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The crisis in Bolivia fits no easy political narrative

Nov 14 2019

The crisis in Bolivia fits no easy political narrative

By Ishaan Tharoor* – The Washington Post

The dramatic resignation of Bolivia’s former president Evo Morales and his flight to asylum in Mexico have turned into something of a Rorschach test on the hemisphere’s politics. Many on the left are convinced that Morales was unseated in a military coup, since an insurrection among the country’s police and armed forces compelled the long-ruling leader’s departure. In this view, his fate was that of a long, tragic line of Latin American left-wing populists betrayed by U.S.-backed reactionary elements.

Meanwhile, observers and politicians further to the right hailed what is happening in Bolivia as a restoration of democracy and a victory against hegemonic socialism on the continent. Morales, in their view, was the next Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan demagogue bent on retaining power no matter the damage to his country and its fragile democracy. A popular Bolivian rebellion booted him out of office.

Neither version of events tells the whole story. For now, Bolivia is in a perilous state of political limbo, bitterly divided over the path forward with the all-too-real prospect of fresh clashes between backers and opponents of Morales. Jeanine Áñez, a right-wing opposition senator, proclaimed herself the country’s interim leader, a role to which she was constitutionally entitled after Morales and key allies resigned and left her — the deputy leader of the country’s Senate — next in line. Áñez has promised to hold new elections soon, though it’s unclear to what extent, if any, Morales and his party will participate. His Movement for Socialism party remains technically the largest faction in both chambers of Bolivia’s legislature. Footage on Wednesday appeared to show Adriana Salvatierra, the former president of the Bolivian Senate and a Morales ally, getting roughed up by security forces when she attempted to take her seat in the chamber after resigning over the weekend.

The crisis can still be justifiably laid at Morales’s feet. In power since 2006, he made the decision to ignore the outcome of a 2016 constitutional referendum that narrowly rejected his bid to abolish term limits. A ruling from a constitutional court packed with his loyalists allowed him to compete for a fourth term. But the first round of the presidential vote on Oct. 20 was so plagued by irregularities that a later audit by the Organization of American States — a continental bloc that is mistrusted by some on the left — concluded there were signs of “clear manipulation.” Weeks of mass protests against Morales culminated in the country’s police and army chiefs urging his resignation. Morales had little choice but to comply, but in comments made in Mexico on Wednesday, he said he was determined to return home and urged a national dialogue to resolve the dispute.

“If the military, which recommended Morales’ resignation to avoid further bloodshed, stays in power, it will be a coup,” noted Andres Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. “But if the constitution’s line of succession is respected and an interim president calls for a new election within 90 days, it will [be] a constitutional move to invalidate Morales’ illegal power grab.”

Morales’s supporters in Bolivia have refused to recognize the legitimacy of Áñez’s ascension, raising fears of further social unrest after a month of strikes and protests. Their critics argue this could have all been avoidable.

“Evo could have lifted up new leaders to take his place, but instead actively undermined any who might do so. He could have served out his third term, left office with a grand legacy, and even run again in five years if he wished (the term limits only apply to consecutive terms),” wrote Jim Shultz, an American expert on Bolivia who lived in the country for two decades and knew Morales even before he rose to power. “But instead he was willing to plow through the basic rules of democracy to hold onto power, and the people knew it and in the end they rebelled as Bolivians so often have.”

The Trump administration cheered the news and quickly recognized Áñez as the country’s interim president. In a statement issued Monday, President Trump celebrated the developments in Bolivia and placed Morales alongside his other Latin American boogeymen. “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. “We are now one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous, and free Western Hemisphere.”

But unlike Maduro, Morales had not presided over desolation. As my colleagues wrote just last month, his stewardship of the impoverished, yet resource-rich nation was largely a credit to redistributive policies. “Bolivia’s economy is closing the gap with the rest of the continent, growing faster than most neighbors over the past 13 years. Meanwhile, governments that have embraced market policies — notably, in Argentina and Ecuador — face economic and political chaos,” observed The Post’s Anthony Faiola. He added: “Even the International Monetary Fund, that champion of the free market, concedes that Bolivia’s socialists have been more effective in combating extreme poverty than any other South American government, slashing it from 33 percent of the population in 2006 to 15 percent in 2018.”

In recent years, though, Morales more closely followed an authoritarian playbook, undermining some of the social and indigenous movements that once buttressed his rule and prosecuting former allies who turned against him. Some pundits attempted to cast his defeat in sunny, global terms. “The inspiring victory of the Bolivian people has great meaning far beyond Latin America,” wrote liberal columnist Yascha Mounk in the Atlantic. “Morales’s sudden loss of support should not only scare embattled leftist dictators, such as Maduro in Venezuela; it should also terrify far-right populists, such as Hungary’s [Viktor] Orban or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who still appear to have a firm hold on power.”

That last suggestion from Mounk makes sense in the abstract but becomes more curious when you actually think about the particulars. Both Orban and Erdogan are ultranationalists who would find a degree of ideological kinship not with Morales, but those at the forefront of Morales’s ouster.

Before assuming presidential powers, Áñez strode toward the parliament building, clutching a large copy of the Bible and proclaiming its return to the center of power in the country — a deliberate jab at the indigenous communities and traditions uplifted by Morales, the country’s first indigenous leader. A survey of her social media found older comments mocking indigenous practices. Viral videos showed Bolivian security forces removing the Wiphala, the square emblem representing the indigenous peoples of the Andes, that sat alongside the tricolor Bolivian flag in their uniforms. A pastor linked to a leading opposition figure reportedly declared the halls of power free of the spirit of Pachamama, an Andean mother goddess.

It is hard to grasp why Orban, a virulent Christian nationalist with a similar disregard for his country’s more downtrodden communities, would be perturbed by any of this.

Taking it all in from Mexico, Morales claimed he was the victim of “a racist and fascist coup.” Now, his country holds its breath at what may come. “I’m worried that if the opposition fails to establish a dialogue with pro-Morales politicians, the uncertainty might be prolonged, and we won’t have elections in the stipulated timing,” Jorge Dulon, a political scientist in La Paz, told my colleagues. “I’m also worried that social movements could generate violence.”

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*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Follow @ishaantharoor————

Related:

Evo Morales ready to return to “pacify Bolivia, not as a candidate”

Javier Lafuente – El País, Spain 

Speaking from Mexico, to where he fled after stepping down on Sunday amid growing violence over election fraud claims, the former Bolivian president tells EL PAÍS that he is the victim of a coup

Evo Morales, 60, has only been in Mexico for 24 hours – he landed there on Tuesday after the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador granted him political asylum on humanitarian grounds – and already his agenda is packed.

Morales, who stepped down as president of Bolivia on Sunday following weeks of street violence, said in an interview with EL PAÍS conducted in Mexico City that he is the victim of a coup. He also called for an end to the violent confrontations, and refuted the claims of election fraud that triggered the violence and his own resignation.

Bolivia’s first indigenous president had been in power since 2006 after winning three elections. A senator named Jeanine Añez Chavez has declared herself interim president until new elections are held.

The people will never be silenced with weapons

Question. When did you decide to give up the presidency?

Answer. The coup began on October 21, the day after the elections, with false accusations of fraud. Now I realize that this claim constituted the real fraud. For two weeks it intensified, and the coup was consummated when the police rebelled and joined the coup. We asked for dialogue with the four parties represented in parliament. In order to avoid deaths and injuries, I said let’s not have a runoff but an election, without Evo as a candidate, with new members of the electoral tribunal. But they kept up the aggression. Until the time that I resigned, there had been no deaths by gunshot. Afterwards, there were four or five.

Q. Shortly before stepping down, the head of the army had suggested you should resign. How did you take this?

A. I can’t understand it, I had good references about General Kaliman. I had talked with the armed forces, and they’d told me they were going to stay in their place. Later, they called for my resignation. It’s further evidence of the coup. Obviously I feel betrayed, but not just that. All these years we have been investing in equipping the armed forces, but to defend the homeland, not to go against the people. I don’t know what side of history they’ll end up on, but they’re making a mistake. I urge them not to use weapons against the people. The people will never be silenced with weapons.

Q. What solution do you see for your country?

OAS chief Luis Almagro is awaiting instructions from the government of the United States

A. The first thing is to stop people getting killed and wounded. That is up to the army and the national police. With an indigenous president, they never thought about a curfew, or a state of emergency. They staged the coup to defend the wealthy people. They use airplanes and helicopters to intimidate the people. This is a class problem. I have asked for a national dialogue with the presence of civic committees, political forces, the right, the social movements, the state, the government. If Álvaro [García Linera, the vice president] and I stepped down, it was to pacify things, not to keep up the violence.

Q. Who’s the boss in Bolivia right now?

A. There is no authority; it might be that unconstitutionally self-declared president.

Q. Who do you think holds the most power in the country?

A. I don’t know, I couldn’t tell you. It’s the military command and the police command.

Q. On Monday, the second vice president of the Senate, Jeanine Áñez, declared herself president. On Tuesday the Senate president, Adriana Salvatierra, who should have assumed the presidency following your resignation, was prevented from entering parliament. Do you think that Salvatierra should declare herself president, or would that create further division?

A. The first thing that the legislature needs to do is either reject or approve my resignation. As long as it does not do this, I am still the president. Once approved, the position would go to the vice president, who has also stepped down. Constitutionally, the next person in line is the president of the Senate, Adriana Salvatierra. That alleged declaration [by Áñez] is unconstitutional. It confirms the coup.

Q. How long do you plan on remaining in Mexico?

As long as there is life, I will remain in politics

A. I’d like to leave right now. If I can contribute to a peaceful solution, after my resignation, I will.

Q. A lot of people think your return would mean a return to power. Are you ready to give that up and not run as a candidate?

A. Look, in the early hours of Sunday, the Organization of American States [OAS] already had a preliminary report ready making it look like there had been [electoral] fraud. Yet they had told us that the report would not be ready until the 12th, and later even asked us for a November 13 deadline. I asked to talk with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro at three or four in the morning, but he refused. I spoke with his chief of staff, Gonzalo Koncke, and told him that the report was going to set the country on fire, that there were going to be deaths as a result. They [the OAS] say that I won the election but not clearly; in this case there should be a runoff. But no, they want a new election. That’s a political decision. Now they’re saying we staged a self-coup. Luis Almagro is awaiting instructions from the government of the United States, everything makes sense that way. I had some degree of hope in the OAS. We told them to audit the election, I was convinced there was no fraud. I have never in my life liked to do anything illegal. The underlying issue is that they don’t accept the indigenous vote. After the first report, the Transmission of Preliminary Electoral Results, came out, I was winning by 7%, but the rural, indigenous vote was still uncounted. I said we would win. They are rejecting the indigenous vote, and that is going back to the past, to colonial days.

Q. Let me ask you again: are you willing to return to your country and not remain in power, nor to run as a candidate, if it brings peace?

A. Of course. I have stepped down, and there is still violence.

Q. A month ago, as you were campaigning, you told me that if it were up to you, you would’ve retired already. Do you regret having run again to remain in power?

A. There’s no reason why I should have regrets. I joyfully accepted after my brothers and sisters told me: “Your life does not depend on yourself, it depends on the people.” As long as there is life, I will remain in politics.

Q. Your trip to Mexico has been a portrait of Latin American politics.

A. I respect and earnestly thank Paraguay and Brazil. Mexico obviously saved my life. I cannot understand how Peru, with whom we have such friendly relations, did not allow the plane to land in Lima.

This is an abridged version of the original interview in Spanish. 14 Nov., 2019

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English version by Susana Urra.

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