Commentary  Bolivian Democracy Under Attack

A Far-Right Coup, Cheered on by the U.S. and Canada, Threatens Indigenous Bolivians

On November 10, Bolivian President Evo Morales was forced by the military to step down after disputed elections brought thousands of opposition supporters out into the streets to protest his victory. Headlines from Western media outlets referred to this as his “resignation,” some cheering it on as a win against autocracy. What they avoided saying was that this is a military coup, carried out in conjunction with opposition parties, in order to depose Morales’ socialist government and institute a right-wing administration instead. This isn’t a win for democracy, it’s an attack on democracy and an attack on the poor and Indigenous Bolivians that Morales represents, who now find themselves targets of the new government.

There were two reasons given for the coup. The first was that Morales had acted against the law by seeking another term, following his failure to win a 2016 referendum which, had it passed, would have altered the law around term limits. Bolivia’s constitutional court ruled that he could run again in 2019 anyway, but critics charge that the court is packed with his allies in the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party, making the ruling a farce. What is missing from all of these charges is that the constitutional court is popularly elected, chosen by the people of Bolivia. If this isn’t a democratic system then one has to ask – what do we call the systems in the US and Canada where the executive chooses Supreme Court justices who then sit for decades, sometimes till the end of their life? If a leader without term limits is a dictator, what does that make Angela Merkel?

The second charge is that the government committed voter fraud on October 21, the night of the recent election, to push Morales to victory. Bolivian presidential elections operate on a two-round system. A candidate can win outright in the first round if they win 50 per cent or more of the vote, or if they win 40 per cent or more and have a 10-point lead over their nearest challenger. Bolivia has two vote counts. The first is the quick count, which is an unofficial count implemented on the recommendation of the Organization of American States (OAS), and provides a preliminary but incomplete result to give the media something to report on. The official count is legally binding and takes longer, as it includes votes from rural regions that take much longer to be transported and counted. The quick count ended on October 21 with 83.85 per cent of tally sheets counted, and Morales slightly under the 10 point lead he needed over his opponent Carlos Mesa of the Revolutionary Left Front (a centre-right party, despite its name). 

The ending of the quick count, and subsequent release of the official count which ended with Morales at 47.08 per cent to Mesa’s 36.51 per cent, sparked allegations that the government halted the quick count in order to stuff ballots. Facing nationwide protests, Morales accepted an audit by the OAS (an organization far from sympathetic to leftist governments) to determine if electoral fraud had occurred. Strangely enough, the opposition rejected this audit, claiming (without evidence) that it was clear Morales had rigged the elections and that his presidency was illegitimate. On November 10, the OAS declared that it had found irregularities in the electoral process, and recommended that new elections be held. A study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the OAS report produced no evidence to indicate that there had been irregularities, but Morales stayed true to his word and complied with the recommendation. 

Despite his conciliatory actions, he was forced from office hours later, with the military demanding he step down. Opposition figures declared that they would not accept new elections with him as a candidate. Evo Morales did nothing illegal, complied with the requests of international observers, and was still kicked out of office and forced to flee the country. The “resignations” didn’t stop with him. Álvaro García Linera, his Vice President, was also forced to step down, as were senior MAS members of Congress. The military forced out the first five people in the line of presidential succession until they got to a non-MAS politician, Jeanine Añez, who has now been illegally sworn in as the new president. 

So what’s behind the flagrant violation of constitutional law and democratic norms from these opposition figures who claim to be fighting for democracy? The answer is that it’s never been about democracy, but rather about power. More specifically, which types of people get to wield it. 

Evo Morales is Bolivia’s first Indigenous president. Before entering politics, he worked as a coca grower and union leader, and like most native Bolivians, came from rural poverty. Indigenous groups were economically and politically disenfranchised, and despite them making up a majority of the population, the country had always been controlled by the white and mestizo elite in the East. This changed with the creation of MAS and Morales’ election in 2005. MAS channeled Indigenous political power and put native Bolivians in control of the country for the first time. The 2009 constitution established Bolivia as a “plurinational state” and elevated Indigenous languages to official status, established provisions for local assemblies and direct democracy, and designated the whipala, a multicoloured Andean banner, as the official co-flag of the country.

Despite the success of Bolivia’s economy under Morales, these changes infuriated the old ruling class, who saw the Indigenous as backwards and inferior, to be confined to the countryside while the settlers ran Bolivia. Their prejudices instantly manifested themselves in the wake of the coup, and the last pretensions of democracy fell away. Hours after Morales was deposed, protest leader Luis Fernando Camacho marched into the old presidential palace and placed a Bible on top of the Bolivian flag, declaring “Pachamama [a “mother earth”-type figure to Andean people] shall never return to the palace. Bolivia belongs to Christ.” Is it democracy when a Christian supremacist declares that the Bolivian government is not for Indigenous people? Is it democracy when mutineering police cut the whipala from their uniforms? Is it democracy when a mob drags a MAS mayor through the streets, cuts her hair and pours paint on her, and forces her to resign? 

This isn’t just an assault on the government or one party, it’s a colonial attack on Indigenous sovereignty and power. After being sworn in, the new president, Jeanine Añez, declared “the Bible returns to the palace.” Her (now deleted) tweets show her mocking Indigenous people, even calling them satanic.

On Wednesday, Adriana Salvatierra, President of the Senate and third in line for the presidency, attempted to enter the Senate with her fellow MAS congresspeople (who make up a majority of the legislature) and nullify the appointment of Jeanine Añez, who was sworn in without quorum. They were assaulted by the police and blocked from entering. The opposition has abandoned any pretense of constitutionality or rule of law, but still American and Canadian media outlets refuse to call it a coup. The governments of Canada, the United States, and other right-wing countries in the Americas have lauded it as a victory against authoritarianism.

When the military forces a democratically elected president to step down, when constitutional law is suspended in order to expel his party from power, it is a coup. Terms limits don’t change that, nor do the claims of the OAS. At the time of this writing, security forces have killed at least 25 pro-Morales protesters, a number that will surely rise in the days to come. Instead of taking steps to prevent this violence, the Añez government has issued a decree granting amnesty to police and military who brutalize protesters in their “pacification” campaign. Perhaps most worrying, the new Interior Minister says he has a list of MAS leaders and politicians, who he plans to prosecute for “subversion”.

In following this story, you likely will hear a refrain something along the lines of “this is not a coup as white left-wingers are saying, listen to Bolivians”– often repeated by an opposition activist invited to come on American TV. The truth is that nobody can speak for all Bolivians. But 2.9 million Bolivians made their voices heard when they voted for Evo Morales on October 20. And they are making their voices heard right now in the streets as they mobilize to oppose this colonialist attack. The coup-mongers can try to silence them, make them invisible to the rest of the world, but they can’t change the fact that millions are ready to defend Evo, defend democracy, and defend their sovereignty.