The burn scars on Jaime Paz Zamora’s face and body are the most vivid reminders of why many consider him a hero of Latin American democracy.
In 1980, Paz was a vice presidential candidate in Bolivia, campaigning in an election meant to restore democratic rule after decades of military dictatorship.
One day, the small plane carrying Paz and his staff crashed after takeoff. Everyone on board was killed – except Paz. Authorities later called it an assassination attempt by military leaders.
“It was part of another military coup,” Paz told me by phone from his home in Tarija, Bolivia.
The military indeed ignored the election and continued the dictatorship. But democracy eventually won out in Bolivia, and nine years later Paz was elected President.
“It’s easy to forget that was less than 30 years ago,” said Paz, who’s 79 today. He added, “We’re still on a long road to democratization. So it’s important we have a place to remind people about this struggle.”
That place is the Latin American Presidential Library and Center. Paz and other former presidents came up with the idea – but it won’t be located in Latin America. It won’t even be in Miami, which most people consider part of Latin America.
It will likely be in Fort Lauderdale.
“Right now the Broward County option looks like the most promising,” said Thomas Field, who’s helping the former presidents make the library a reality.
Field is an American who heads their Latin American Presidential Mission in Asunción, Paraguay. Last month he got the Broward County Commission to approve plans for the center.
But again: why not somewhere in Latin America?
“In Latin America there was just no one place that felt right,” Field said. “And South Florida, it’s really the doorway to Central and South America and the Caribbean.”
Field and the presidents say they want the center to showcase – for North Americans as well as Latin Americans – the democratic progress of a region most often associated with dictatorship. Even if that progress is fledgling – and uncertain.
“You know, it’s a tradition in America that every president has their library,” Field said. “But in Latin America they take their stuff home, and we thought: What a shame, a lot of this history is lost eventually. So everyone thinks this is a great idea whose time has come.”
The idea has the support of the Broward County Commission. It believes South Florida’s Latin American and Caribbean character is moving beyond Miami; so it wants to put the Latin American presidential library inside 5,000 square feet of the expanding Broward County Convention Center. That could happen as soon as 2020.
“We know the presidential libraries here in the U.S. are visited by large volumes of people,” said Broward commissioner Dale Holness. “So we can extrapolate from that we will see visitors.”
The Latin American Presidential Library and Center was actually offered to places in Miami such as Miami-Dade College and Florida International University. FIU didn’t have enough space for the project – but also, not enough enthusiasm.
“When you celebrate presidents that have been indicted or in prison, from a scholarly standpoint you lose credibility,” said Frank Mora, who heads FIU’s Latin American and Caribbean Center.
Mora points out several of the former presidents heading the project are compromised not by dictatorship – but corruption.
Former Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, for example, was recently indicted for financial fraud he allegedly committed while in office a decade ago. (He denies the charge.) Former Paraguayan President Juan Carlos Wasmosy served a four-year house-arrest term after being convicted of embezzlement.
“There are cetainly presidents who I think contributed to not only the transition to but the consolidation of democracy," said Mora. "But it doesn’t make sense to me to be celebrating presidents that have this sort of checkered history.”
He fears those legacies have actually undermined the appeal of democracy.
“Support for democracy in Latin America is actually declining,” Mora noted, citing recent polls, “because of the weak governance, the corruption, the insecurity, the frustration people feel with the performance of these presidents.”
Field, with the Latin American Presidential Mission, insisted, “We certainly don’t want to hide the history.” The library center, he said, does want to present the bad with the good.
“We want to show what works and doesn’t work.”
And, he added, it aims to show democratic champions like Paz – who at his house still keeps a section of the tail of the plane that crashed in the military's attempt to kill him back in 1980.
“It’s my miraculous witness to democracy,” Paz said.
That's why he hasn’t decided yet if he’ll donate it to the presidential library center.