Bolivia in Crisis: Don’t Mistake a Public Uprising for a Coup

Jim Shultz
Nov 12 · 10 min read

Dear Readers, events in Bolivia are changing rapidly and much has changed since I published this article. Please also read my most current post: Bolivia in Meltdown. Thank you.

Bolivia, that country that most people never think about until it is thrust into the news, has been thrust into the global news once again. Evo Morales, the nation’s first indigenous president has been ousted from office and is in transit to self-exile in Mexico. How did it come to this? What will happen next?

A set of elaborate conspiracy theories have bounced across the left wing press and social media at the speed of sound, most all of them from foreigners who have never lived there and who have no real knowledge of the country: It was a military coup engineered by Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. It is part of a secret imperialist plan to seize control of the country’s lithium. None of these reflect the actual reality of an authentic public uprising with deep roots. I lived in Bolivia for nineteen years and wrote about that nation a good deal. It seems time to write about her again.

“We Don’t Want to Become Venezuela”

If you are really looking for a one word explanation for what is happening in Bolivia right now, it is this word: Venezuela. For years Bolivians across all economic classes have been watching the nightmare of Venezuela — the government of authoritarian clowns, the shortages of food and medicine, the fleeing of more than four million people from the country in desperation. They have watched all this and worried how much Morales planned to send Bolivia down the same authoritarian path, and they began to see dangerous warning signs.

One was what seemed like Morales’ desire to serve as President for Life. When his political party, MAS, wrote a new constitution in 2009 they lifted the long-standing one-term limit on presidents and paved the way for Evo to run for a second term. In 2014 he broke a long-standing pledge not to seek a third term, claiming that his first term didn’t count because it was served under the old constitution. He won once more.

Soon after, he announced that he wanted to run for a fourth-term as well, which would extend his time in office to an unprecedented twenty years. Recognizing that the constitution prohibited him from doing so he said he would let the people decide and forced a public referendum to change the constitution once more. His amendment was defeated at the ballot box. Backtracking on his promises once again, he engineered a ridiculous decision by a packed Supreme Court that said the constitution of the nation took a backseat to Evo Morales’ ‘human right’ to run for the presidency as many times as he wished.

For Bolivians across the spectrum, including many former Morales allies and members of his government, all this smelled like a blatant power grab akin to the tactics of Maduro in that failing state to their north. For years Morales and his Vice-President, Alvaro Garcia-Linera, had worked to undermine any voice of opposition from the social and indigenous movements. They sent police to repress communities marching to protect their lands. They prosecuted former allies who crossed them. In the aftermath of the court decision there were huge protests but Evo continued with his insistence on seeking another five-year term.

That election was held on October 20 and as the votes were counted Bolivians saw all the signs of political manipulation once again. To avoid a runoff against his chief opponent, Carlos Mesa, a moderate and former President, Morales needed a victory margin of 10%. Suddenly, in the midst of the vote count, with Morales just under the margin he needed, the reporting stopped. Election officials would later explain that they were ordered to stop the reporting by Morales’ appointed elections chief (who would later claim she was told to do so from higher up). The vote counters also later revealed that their internet and electricity were cutoff to discontinue the counting. When the reporting began again Morales’s margin of victory had suspiciously climbed to just over what he needed to avoid a second round. The company under contract to supervise the vote cited so many irregularities that it called the results “corrupted and nullified.” A later audit of the vote by the Organization of American States concluded that the results could not be validated.

A Nation Shut Down by Protest

In the aftermath of the election and its tarnished vote count, Bolivians poured into the streets, effectively shutting down the country for two weeks. Schools were closed and children were at home. Roads were blocked and businesses shuttered. Tens of thousands of people filled the streets in the cities, in Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, La Paz and beyond, to demand a new vote. Thousands of Morales supporters from the countryside made their way to the city and where the two sides met there was violence. A teenage boy in Cochabamba protesting against the government was killed. A Morales-allied Mayor in a small town was pulled from her office by opposition thugs who covered her in red paint, cut her hair and marched her barefoot through the streets.

Morales, instead of seeking peace, egged on the violence, calling on his rural supporters to cut off the food supplies to the cities. I think that he and Alvaro thought it would all die down but the anger against them only grew as more details of election fraud came forward. I believe that under it all, Bolivians in huge numbers began to see that this might be their last chance to not head irrevocably down Venezuela’s dark authoritarian path.

Seeing his political survival at stake, Morales turned course and suggested negotiations and the possibility of new elections. But it was too little too late. By Saturday the opposition’s call for new elections became a widespread call for Morales’ resignation. Rank and file police across the country mutinied against the government and refused to protect it against protests that included their own families. Ally after ally turned against him calling for resignation, including the powerful national labor federation (COB). Meanwhile the violence was escalating. On Sunday morning the general in charge of the Bolivian Army announced that he too thought Evo needed to resign, that it was the only way to restore peace to the country. Hours later Morales made that resignation official. As I write this he is winding his way to self-exile in Mexico, fearing prosecution or attack.

What Happens Now?

Bolivia has spent two days as a nation without a leader, and how it will get a new one remains complicated. All three of the people in constitutional line after the President have resigned their posts — the Vice President and the heads of both houses of Congress. The Vice-President of the Senate, a member of the opposition, is seeking to claim the office but the MAS party majority in the Congress is refusing to take their seats for the session required to make Morales’ resignation official. Once a new interim President takes office the Bolivian constitution will require new elections within ninety days.

In the meantime, violence is quickly absorbing the country as mobs of angry Morales supporters have mobilized around the country. I am being bombarded by reports and photographs from friends across Bolivia — houses and factories set on fire in El Alto, marchers with sticks en route to the center of Cochabamba, Sacaba in open conflict. Other Morales supporters have also seized control of a major power facility. More cities will blocked off by blockades. Evo’s backers, who remain a sizeable portion of the nation and fiercely loyal, can make Bolivia ungovernable if they wish and that seems the plan. It seems only a matter of time until the Army moves into the streets to quell the violence (and it is saying just that). Bolivia borders on the edge of chaos and the dangers are more than one. There is a danger that the violence will spread beyond control. Civil war or some low version of it is not out of the question. The country’s old right wing, equipped with new faces, is seeking any opening it can to retake power. The road from here to peace is long and uncertain.

A Powerful Legacy Lost

As I watched Evo’s resignation on Sunday what I felt was deeply sad. It was just so joyously hopeful in the beginning. He was the charismatic charmer who, at a party in my office weeks before he was elected, grabbed my toddler daughter’s cheeks. She asked him to dance. He was the first indigenous President of a nation where an indigenous majority had long been living in the disrespected margins of their country. As a symbol he was Bolivia’s Mandela. He came from the nation’s poor and he woke up every day caring about them. He built schools and paved roads. He established a cash bonus system for students to keep them in school. He did many great things for a time, aided by many great people, including some of my friends.

But behind all his soaring rhetoric were harder facts. His professed love for Mother Earth covered up relentless destruction of the environment in the name of resource extraction. There were giant cases of corruption and petty acts of vengeance. He succumbed to what one former ally called, el borrachero de poder, the drunkenness of power. Like another president in another country drunk on power, he became convinced that ‘only he’ could lead his country.

It could have been different. 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). 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 chorus of foreigners who don’t know Bolivia have called this a military coup. Bolivians know first hand what such coups look like: Tanks roll into to Plaza Murillo in the capital with their guns pointed at the Presidential Palace, the President is removed (or in one case hung from a lamp post), and a man in a crisp green uniform takes over the chair.

That is not what happened here. This was a popular rebellion to preserve a democracy that the nation saw under threat. Evo’s end in power is much the same as that of another President that Evo himself helped send into self-exile in 2003, the right-wing Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Then as now, protests filled the streets, the anger became too much to survive, and Bolivia watched as its President flew away.

It didn’t have to come to this. It shouldn’t have. But let’s never confuse a popular rebellion to protect democracy with a coup staged by an army. Evo and Alvaro brought this on themselves and now Bolivia teeters on the precipice as a result.

An Update on Friday November 15th

A good deal has happened in Bolivia in the last three days. On Tuesday, after 48 hours of having no President, a series of resignations in the line of constitutional succession led to the swearing in of Jeanine Añez Chavez, a 52-year-old religious conservative who was the Vice President of the Bolivian Senate and is deeply entwined with the conservative opposition. With declarations such as “the bible is back in the Presidential Palace,” she did not exactly signal her intentions to be a neutral, interim president. That was followed by the installation of a cabinet plucked from the most conservative corners of the country’s politics and then a declaration by the new Minister of Communication that the new government was ready to bring sedition charges against journalists spreading news it considered to be false.

I think that the best way to judge this new and temporary regime is to measure it against the way former President Eduardo Rodriguez handled a similar interim presidency in 2005 when Carlos Mesa resigned. Rodriguez, the President of the Supreme Court, took over in a similar succession to the fourth in line. It was clear that he had a focused mission, the be an utterly neutral actor between the competing forces at the time and to deliver clean elections that all in the country would accept as legitimate. That is what he did and those were the elections in which Evo Morales won his historic first victory.

In the meantime, in the streets, violence has continued and much of the country lives under a cloud of ongoing fear. The chief battlegrounds are in El Alto, where large crowds demanding Evo’s return to office chant “Civil War” and have burned and destroyed homes, businesses and a garage of buses. In the small city of Sacaba, pro-Evo marchers from the Chapare have been blocked by police from marching onward to Cochabamba. Cochabamba and El Alto/La Paz are going to continue to be the centers of any ongoing conflict, because that is where there are large numbers of pro and anti-Evo communities nearest to one another. In Santa Cruz, for example, the traditional center of anti-Evo politics, life is reportedly getting back to normal.

Earlier this week the U.S. Embassy issued a warning for U.S. citizens to leave Bolivia and is evacuating families of Embassy staff and non-emergency personnel. This is the first time the Embassy has taken such a move in the thirty years I have been associated with Bolivia. They may just be being overly cautious.

From Mexico, Evo Morales has been using Twitter to switch back and forth between encouraging his supporters to take to the streets and supporting efforts at negotiation. The United Nations Secretary General has sent a personal representative to mediate those negotiations between MAS and the other factions of the moment.

Here is what to watch for in the week ahead: Does the violence subside? Is a date set for the required election? How will the make-up of the candidates change? Will the right-wing abandon its election alliance with Mesa and run someone of its own? Will someone like Manfred Reyes Villa, the self-exiled former Cochabamba governor return? Who will MAS run if it cannot run Evo?

Will Bolivia find its way back to a peaceful and constitutional way forward or will the country fall apart?

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Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of The Democracy Center. He and his family lived in Bolivia from 1998 to 2017, where he also served as President of an 80-child orphanage. He is co-author and co-editor of Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization (UC Press) and the forthcoming, My Other Country, Nineteen Years in Bolivia (NFB Publishing).

Photo Credit: CNN

A political activist for more than 40 years, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center. Back in the US after 19 years in Bolivia. A dad, a grandpa.

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