The crisis in Bolivia fits no easy political narrative
The crisis in Bolivia fits no easy political
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
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
“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
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
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.”
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————
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
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
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
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
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
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