Alumni Spotlight: Gina Luz Méndez LLM ’94, Bolivia

Gina Luz Méndez was recently the Minister for Justice and Human Rights in her country, Bolivia. This past March, she visited her alma mater, the Washington College of Law, while in D.C. to attend an Inter-American Development Bank Workshop on Bolivia’s Legal Reform and Institutional Management of the State. The ILSP staff had the honor of meeting Bolivia Parliament Member and WCL alumnae, Gina Luz Méndez. Below is a brief interview with Gina Luz Méndez regarding her studies and career.

Could you tell me a bit about what is going on in Bolivia right now?

Bolivia is currently facing a monumental moment in its social and political history as it has recently approved a new constitution which includes the “Referendum”, the “Asamblea Constituyente” and the “Iniciativa Legislativa Ciudadana” as new instruments to increase participation of citizens in the political decision-making process. Although Bolivia has been a democracy for 21 years, the new constitution represents a dramatic step towards the further demonopolization of the system based only on political parties. The current Parliament is in the process of discussing the parameters for these new constitutional mechanisms for public participation. The result of their discussion may actually cause the displacement of the many of the current parliamentary members as the mandate of the present parliamentary Congress, which started in 2002, will end in 2007 when a new Congress is elected under the new Constitution. We are at a point of transformation that will entail sweeping changes that will affect virtually all the “rules of the game”—from how the president is to be elected, to how the power of the Central government is to be balanced through the decentralization of various administrative organs, or maybe even more drastic changes. The new constitution will pave the way for changes in rule-making laws, itself, that will affect economic, social, and political path of Bolivia’s future.

How did you come to your current involvement with the Bolivian government since your LLM studies at WCL?

After graduating and obtaining my LLM degree from the International Legal Studies Program in 1994, I worked with Mr. Max Fernández, founder of the political party UCS, (Unidad Civica Solidaridad) until 1995 when he has killed in an airplane accident. His oldest son Johnny Fernández was at that time running for mayor of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the largest city in Bolivia. He won the election for the period from 1996 to 2000 and invited me to work as the Environmental Legal Advisor for the municipality.

In 2000, I ran for a seat in the Municipal Council and was elected together with five other candidates to represent the party, UCS for the district of Santa Cruz. Mr. Fernández was reelected as mayor for a second term (2000-2004). When he resigned nine months later, I became the default mayor in which capacity I served until December of 2001. Despite my newness in the political arena, I ran for a seat in Bolivia’s Parliament and was elected in 2002. At the beginning of my parliamentary tenure, the recently elected President of Bolivia, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, appointed me as the Minister of Justice and Human Rights on August 6, 2002. It was a short term because of political instability of the country. At the end of February 2003, a new cabinet was assigned and I returned to my original curule (seat) as a Member of Parliament. Sánchez de Lozada was forced to resign as president on October 17, 2003 and Vice-President, Mr. Carlos Mesa Gisbert stepped in as constitutional president of Bolivia.

What prompted you to earn an LLM degree in the first place?

When I first came to the International Legal Studies Program, actually, my purpose was to focus on trade and international business in light of Bolivia’s interest of developing new markets and improving the economy. I wanted to know how to best forge the road for increased trade between my country and the world. My LLM studies led me to take a course on environment and trade. In particular, I remember courses taught by Professors Danny Bradlow, Berenson, Barella, David Hunter and Zaelke. Through it all, I became interested in the link between trade and the environment. I then started to realize how environmental issues indeed have profound ramifications that have to be considered by countries.

Do you feel that your LLM degree has been beneficial in your career?

Absolutely. I believe that it played a part in the reason why I could be called upon to join a political party, and given entrance into the right political circle and positions. Also, before I was selected to be the Minister of Justice and Human Rights by

President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada at that time, I know that he had reviewed my credentials and that my LLM degree from WCL was given significant weight since he also had been to American University on different occasions to speak in the past.

What are your short or long term goals for the future?

It is certainly an exciting time to be in the Bolivian Parliament. For the short term, my goal is to be a part of this important historical moment, facilitating the mechanisms by which the people will have the chance to participate in public issues. We are also working on a new hydrocarbons Law that we believe will help give the economy an important boost. In the long term, I would like to become involved with international organizations, becoming a professor or an ambassador for Bolivia. In whatever capacity, my desire is to keep working for my country, Bolivia.

How about the thought of being the first woman president of Bolivia?

The thought is nice but there was a first woman president in the recent past, Ms. Lidia Gueiler and even though she was president for a short period she set an example for other women. As a woman in politics, I believe it is important to pave the road for future generations of females and help them to become actively involved in the decisions of the country. By law, the Parliament must have women occupy a third of the parliamentary seats but this provision started only recently. Our role [as women leaders] is to show other females that they must participate in greater number because we can make a difference in our country.