The World Upside Down in Bolivia

The World Upside Down in Bolivia

Right-wing forces will find it difficult to defeat the indigenous and peasant groups that mobilized during the presidency of Evo Morales.

Protesters carry the indigenous Wiphala flag in La Paz on November 14, 2019 (Gaston Brito Miserocch/Getty Images)
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In the Andes, Quechua and Aymara speakers use the word Pachakuti to describe an upheaval or inversion of space and time. Pachakuti entails undoing the damage of colonialism and turning the world upside down. Evo Morales’s rise to power as Bolivia’s first indigenous president coincided with such a moment. Right now, reactionary forces are trying to invert the world once again and disempower indigenous Bolivians, but the strength of local social movements will make that a difficult task.

A leader of coca leaf growers, Morales founded a leftist, indigenist party, MAS (Movement Toward Socialism), in 1998, and then won the presidency of his majority-indigenous nation by a twenty-five-point margin in 2005. Alongside Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Brazil’s Lula da Silva, he became one of the most recognized leaders of a leftward shift across much of Latin America known as the Pink Tide. For more than a decade, Morales presided over a striking transformation of the Bolivian economy, state, and society. The renationalization of hydrocarbons and a boom in commodity prices enabled increased social spending. Both poverty and extreme poverty declined dramatically. Indigenous people had played important roles throughout Bolivia’s history, but they were often treated as second-class citizens. During Morales’s presidency, indigenous leaders, organizations, and belief systems gained political influence and cultural capital, and a process of constitutional reform made Bolivia a plurinational state.

The same processes of grassroots mobilization that empowered Morales eventually contributed to his downfall, as indigenous communities, unions, feminist organizations, and intellectuals began to question his leadership. Because the Bolivian state had become more democratic and more indigenous, critical voices were able to resonate. They raised concerns about Morales’s desire to remain in office indefinitely, alleged corruption in his inner circle, his administration’s response to recent fires in the Amazon, and especially its extractivist development model. Aymara leader Felipe Quispe presented some of the most damning critiques, describing MAS as “neoliberalism with an Indian face.”

When disputed elections last month threw Bolivia into turmoil, some of these leftist critics joined an ideologically eclectic protest movement against Morales and MAS. These popular protests provided an opening for what looks like a right-wing effort to hijack the Bolivian state and its democratic procedures. Morales resigned on November 10 and is currently in exile in Mexico. Yet Bolivia’s indigenous and peasant groups are continuing to mobilize despite alarming instances of racist violence and military and police brutality.

 

The current crisis began after the October 20 elections. Controversially, Morales was running for his fourth term as president. He had previously proposed reforming the Constitution to remove term limits. This idea was narrowly defeated in a referendum in 2016; however, Bolivia’s Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal subsequently ruled that an international human rights treaty guaranteed the right to run for reelection, clearing the way for Morales’s candidacy this year.

Morales needed at least 40 percent of votes with a ten-point margin to avoid a second-round run-off. On the evening of October 20, Bolivia’s electoral tribunal stopped publicly updating its unofficial quick count without providing a clear explanation, at a moment when Morales seemed to be ahead of his principal rival, centrist candidate and former president Carlos Mesa, by less than 10 percent with nearly 84 percent reporting. A day later, authorities reported that the final (although still unofficial) quick count indicated a margin of about 10 percent for Morales. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research argued, this discrepancy could potentially be explained by geographic patterns: rural regions were more likely to favor Morales but also slower to report their results.

Such subtleties were lost in an atmosphere of increasing domestic and international tension. Mesa cried fraud, and the Organization of American States (OAS) expressed “deep concern,” while Morales alleged that his opponents were trying to stage a coup. Anti-MAS organizations launched a general strike, and protesters on both sides took to the streets, some resorting to violence. Anti-MAS demonstrations attracted large numbers of urban and middle-class voters who were tired of Morales, frustrated by his decision to seek reelection, and predisposed to believe that fraud had occurred. Meanwhile, the official results reinforced the quick count’s finding that Morales had won conclusively, and the OAS accepted Morales’s invitation to audit the disputed results.

Protests and sporadic violence continued for nearly three weeks, until a rapid series of events forced Morales’s hand. On November 8, police in Cochabamba, Sucre, and Santa Cruz revolted. The next day, the head of the armed forces, General Williams Kaliman, announced that the military would not “confront the people” and would not intervene to quell violence. Then, on November 10, the OAS released a hastily written report, identifying “vulnerabilities and irregularities” in electoral procedures and alleging “manipulation” without providing clear evidence of fraud. Morales followed the OAS’s recommendation and called for new elections with new electoral authorities. But later that day, General Kaliman issued a coded threat, “suggesting” publicly that Morales should resign. Leaders of Bolivia’s largest trade union federation urged Morales to “reflect” on whether his resignation would promote peace.

Morales resigned that same day and went into hiding, eventually claiming asylum in Mexico. Other MAS leaders also resigned, sought asylum, or refused to participate in formal politics. For two days, Bolivia had no president, no vice president, no leader of either chamber in its legislative assembly, and no legislative quorum. On November 12, Jeanine Áñez, the second vice president of the Senate and a former media executive from the Bolivian lowlands, proclaimed herself interim president. Áñez did not manage to assemble the quorum required to resolve the question of presidential succession; however, the same constitutional tribunal that had paved the way for Morales to run approved her ascension to the presidency. MAS Senator Mónica Eva Copa and MAS Deputy Sergio Choque, elected as presidents of their respective chambers last week, might try to call new presidential and legislative elections. It remains unclear whether Bolivian leaders will agree on a resolution to this institutional impasse.

 

The White House described Morales’s resignation as “a significant moment for democracy in the Western Hemisphere,” while Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar expressed solidarity with Morales. Academic assessments divided on similarly partisan lines, with Yascha Mounk arguing incoherently in the Atlantic that Morales’s fall should “terrify far-right populists, such as Hungary’s [Viktor] Orbán or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,” while political scientist Andrés Malamud maintained that Bolivia had experienced a coup. Indeed, what else do you call it when the police riots, the military encourages an elected head of state to resign, and he complies? Nonetheless, a number of prominent Bolivian and Latin American leftists initially expressed discomfort with the term, perhaps hoping to distance themselves from Morales, MAS, and their interpretation of recent events, without endorsing the opposing argument that Morales’s departure had restored democracy.

Neither position in the debate over terminology fully accounts for the degree of popular mobilization in Bolivia. As María Galindo, a co-founder of feminist collective Mujeres Creando, explains, Evo Morales’s claim that he had been the victim of a coup is “in part true, but only half of the conflict.” The other half has received less attention; in trying to assess the role of Bolivian generals and U.S. operatives, many international commentators have underestimated the agency and autonomy of Bolivian social movements. Between October 20 and November 10, an ideologically eclectic amalgam of protesters and organizations put tremendous pressure on Morales from below to resign or renounce his candidacy. Since then, grassroots protests have evolved rapidly, with many anti-MAS groups now focused on opposing Áñez and promoting peace. But at this point it is Morales’s most conservative opponents who appear best positioned to take advantage of the crisis.

The dramatic cultural and socioeconomic reversals that took place during Morales’s tenure inspired fervent resentment among some elites and religious fundamentalists, especially in the eastern lowlands. Although the Bolivian Constitution mandates religious freedom and the separation of church and state, Áñez approached the presidential palace carrying a large Bible and celebrating its “return to the palace.” Her path to the presidency was paved by Luis Fernando “El Macho” Camacho, a conservative multi-millionaire with ties to evangelical groups who speaks as an informal leader of reactionary sectors in the lowlands who want to eliminate MAS. An undercurrent of racism animates their political goals. On the day Morales resigned, one of Camacho’s supporters shouted that the Pachamama (an Aymara and Quechua concept often translated as Mother Earth) would “never again return.”

Bolivian society is much more equal than it was two decades ago, but profound ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic inequalities persist. A recent statement from Colectivo Curva, a coalition of Aymara youth, asks a question that might resonate with many people around the world: “How can we support and join either of these bands if they do not reflect what we really feel and think?” After Morales’s resignation, Colectivo Curva took to the streets not in support of MAS but to defend their rights as indigenous people against others who were burning the Wiphala (an indigenous flag), persecuting indigenous people, and spreading racist rhetoric. Bolivia’s largest peasant organization has called for roadblocks and protests against Áñez and Camacho. Áñez responded with a troubling decree pledging that military personnel will not be prosecuted for actions taken to “reestablish order.” On November 15, nine people were killed as security forces repressed a demonstration of coca leaf growers outside Cochabamba, bringing the death toll since October 20 to at least twenty-three. Coca leaf growers countered by promising indefinite roadblocks if Áñez did not resign within forty-eight hours. If right-wing forces persist in their attempts to invert the world, they will find that it is not easy to demobilize the Bolivian people.

 

What is happening in Bolivia underscores the disordered, dysfunctional state of international relations in the Americas since the end of the commodity boom and the rise of Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. With the exception of Mexico’s offer of political asylum, Latin American leaders have taken few public actions. Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, and Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay joined Mexico in expressing support for Morales, as did Alberto Fernández, Argentina’s president elect. On the other end of the political spectrum, Bolsonaro’s public pronouncements so far have been muted. After Morales’s resignation, he tweeted about the need for sound electoral procedures in Brazil, referring vaguely to “denunciations of fraud” in Bolivia. (He followed up with a smiling photo of himself and his wife and a winking caption: “Great day!”) Bolsonaro and Trump have recognized Áñez as interim president but appear disinclined to engage in public diplomacy.

Did Brazilian or U.S. agents orchestrate Morales’s downfall? Sociologist Jeb Sprague has reported that General Kaliman and at least five other Bolivian officials received military training in the United States, but historians may have to wait several decades for declassified documents to shed light on the degree of foreign intervention. What is clear is that perceptions about the international order emboldened right-wing opponents of MAS. The White House appears to be taking cues on Latin America policy from Florida Senator Marco Rubio, but its approach to the region remains erratic and disinterested. Brazil’s hegemonic position in South America constrains the foreign policies of neighboring states and might explain why the current presidents of Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Paraguay did not publicly discuss Morales’s resignation despite obvious security concerns around sharing a border with a country that briefly had no government at all.

Diplomatic negotiations and covert actions may be unfolding behind the scenes, but the lack of public diplomacy sends a troubling message to ordinary citizens about the future of Latin American democracy. Nearly every country in South America is dealing with its own internal crisis, and the region no longer has effective multilateral forums where like-minded leaders can coordinate on issues of shared concern. Progressive politicians from across Latin America were in Buenos Aires trying to build such a forum, the Grupo de Puebla, when they learned of Morales’s resignation. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Argentina’s Alberto Fernández could potentially develop a shared strategy for Latin American regional integration that would counterbalance Trump and Bolsonaro, but it is unclear whether they have the political capital or inclination to do so.

Most of the leaders who personified Latin America’s Pink Tide have died, left office, or shifted course. But the social movements that helped bring them to power endure. As Morales promised when announcing his resignation, “The fight does not end here.” On November 12, as Áñez entered the presidential palace, Bolivian feminists gathered in a movie theater to seek their own resolution to the crisis. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, a well-known public intellectual of Aymara descent, gave a moving speech that was widely circulated on social media. “We have to remain in the trenches [fighting for] antiracism,” she argued, “and we have to continue gathering strength among [people who are] different to . . . recover everyday democracy.” Another speaker, Aymara activist Yolanda Mamani, summed up five centuries of Bolivian history in a succinct phrase: “The fight of indigenous people did not begin with President Evo, and this is not the end of our fight.”


Christine Mathias teaches Latin American history at King’s College London.


tote | University of California Press Lima