politics, he worked on an unproduced screenplay that may have been an inspiration for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — the most iconic Hollywood movie set in Bolivia. But Our Brand Is Crisis was filmed largely in Puerto Rico. Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Bolivia-based Andean Information Network, told me that the movie has already drawn criticism in Bolivia for its inaccurate portrayals of the country.
“If you’re a Bolivian, you are going to see it one way; if you’re American, you see it another way. I don’t like it, because they didn’t care about the portrayal of Bolivia,” the source close to the former president told me.
Since I still had an extra ticket for the screening and the former president of Bolivia wouldn’t go with me, I brought my girlfriend instead. I was unimpressed and mostly unamused. The film, it turns out, really isn’t about Goni. It is about the political advisors, who in the film’s world are little more than vindictive pranksters hell-bent on destroying one another. They careen around Bolivia, seeming to thwart each other’s every move, encountering altitude sickness, llama collisions, and other regional hardships. (Spoiler alert: At the end, Bullock’s character is won over by protestors agitating against the candidate she just helped elect. She gives up her life of political manipulation to work for an NGO.)
The next day, I learned some news that tamped down my sadness at failing to get Goni to agree to watch by my side: Jeremy Rosner, one of the GCS consultants from the 2002 campaign and a speechwriter for Bill Clinton, had been at the same screening. “We were the guys in the back making noise,” he told me by phone. “It was fun to watch Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton, it was mildly entertaining, and it had as much to do with the realities of political consulting as the movie Speed had to do with urban bus driving.”
He stood by his decision to work with Goni. “He was probably the most politically courageous, least poll-driven guy we’ve ever worked with, because he was willing to do things that he knew would reduce poverty in his country that were extremely unpopular,” Rosner said.
But for many Bolivians, Goni’s political fortitude is beside the point. The deaths in 2003 will always overshadow his legacy. The release of the film roughly coincides with the 12th anniversary of the killings, and those wounds remain raw.
Image credit: “Our Brand Is Crisis”/Facebook