The crisis that led to Evo Morales’s forced removal as president of Bolivia began on the night of Monday, 21 October. Presidential and parliamentary elections had been held on Sunday, and according to a preliminary tally released by Bolivia’s electoral authorities that evening, Morales had a lead of 8 per cent over Carlos Mesa, his nearest rival – not quite enough to avoid a run-off. This was an unofficial count, based on 84 per cent of total ballots cast, and on Monday the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) suspended it in order to begin releasing official counts. Under pressure from the Organisation of American States, however, the TSE resumed the unofficial count, and late on Monday released a revised tally. This time it was based on 95 per cent of ballots and showed that Morales’s lead was just over 10 per cent. If confirmed, that would have been enough to hand him a fourth consecutive presidential term.
Was this shift in the unofficial tallies itself evidence of fraud? Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) tends to have more supporters in rural areas than Bolivia’s other parties, so it wouldn’t be sociologically or statistically surprising for its tally to improve markedly late on in the count. Morales’s opponents, however, denounced the whole election as illegitimate; Mesa was claiming fraud even before the elections began. This wasn’t surprising either: Bolivia’s elites have been implacable in their opposition to Morales since he first took office with a landslide victory in 2005. But healthy MAS majorities in 2009 and 2014 and a period of sustained economic growth have made Bolivia one of the success stories of the ‘Pink Tide’, the swing to the left in Latin American politics over the last twenty years. Poverty and inequality were drastically reduced, and steps were taken to undo centuries of discrimination against the indigenous majority (around 62 per cent of the population), including the drawing up of a new ‘plurinational’ constitution, ratified by referendum in 2009, and a massive expansion in education and employment for Quechua and Aymara speakers.
In recent years, however, support for Morales among the middle classes has dwindled, and there have been divisions within the popular movements that first brought him to power. Some of the indigenous organisations allied to the MAS were angered by the government’s commitment to the extraction of natural resources; its plan to build a road through the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park was a flashpoint in 2011 and again in 2017. Yet he retained substantial support, and the MAS was still by far the most popular party. On 21 February 2016, the government was narrowly defeated (51 per cent to 49) in a referendum on whether to amend the constitution to allow Morales to run for a fourth term. This was the opposition’s first nationwide electoral victory against MAS. In 2017, Bolivia’s constitutional court effectively overturned the referendum result by abolishing term limits – allowing Morales to run again – on the absurd grounds that preventing anyone from doing so was an infringement of their human rights. At the time, many on the Bolivian left denounced this as a terrible blunder. It certainly strengthened the hand of MAS’s opponents and lost Morales more middle-class voters. Even so, a string of polls conducted in the run-up to the 2019 elections gave Morales a plurality of the vote, with an average 12-point lead over Mesa. The question was whether the lead would hold up on election day.
The official result, announced on 25 October, gave Morales a lead of 10.57 per cent. But by this time large protests had already erupted across Bolivia, drawing people from a range of social groups. Crowds stormed the offices of the electoral authorities in some areas, forcing a suspension of the official count in La Paz, Cochabamba, Chuquisaca, Potosí, Oruro and Beni; in Potosí, Pando and Tarija they set TSE offices on fire, destroying all the ballots. The opposition – spearheaded not by the defeated Mesa, but by hard-right groups led by the Catholic conservative Luis Fernando Camacho – wasn’t demanding a recount or a second round: it was gunning for Morales’s removal. MAS supporters also took to the streets in defence of Morales.
On 30 October, in the face of continued protests, the Morales government agreed to an OAS audit of the election. This was a remarkable concession: the OAS has a long record of furthering US and local elite interests (most recently it led the failed charge for regime change in Venezuela). The OAS had already inflamed the situation by expressing ‘deep concern’ about the unofficial tallies and calling for a run-off vote. Its initial report, released on 10 November, went much further, impugning the entire electoral process. It referred to a string of ‘irregularities’ – poor handling of server security, some anomalous tallies – though without providing any evidence that these would have affected the outcome. (The final report, released on 7 December, was more thorough but still could claim nothing more than ‘there cannot be certainty over the margin of [Morales’s] victory’.) Nevertheless, Morales agreed to the OAS’s recommendation that fresh elections be held. Protests had continued to mount, however, and in the days preceding the release of the report the police in several of Bolivia’s departments had gone over to the opposition. Having lost the police, Morales soon also lost the support of key allies in the trade unions, the Central Obrera Boliviana, and then the army. On the afternoon of 10 November, Williams Kaliman, the head of the armed forces – a presidential appointment – ‘suggested’ that Morales resign. Two days later, Morales and his vice president, Alvaro García Linera, fled into exile in Mexico after anti-MAS protesters looted their houses and torched those of other MAS officials.
By any sensible definition, what took place in Bolivia on 10 November was a coup: Morales was forced out of the country at the prompting of the army, two months before the end of his third presidential term. What happened next confirmed that his opponents wanted not just to suspend constitutional democracy but to strangle it. On 12 November, Jeanine Añez, an ultra-conservative Catholic senator from Beni, declared herself president. Her party, the Movimiento Democrático Social, had scored 4 per cent in the election. The two people in line to replace Morales and his vice-president, the heads of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, had both resigned in protest, leaving the succession unclear at best; but the vote to install Añez as head of the Senate, and then as interim president, was conducted without a quorum in either house – in part because key MAS deputies were physically prevented from entering. The White House rushed out a statement saying: ‘Morales’s departure preserves democracy.’
Añez moved swiftly to consolidate her unconstitutional position. On 13 November she fired Kaliman and installed a new army high command, and the following day she selected a new cabinet. It includes a number of hard-right conservatives: Camacho’s lawyer, Jerjes Justiniano Atalá, now secretary of the presidency; the interior minister, Arturo Murillo, who has vowed to ‘hunt down’ specific MAS officials ‘like animals’; the communications minister, Roxana Lizárraga, who has threatened Bolivian and foreign journalists reporting on the situation with prosecution for ‘sedition’; and the foreign secretary, Karen Longaric, who has vowed to send Morales to The Hague for crimes against humanity.
Añez’s seizure of power and the composition of her cabinet point to the most significant and alarming fact about the Bolivian crisis: while the 20 October election was the trigger, it is not Mesa’s centre-right coalition that has benefited from Morales’s removal, but the hard right, who aggressively stoked the protests and who seized control once Morales was removed. Bolivia’s new interim leaders combine two varieties of revanchism: a religious conservatism, bringing together evangelicals and Catholics, that is gaining ground across Latin America, and a reassertion of the racial and class privileges of Bolivia’s traditional elites. In sharp contrast to the Morales administration, the new cabinet initially had zero indigenous members. Photographs show the majority of them making the sign of the cross at the swearing-in ceremony. On the day of the coup, Camacho strode into the presidential palace carrying a Bible and a rosary; Añez, who in 2013 tweeted that indigenous rituals were ‘satanic’ (she has since deleted that tweet, along with another mocking indigenous people who wear shoes as inauthentic), carried an ostentatiously large Bible on her first appearance as president. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, many policemen ripped the chequered-rainbow wiphala, the flag of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, from their uniforms. The wiphala was recognised under the 2009 constitution as an official national symbol. Reversing the gains made by the indigenous majority under Morales – appealing to whites and mestizos resentful of the disruption of age-old racial hierarchies – is central to the right’s agenda.
Camacho, who brands himself ‘Macho Camacho’, is the figure in whom these ugly tendencies converge. He began his political career in the early 2000s as the leader of a far-right youth group in his native Santa Cruz, the heartland of Bolivia’s landed elite and a cradle of opposition to MAS. Earlier this year, he was elected head of the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, a body that for decades has co-ordinated elite interests in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands and had close ties with the country’s military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s. In some respects, he is a similar figure to Venezuela’s Juan Guaidó, a student leader from the far-right fringe of the conservative opposition suddenly elevated to lead it; though Camacho is also clearly modelling himself on Jair Bolsonaro, in the hope of emulating his march to the presidency.
What next for Bolivia? In the days following Morales’s departure, MAS’s congressional deputies began to regroup, and entered negotiations with the Añez government over new elections. According to a law passed with MAS support on 24 November, new electoral authorities must be appointed within a month, and elections held within 120 days of that, most likely in early March. The same law stipulates that neither Morales nor García Linera can run; several people are currently being mooted as possible MAS candidates. Mesa has confirmed he will run again, as has Chi Hyun Chung, a Korean-born hard-right evangelical pastor who scored a surprising 9 per cent in the October presidential vote. Camacho, too, has announced his candidacy. It’s hard to say how this divided field will fare over the coming weeks: with Morales out of the picture, will Camacho rise in the polls, as Bolsonaro did once Lula was barred from running in Brazil? Or will the MAS be able to rally its supporters around a new candidate? Will the far right be able to convert its non-constitutional advantage into legitimate power, or will the left regain its democratic mandate?
These were not the alternatives anyone in Bolivia asked for or anticipated on 20 October. The situation is being watched nervously across Latin America: the Bolivian crisis may represent a tipping point for the region as a whole. The original momentum of the Pink Tide has ebbed away, and the battle underway now is over what will succeed it. The achievements of the Pink Tide governments have been impressive, but they have also had numerous shortcomings, and any continuation of their redistributive policies would require tackling these – not least the dependence on environmentally destructive commodities (oil, gas, metals, soya and so on). A sharp turn to the right would bring a highly reactionary social agenda, harsh economic measures, and a massive increase in the use of force against those who resist.
There can be no doubt that the right is willing to spill blood to get its way: since the October elections, at least thirty people have been killed and more than seven hundred injured by the Bolivian security forces, who have proved only too willing to crack down on protests against the Añez government. Yet the very need for this repression points to an upsurge of popular opposition to the new government. Recent weeks have brought recurrent street demonstrations and blockades of major roads in El Alto, La Paz’s twin city, originally a bastion of MAS support. These tactics represent a rerun of those used to bring the Bolivian government to its knees in 2003, prompting the then president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, to flee to Miami. (As it happens his vice president, who then served as interim president, was Carlos Mesa.) These radical social movements were crucial to Morales’s rise, and while they may have lost some of their vibrancy during the MAS’s time in power, they may be quick to recover it if faced with a hard-right government. The MAS itself is far from a spent force, but its supporters and candidates are currently being subjected to intimidation and repression. Community radio stations and media outlets supportive of the MAS have been shut down. It’s already clear the next round of elections will be neither free nor fair.
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