Was there a coup in Bolivia? After Evo Morales, what’s next?

A supporter of former President Evo Morales holds a sign with a handwritten message that reads in Spanish: "We don't want peace, We want justice," during a protest at a blocked highway in El Alto, on the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)A supporter of former President Evo Morales holds a sign with a handwritten message that reads in Spanish: "We don't want peace, We want justice," during a protest at a blocked highway in El Alto, on the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

In the streets of the capital, La Paz, and nearby El Alto indigenous protesters have been squaring off at impromptu barriers against security forces since mid-November, after the sudden flight of President Evo Morales out of Bolivia to Mexico. On the internet, digital partisans have been likewise engaged at social media barricades, fighting over how to best characterize Mr. Morales’s departure from La Paz. Was it a coup, a golpe de estado, or was the president’s removal the result of a more or less defensible process set in motion by his own unconstitutional acts and election fraud?

For his part, Mr. Morales has no doubts about the nature of his sudden fall from power. In an interview with Der Speigel on Nov. 25, he said: “It was a coup that had been planned for a long time. It started when they started burning dolls that looked like me. Then they destroyed election documents and set fire to the homes belonging to members of my party and to union leaders. Then the police mutinied and the armed forces rose up against the constitutional order and called for my resignation. That is supposed to be a voluntary resignation? I stepped down so they wouldn’t kill even more Bolivians.”

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A credible case could have been made for either interpretation in the days just after he fled, Marcos Scauso, an assistant professor of political science at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, said. But stepping into the political vacuum created by the exit of Mr. Morales and other members of his government, former opposition senator and now interim president Jeanine Áñez emerged from relative obscurity to create a new government on Nov. 13.

Ms. Áñez did not show much concern about when to schedule new elections until the uproar in Bolivia’s streets forced her hand, Mr. Scauso pointed out. Her emergency administration did not include a single representative from any of Bolivia’s 36 indigenous communities. It was, however, well stocked with conservative political and social opponents of Mr. Morales and of indigenous political enfranchisement. (After a predictable uproar, one indigenous representative was appointed to the culture and tourism ministry the following day.)

Was Mr. Morales’s departure from La Paz the result of a golpe de estado or was the president’s removal the result of a more or less defensible process set in motion by his own unconstitutional acts and election fraud?

Although she described her administration as a caretaker government, Ms. Áñez quickly replaced Bolivia’s top military leadership, cabinet ministers and the heads of major state-owned companies with appointees drawn from conservative and opposition factions, and interim government officials threatened the arrest of “seditious” lawmakers and former members of the Morales government. Venezuelan diplomats and Cuban doctors, both allies of Mr. Morales, were ejected from the country, and the foreign minister announced Bolivia’s withdrawal from the left-leaning Union of South American Nations, as well as from the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas.

Now the drama unfolding over the last two weeks in Bolivia has come to appear more clearly a coup, according to Mr. Scauso. “But that doesn’t mean that Evo Morales was the perfect leader,” he cautioned.

An electoral audit of the Oct. 20 vote conducted by the Organization of American States (though its veracity has been challenged by some) identified significant irregularities, setting off the crisis. The ousted president had been barred from running for a fourth term by a constitution he personally helped put together in 2009.

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Ignoring the results of a referendum that upheld those term limits, he ran for a fourth term under thin cover provided by the Bolivian Supreme Court. It had ruled that Mr. Morales’s human rights were violated by the constitution’s term limit.

That court decision was not accepted as credible by many in Bolivia, including members of the indigenous communities that considered Mr. Morales one of their own, Mr. Scauso said. A former research fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, Mr. Scauso has long followed political life and indigenous culture in Bolivia; his book Intersectional Decoloniality: Re-imagining IR and the Problem of Difference will be published next year.

Bolivia's indigenous Movement to Socialism may be at a disadvantage as it scrambles to locate a candidate who can stand in for Mr. Morales, and gains made by the nation’s indigenous could be at risk.

“He’s been losing a lot of support in Bolivia from some indigenous movements and from some sectors of the country,” Mr. Scauso said. “However, he’s also done more for indigenous people than any other government in the history of Bolivia, so he still has a huge basis of support.”

Under Mr. Morales, indigenous communities ignored or abused for centuries began to assume an unprecedented role in the nation’s political life. More than 2 million Bolivians moved out of poverty as the economy enjoyed 5 percent annual growth rates for years after the Morales-led nationalization of Bolivia’s gas and oil industries. The percentage of the population living in extreme poverty was cut in half, reduced from approximately 36 percent to 17 percent during his tenure.

So it is no surprise that Morales die-hards have been part of the resistance in the streets to the Áñez government. But Mr. Scauso believes that many protesters are also just responding to “the violations of laws and rights that the current government has been deploying with some of its policies.” The interim president’s various decrees since she assumed power on Nov. 12 suggested to many a possible restoration of Bolivia’s old order and the reversal of the dramatic changes achieved by the Movement to Socialism, the indigenous party that has been Mr. Morales’s political foundation since his surprise election victory in 2005.

One decree was especially galling to Bolivia’s indigenous protesters, Mr. Scauso said. It allowed the use of deadly force by Bolivian military against demonstrators. Security forces have clashed with indigenous supporters of Mr. Morales at highway barricades they erected to block food and fuel shipments into La Paz. Since Mr. Morales fled to Mexico on Nov. 10, at least 33 protesters have been killed.

At the end of November the argument over how Mr. Morales was removed appears to have been surpassed by events in La Paz. On Nov. 23 legislators, including those from among the former president’s Movement To Socialism party, known by its Spanish abbreviation M.A.S., agreed on the terms for a new presidential election.

Mr. Morales, a former coca grower, union leader and member of the Aymara community, became the first indigenous person elected to the presidency in 2005. That remarkable achievement seemed to have set the nation on a new course.

Since the agreement, barricades have come down and calm appears to at least temporarily have been restored. But dangerous tensions remain. A date for the new elections has not been set, but the new election law bars candidates who are pursuing more than two consecutive presidential terms from participating. That means Mr. Morales will not be allowed to return to Bolivia to run again when the new elections are scheduled.

His M.A.S. will have to field a new candidate. That could prove a challenge, Mr. Scauso said. He explained the movement may be hamstrung by the “personalism” long maintained by Mr. Morales. Over his nearly 14 years as president, much of the party’s energy has focused explicitly on his leadership and personal charisma. Now M.A.S. may be at a disadvantage as it scrambles to locate a candidate who can stand in for Mr. Morales, and gains made by the nation’s indigenous could be at risk. Processes of transformation in Latin America, Mr. Scauso pointed out, have been turned back before by new leadership, as recent reversals of social and economic policy in Brazil and Argentina demonstrate.

The unrest of October and November have revived specters of Bolivia’s past, as has digital mining that uncovered the sometimes-ugly anti-indigenous sentiments shared by the interim president on her Twitter account—though some of her tweets have been deleted and others remain contested. If Bolivia’s indigenous people were looking for assurances that their social and political gains would be respected in a post-Morales Bolivia, Ms. Áñez is not exactly providing them.

Comments from other members of the interim leadership offer additional evidence that Bolivian society has not been able to put racist, anti-indigenous impulses behind it. “As the United States also shows us,” Mr. Scauso said, “racism and some of the cultural legacies of hierarchical prejudice are very long-lasting. These things can be silenced for short periods of time, but they have been around Bolivia for a very long time.

As chaos engulfed the country in November, the Bolivian church has consistently urged dialogue and nonviolence, offering the church as a possible intermediary toward ending the crisis.

“We saw it coming up in 2008 when the south of Bolivia was seeking separatism because they couldn’t stand the idea of an indigenous president, empowered [and] changing things,” he said. With Mr. Morales’s fall and an apparent effort in motion to restore the pre-Morales status quo, “these racist notions feel empowered again to come out.”

Though as much as 70 percent of the population identify as indigenous, according to Mr. Scauso, and most of the rest are of mixed European and indigenous background, Bolivian political life has been dominated by a mestizo and European-identifying elite. Mr. Morales, a former coca grower, union leader and member of the Aymara community, became the first indigenous person elected to the presidency in 2005. That remarkable achievement seemed to have set the nation on a new course.

As chaos engulfed the country in November, the Bolivian church has consistently urged dialogue and nonviolence, offering the church as a possible intermediary toward ending the crisis. The church helped broker the new election law that has restored Bolivia’s fragile tranquility. Mr. Scauso remains hopeful it can continue that positive mediating role.

There are signs of a possible fracture, however. The Bolivian bishops’ conference quickly declared Mr. Morales’s fall from power “not a coup,” but individual Bolivian bishops have expressed conflicting sentiments on social media since the crisis began. Bolivia’s interim leaders appear ready to exploit fissures that have emerged in the Latin American church since the recent Bishops’ Synod on the Pan-Amazonian Region in Rome. During that historic gathering, indigenous images deployed in prayer became an obsession of a transnational collection of self-described Catholic traditionalists who perceived a creeping indigenous idolatry within the church.

Under the 2009 Constitution, Bolivia ditched the special status of the Catholic Church and embraced a multi-ethnic, secular national identity that for the first time protected indigenous spiritual beliefs and practices. With the interim government peopled with leaders from some of Bolivia’s most socially and politically conservative corners, some have suggested that with Mr. Morales’s departure, pachamama and indigenous beliefs will be driven out of the nation’s political psyche. Ms. Áñez even proclaimed, “Thank God, the Bible has returned to the Bolivian government,” literally holding one aloft, as she assumed executive control.

That Bible-thumping is meant to first appeal to an audience at home, said Mr. Scauso, but it is also directed at a resurgent conservative movement across Latin America and the United States. Noting Ms. Áñez’s strategic outreach to resurgent populist leaders in Bolivia’s hemispheric neighborhood since assuming the presidency, Mr. Scausco argues, “There’s a clear link among a lot of somewhat desperate right-wing sectors in Latin America.”

Church leaders persuaded by those appeals may in the end find themselves supporting a new repression of indigenous in Bolivia, he worries. But if it is able to continue the course it has set so far, he thinks, the church could help order be restored without recourse in Bolivia to a new authoritarianism or dissolution into anarchy.

As Latin America’s “pink tide,” an unprecedented outbreak of socialist-leaning governments in the region, appears to recede, a conservative restorationist trend across the hemisphere threatens to tip over into an authoritarianism that has been the historical fallback in Latin America. But Mr. Scauso thinks citizens of Bolivia and other Latin American states will be able to avoid revisiting that cycle.

“If there’s something that we’ve learned, it’s that dictatorships have huge costs in life,” Mr. Scauso, “an Argentine myself,” said. “We’re talking thousands of people disappearing, dying or the millions in exile. So I think that people are now willing to really resist the possibility of [the return] of dictatorship or the violation of human rights.” That could be one reason so many would-be contemporary authoritarians in the region, he suggested, still struggle to lock down civil society despite their apparent power.

The M.A.S. may indeed be facing an existential struggle in the upcoming elections, but the political path ahead is no less hazardous for the resurgent conservatives fronted by Ms. Áñez, Mr. Scauso said. “What she represents is a couple of hundred years of history that has either explicitly, legally, or not so explicitly and legally, excluded a huge chunk of the population,” he said.

Since 2005 that “chunk of the population” has learned to come out and vote.

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