Smoke and Mirrors in Bolivia

December 3, 2019

“I condemn this coup against the Bolivian people,” reads a November 10 tweet by Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour Party leader wasn’t alone in expressing this sentiment. Bernie Sanders, a US Senator and candidate for the presidency, tweeted “I am very concerned about what appears to be a coup in Bolivia,” on November 11. These accusations of a military-backed coup reflect the general attitude of politicians and commentators on the left to the resignation of Bolivia’s now former President Evo Morales on November 10. The evidence suggests, however, that it was Morales, and not the military, who attempted to subvert democracy.

 

Morales, who served as president from 2006 to 2019, enjoyed long-lasting popular support – not undeservedly. As Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales seemed to represent a new era for the nation’s indigenous population. His first four years in office saw Bolivia’s economy grow more than it had for the preceding thirty years, with GDP per capita doubling between 2006 and 2014. He oversaw the reduction of extreme poverty rates from 38% to 18%, accompanied by a decline in inequality. Regardless of whether these achievements can be wholly attributed to Morales’ leadership and not to the commodities boom which swept Latin America from 2000 to 2014, they certainly added to his popularity among the populace. 

 

Yet the latter days of Morales’ rule were marked by disturbingly undemocratic developments. In 2016, during Morales’ third term, a referendum was held on whether to amend the constitution in order to allow him to run for a fourth time. The proposed change was voted down by a 51.3% majority. Though Morales initially claimed he would accept the results of the referendum, he quickly changed his tune when Bolivia’s Supreme Court, stacked in his favor, declared term limits a “violation of human rights” in 2017, overturning the 2016 referendum and clearing the way for Morales to seek a fourth term in 2019.

 

He did just that in October 2019, when initial reports claimed that he had won the first round with 47.1% of the vote. This alleged victory triggered nationwide protests, some turning violent. His opponent’s accusations of election tampering were verified in a November 9 report by the Organization of American States, which found significant evidence of interference and alterations. The day after the release of the report, General Williams Kaliman, commander of Bolivia’s army, asked “the president to resign his presidential mandate to allow for pacification and the maintaining of stability, for the good of our Bolivia." Bolivians loudly and with military support rejected the former president’s slide into authoritarianism, chanting “this is not Cuba. This is not Venezuela! This is Bolivia, and Bolivia will be respected.”

 

The key difference between Morales’ attempt to retain power in Bolivia and Nicolas Maduro’s grasp on it in Venezuela is control of the military. If Morales held the same sway as Maduro over his nation’s armed forces, there is little doubt that Bolivia would be travelling down the same path of autocratic rule which has beset so many Latin American nations.

 

Of course, the complex circumstances surrounding the political turmoil make it difficult to know what fate awaits Bolivia. Its current interim president, Jeanine Añez, has promised to hold elections, signing a bill to do so on Sunday. She vowed to Bolivians that her “commitment is to bring back democracy and tranquillity to the country.” Añez also enacted a decree allowing the military to use lethal force without fear of criminal prosecution to preserve order, which does not bode well. 

 

Thought it remains to be seen whether Añez will hold to her promises or whether she, too, will subvert democracy, it is undeniable that Morales’ resignation represents a victory for democracy in Bolivia, and not a coup. It is striking that the figures who now point fingers were entirely silent when Morales’ Supreme Court gave him the power to run for unlimited terms, a fairly unambiguous embrace of authoritarianism.

 

Image - Flickr, Alain Bachellier.

 

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