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Human Rights as a Vocation: A Portrait of Ana María Romero de Campero

“With Ana María Romero dies a piece of the history of Bolivia. This woman is who built our democracy.”

These words of remembrance by the Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera marked the death of Ana María Romero de Campero on October 25, 2010, at the age of 69, the first woman President of the Senate of the newly formed Bolivian Plurinational Assembly. In the days that followed, his sentiments were echoed not only by many of the urban elite and professionals of La Paz but also, more unusually, by civil society activists and ordinary Bolivians throughout the country.

Largely unknown outside Bolivia, Ana María Romero dedicated her life to promoting democracy and human rights with particular regard for those most disadvantaged in Bolivian society. Her work reached its apogee with her appointment as the first Defensora del Pueblo in 1998, an office broadly translating its intent into English as “Human Rights Ombudswoman.” The high public standing of the Defensor del Pueblo in Bolivian society today is largely attributable to her forceful leadership as Defensora until 2003. In turn, Ana María used her considerable public popularity as the former Defensora del Pueblo to continue to play a constructive role amidst the turbulent and divisive events that followed Morales’ rise to power in 2005. The recounting of Ana María’s story serves also to reflect, albeit partially, upon the past, the present and the future of Bolivia’s struggle towards viable democracy.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ana María at her office in July 2008 as part of my research into the human rights impact of Defensorías del Pueblo in Latin America. Intriguingly, little attention had been paid to these new state human rights institutions although they seemed to be held in high public esteem, in contrast to their much-maligned political systems. Bolivia was no exception. Over the course of a three-hour discussion, Ana María provided valuable insight into the grand schemes and operational minutiae that informed her term as Defensora, as well as the philosophical basis for her actions. A growing body of anecdotal evidence suggested that the Bolivian Defensoría—alongside its Colombian, Guatemalan and Peruvian counterparts—was, and remains, widely regarded as a credible, impactful institution in a sea of dysfunctionality. In the course of my five-year investigation, a recurring predictor of success came into focus: the exceptional leadership qualities of individual Defensores, including Jaime Córdoba Triviño (Colombia), Ramiro de León Carpio (Guatemala), Jorge Santistevan de Noriega (Peru) and Ana María herself.

Ana María Romero Campero was born into a deeply political household in La Paz on June 29, 1941. Her father, Gonzalo Romero, was a leading figure on the left of the Bolivian Socialist Falange (FSB) party, and at the center of the turbulent revolutionary politics of the era. His nationalist revolutionary ideology was likely to have fostered Ana María’s outlook on Bolivian society, as she pursued her own political formation, honing her abilities as a journalist to convey a complex Bolivian reality to the world. A noted irreverence towards the powerful, as well as a gift for mediating conflict, provided early indications of her future vocation.

During decades of political strife, Ana María became a figurehead for independent journalism and a rare authoritative woman’s voice on the national stage. The first woman to preside over the Journalists Association, she also founded and led the Circle of Women Journalists and became President of the National Press Association. In a Bolivian world of male hierarchy, such a trajectory was a significant achievement and perhaps inevitably marked her out for political office. Initially, however, her experience with official politics would be fleeting. In 1979, Ana María was appointed Minister for Information during the short-lived democratic administration of Wálter Guevara Arce that was toppled by one of the many military coups that plagued Bolivia throughout the twentieth century, led on this occasion by General Alberto Natush Busch. Ana María was instrumental in tipping off the international community about the coup with the aid of her personal telex machine.

In the late 1990s, Ana María Romero truly found her voice on the national stage. According to the Bolivian journalist and historian Rolando Carvajal, her influence on some of the most important social and political events of recent years is perhaps exceeded only by Evo Morales. Crucial to this narrative is the almost unanimous congressional endorsement of Ana María as the first Bolivian Defensora in 1998, during the government of erstwhile dictator, later democratically elected, President Hugo Banzer. A novel office, autonomous yet part of the state, and with an explicit human rights promotion and protection mandate, the Defensor del Pueblo appointment provided Ana María with a powerful bullhorn with which to advocate for change. She proved an adept political operator, capable of navigating in an increasingly polarized social reality and a faltering political system. Above all, she had the virtue of understanding that her role as Defensor was to represent a “Magistratura de la Persuasión [Magistrate of Persuasion].” The message that all Bolivians had rights—irrespective of political affiliation or ethnicity—and that the state had a responsibility towards those most vulnerable and marginalized within society had a powerful resonance. Ana María rapidly positioned herself and the institution as a voice for the voiceless.

The Defensor del Pueblo set about reframing human rights as an objective standard apart from the political fray of competing ideologies. Campaigns to redress widely perceived injustices (such as the denial of kidney transplants, reform of the social security code and compulsory military conscription) contributed to her popular appeal as a determined human rights defender in the face of formidable opposition. Against vocal objections by the Bolivian government and U.S. embassy, Ana María intervened in a violent conflict between cocaleros and security forces in 1998 in El Chapare. Her efforts—alongside those of local civil society and church—to generate a space for dialogue are widely credited as having achieved an ultimately peaceful resolution to the impasse.

Ana María was a familiar mediating presence in many other social and political conflicts in the late 1990s and 2000s. During the 2000 Cochabamba Water War, the Defensora actively sought to hold the water utility company and regulators to account. She also successfully petitioned the Constitutional Tribunal to strike down the Banzer government’s state of emergency decree, much to the chagrin of government ministers.

Ana María’s term as Defensora expired in September 2003, and in the midst of a highly contested reelection bid, the Gas War saw countrywide protests against the selling of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves to the United States through Chilean territory. On October 11, 2003, on the order of Defense Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, military forces shot to death an estimated 67 people in El Alto and left hundreds more wounded. In response, Ana María began a hunger strike in protest against the actions of the Sánchez de Lozada government, quickly joined by hundreds of human rights activists. This controversial action was regarded even by some of her family as a step too far. Nevertheless, Ana María felt compelled by a “moral duty” to do something. In our interview, she commented simply, “I suppose this action was coherent with my life and, in particular, my work as Defensora.” It proved effective. Then-sitting Vice President Carlos Mesa remarks in his 2008 memoir, Presidencia Sitiada: Memorias de mi Gobierno, that the action by the Defensora “resulted in the destruction of the government’s support base within the middle classes,” almost certainly contributing to the fall of the government days later.

These events would eventually redefine Bolivian politics, precipitating a seismic shift in the political landscape with the election of Evo Morales in 2005. In the wake of Black October, Ana María did not seek reelection as Defensora. Nevertheless, her legacy as a human rights advocate, as well as the prestige she brought to the office, has contributed to the appointment of credible individuals as successors. Both Waldo Albarracín (2003-2008) and the current Defensor Rolando Villena are highly respected within the human rights community. The election of Morales and ascendance of the traditionally excluded marks a decisive break from the old political model. This inverting of the old order ushered in a period that has seen high levels of polarization and bitter social conflict along political, regional and ethnic lines. Such a challenging new context has also demanded adaptation and reinvention on the part of democratic and rights-oriented stakeholders.

The former Defensora turned her energy towards conflict resolution, negotiation and dialogue, resulting in the 2005 creation of the NGO Fundación UNIR.

While generally supportive of the reforms undertaken by the Morales government, Ana María remained an independent- minded and constructive critic of the administration. Notwithstanding intermittent disagreements, her relationship with Evo Morales remained one of mutual respect and even admiration. An invitation in October 2009 for her to stand as the first MAS Senator for La Paz in the newly formed Plurinational Assembly was widely viewed as Morales’ attempt to broaden the appeal of the MAS to the urban middle classes and intellectual elites. After some deliberation, Ana María accepted the invitation and publicly endorsed the general direction of Morales’ political project. Elected Senator for La Paz in December 2009, she was unanimously appointed President of the Senate shortly thereafter. Illness denied Ana María the chance of fully realizing the role of “mediator-in-chief ” within the Senate. Nevertheless, her election to one of the highest offices in the land was a fitting tribute to a life lived in defense of ordinary Bolivians’ human and democratic rights.

Originally published: http://www.drclas.harvard.edu/publications/revistaonline/fall-2011/human-rights-vocation

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