Little Left in Bolivia

Eroding public support, ignoring a referendum to contest again and a disputed election could mark the end for the Left in Latin America’s indigenous heartland

By   |  Published: 17th Nov 2019  12:01 amUpdated: 16th Nov 2019  11:08 pm

Last Tuesday, Bolivia’s Evo Morales fled to exile in Mexico, leaving behind a country in turmoil after his abrupt resignation as President. As the nation suddenly found itself without a leader, the military agreed to help police take back streets lost to violence from disgruntled supporters of Bolivia’s first indigenous president. The senator who succeeded Morales as interim President, Jeanine Anez, pledged to call fresh elections to end the political crisis.

Bolivia appeared increasingly rudderless after dozens of officials and ministers resigned with Morales, some seeking refuge in foreign embassies. Morales left the country on a military plane sent for him by Mexico, which granted him political asylum. “It pains me to leave the country for political reasons, but I will always be watching. I will be back soon with more strength and energy,” he tweeted.

The crisis touched off by his resignation on November 10 (Sunday) — after three weeks of protests over his disputed re-election — deepened the next day as gangs unhappy with his departure attacked police stations and civilians, triggering panic in the streets. On Monday night, hundreds of Morales’ supporters protested outside the presidential palace. Overwhelmed police asked for help from the army. “The military command of the armed forces has arranged for joint operations with the police to prevent bloodshed and fighting amongst the Bolivian family,” said chief General Williams Kaliman.

Controversial Election

As Morales (60) announced his resignation in a televised address, the streets of La Paz immediately exploded in celebration, with jubilant Bolivians waving the country’s flag, but violence and vandalism later erupted overnight there and in El Alto. Morales, a former coca farmer who was Bolivia’s first indigenous President, said his opposition rivals, Mesa and Luis Fernando Camacho, “will go down in history as racists and coup plotters.”

US President Donald Trump hailed Morales’ resignation as a “significant moment for democracy in the Western Hemisphere,” and praised the role of the country’s military. “These events send a strong signal to the illegitimate regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua that democracy and the will of the people will always prevail,” Trump said, referring to two other leftist Latin American nations targeted by his administration.

Morales defended his legacy on Sunday, which includes landmark gains against hunger and poverty and tripling the country’s economy during his nearly 14 years in office. He gained a controversial fourth term when he was declared the winner of the presidential election by a narrow margin.

But the opposition cried foul and three weeks of street protests ensued, during which three people died and hundreds were injured. An Organization of American States (OAS) audit of the election found irregularities in just about every aspect that it examined. Morales called new elections but commanders of the armed forces and police backed calls for his resignation.

What, Why and Why Now

— Christine Armario

Did Bolivia experience a coup or the culmination of a popular movement demanding a President’s resignation?

Bolivians and countries around the world are weighing that question after Morales stepped down from power following weeks of upheaval. The nation’s first indigenous leader contends he was forced out of power by a coup instigated by the opposition, while detractors claim his alleged abuse of power triggered a legitimate uprising in the streets.

What sparked Bolivia’s upheaval?

The South American nation has been embroiled in protests since Morales claimed that he won the October 20 presidential election outright. Bolivia’s leader for nearly 14 years needed a 10 percentage-point margin over his closest rival to avoid a December runoff in which he faced a high probability of losing to a united opposition in his quest for a fourth consecutive term.

Election officials abruptly stopped releasing results from a quick count that showed Morales leading the race but not by enough to win in the first round. The development led to accusations of fraud and sparked deadly protests. Days later, Morales declared victory, holding up election results showing he had narrowly edged opposition candidate Carlos Mesa. Many in Bolivia were already sceptical that the vote would be fair, contending the nation’s electoral authority is biased toward Morales.

The President had also chosen to run for a new term despite a 2016 referendum in which voters shot down a proposal to change constitutional term limits and let him run again. A top court that critics claimed was stacked in Morales’ favour threw out the restrictions, paving the way for him to run again.

Why did Morales step down?

The leader’s troubles escalated on Nov 8 when police forces across Bolivia decided to join the protests and break with Morales. The following day, the Organization of American States announced that its preliminary audit of the Oct 20 election had found serious irregularities.

Morales agreed to hold a new vote, but that wasn’t enough to quell protests or satiate an opposition convinced it would not be possible to hold a fair election as long as he remained in the presidential palace.

Labour groups, including some that had marched in favour of Morales, began turning against him and calling for his resignation. On Sunday, the head of Bolivia’s armed forces, Gen Williams Kaliman, issued a statement declaring that in light of the ongoing social upheaval, military officials were “suggesting” to Morales that he resign.

Shortly thereafter Morales announced he was calling it quits, likening his departure to an overthrow by an opposition threatening both him and his followers.

Was it a coup?

Whether the events constitute a coup is the subject of debate in and outside the nation. On one hand, there was a clear involvement of the military in civilian affairs, notes John Polga-Hecimovich, a political scientist at the US Naval Academy. However, unlike Cold War-era coups in which military troops marched on capital cities and took control of government buildings, Bolivia’s armed forces only issued a statement with a “suggestion” of what
Morales should do.

“The military didn’t use violence,” Polga-Hecimovich said. “It issued a verbal declaration and did not give the president an ultimatum. I think that’s the crux of the matter. Whether you want to view that as a threat or not. If you view it as a threat, it’s a coup. If you don’t view it as a threat but as a suggestion, then you don’t.”

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, highlighted that there is also no indication right now that the military plans to rule. Nonetheless, he added: “I don’t’ think we can be happy about what seems to have been a role of the military in causing Morales to step down.”

Who is on each side of the coup debate?

Morales allies who share his socialist ideology have backed his claim that he was removed in a coup. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro called it “a coup prepared with violence.” Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silvia also came to the leader’s defence, saying Morales had been “obliged” to step down. “It is unfortunate that Latin America has an economic elite that does not know how to coexist in democracy and with social inclusion of the poorest,” he tweeted.

Meanwhile, conservative Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro questioned the coup assertion. “The word coup is used a lot when the Left loses,” he told Brazil’s O Globo newspaper. “When they win, it’s legitimate. When they lose, it’s a coup.”

The head of the OAS said the international body “rejects any unconstitutional resolution of the situation” while calling on Bolivia’s legislature to name new election authorities to ensure a fair vote. The European Union called for calm and said it stands ready to send election observers if requested.

Does it matter what it’s called?

Yes. As long as there is uncertainty about whether Morales was overthrown in a coup, any incoming government could face legitimacy challenges. The armed forces could also now be perceived of having become politicised, said Polga-Hecimovich. All this could mean that an already polarised Bolivia grows more divided. “If they can’t agree on the facts, it’s going to be very difficult to agree on a common consensus and a common governance plan.”

What next?

Jeanine Áñez, the Senate’s second Vice President, succeeded Morales as interim President, pending new elections. “I just want to help provide a solution for this terrible crisis we are living,” she said in tears. “Let it be clear this would only be for a transition.” Áñez faces an uphill battle in establishing a new electoral office, organising a vote and trying to quell tensions.

Morales has vowed not to back down, saying rival opposition leaders will be remembered by history as “racists and coup plotters.” On Twitter, he said he’s been moved by an outpouring of solidarity from supporters. “They will never abandon me,” he said. “And I will never abandon them.”

Rising Nation

• Landlocked Bolivia is among Latin America’s poorest countries despite having huge gas reserves

• The country of 11 million people is home to the region’s largest indigenous population

• Around 36 indigenous languages are recognised — including Quechua, Aymara and Guarani — along with an indigenous legal system different to state law

• Bolivia’s economic growth has outstripped most of its regional neighbours, reaching 4.2% in 2018 says the World Bank

• Morales nationalised gas and oil sectors, boosting government revenue from the industries from $673 million in 2005 to $2.28 billion in 2018

• The state also controls telecommunications, pensions, hydroelectric power stations, airports and mining, using much of the money to fund social programmes and public infrastructure

• While still among the poorest countries in Latin America, Bolivia’s poverty rate decreased from 45% in 2010 to 35% in 2018, as per the World Bank

• It sits on the region’s second-largest gas reserves — after Venezuela — and the world’s largest reserves of lithium

• The country has courted foreign investment, particularly from China, to help exploit its resources, aiming to become the world’s fourth-largest producer of lithium by 2021

• Bolivia is the world’s third biggest cultivator of coca — which can be used to produce cocaine — after Colombia and Peru, according to the UN

• Bolivia lost its prized route to the Pacific Ocean in a 19th century war with Chile and now sits landlocked, bordered by Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile and Peru

• In 2018, the UN’s International Court of Justice rejected its bid to regain access to the coast

• La Paz is the highest capital city in the world, at 3,900 metres (12,800 feet) above sea level, and the Andes mountain range covers a third of Bolivian territory

• About half of the land area is forested, most of it Amazon equatorial rainforest

Fall of a Star

• Evo Morales became the first indigenous president of Bolivia in 2006 after a landmark election victory broke decades of domination by an elite largely of European or mixed descent

• Morales, a member of the Aymara indigenous community, steered through a new constitution aiming to bolster the rights and living conditions of indigenous people, where 62% of the population hail from indigenous groups

• Had been the region’s longest-serving leader, credited with bringing relative stability to a volatile country

• Increased the minimum wage several times

• The one-time coca farmer from the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party was re-elected in 2009 and 2014 with over 60% vote

• After election on October 20, 2019, the electoral authorities once again declared Morales the winner with 47% of ballots. But the result was disputed, leading to weeks of protests

• Bolivia has a history of political instability. Since independence in 1825, there have been about 200 coups or attempted coups. Between 1978 and 1982, there were nine different governments

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