Bolivia: Not Just Another Latin American Coup

On November 10, 2019, in the wake of on-going protests, Bolivia President Evo Morales, his vice president, several ministers, governors, and leaders of both houses of parliament resigned. Within a matter of hours, the power system, which had been heralded as a model left-wing government, collapsed. Adherents of Morales immediately started talking about the coup and the long arm of Washington, especially since Donald Trump hastened to welcome the “democratic aspirations” of the Bolivians. However, things are not as straightforward as they may seem.

Morales and his Movement for Socialism (MAS) party had overstepped the accepted norms of democracy several times. The links in this chain had led to him being re-elected for a third term (contrary to the provisions of the Constitution) and his attempt to be elected for a fourth term (contrary to the results of a 2016 referendum organized by Morales himself). Finally, irregularities were made in the October 2019 elections in order to juggle the results and prevent a second round, in which the indigenous president was likely to lose. This was partially confirmed by a report published by the Organisation of American States (OAS). It is not a matter of whether there was large-scale fraud (as opponents of Morales claim) or “individual inconsistencies” (as his supporters contend). The very fact of the “system crash” during the preliminary calculation and subsequent OAS report were only the last straw. The voting population had grown tired of the “eternal Morales”, but he preferred to ignore the signal from the 2016 referendum, costing him his legitimacy in the eyes of the Bolivians. Even many former supporters are tired of him. It is no coincidence that the main trade union, the Bolivian Workers’ Centre (Central Obrera Boliviana, COB), which has always been Morales’ solid base, has refused to support the president.

We are talking here specifically about the loss of legitimacy, and not about the state being especially authoritarian. Compared to the leaders of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Chile who preserved power through large-scale violence, Evo had behaved like Mahatma Gandhi. But the loss of trust meant everything.

The large-scale civil movement against Morales in a number of regions of the country were a fait accompli. However, peaceful protests were rapidly co-opted by radical conservative and revanchist forces, which have nothing in common with the democracy. The very fact that a coup transpired is pointless to deny. When the army commander publicly “offers” the president the option to resign, this is no less than a coup. Another thing is that the coup was not committed against a democratic government, but against a government that showed a desire to remain in power at all costs. If you violated the rules of the game, and then someone else violated them, infringing on your interests, this still does not make you Salvador Allende. It’s most likely that Morales understood this, and that is why he chose to leave the country rather than lead a resistance to the putschists. He left his supporters to die in the streets.

Of course, this coup only harmed the democratic institutions in Bolivia. A sharp increase of the role of the military (reflecting a general trend in Latin America) revealed the fragility of democracy there, which had been building up for the last 30-40 years. Examples of coups that opened the way for a democratic transition are well known (Venezuela in 1957 and Paraguay in 1989), but so far it is unlikely that democracy in Bolivia will prevail. The emergence of an interim president without parliamentary approval and without a quorum, an on-going wave of revanchism, the widespread use of force against supporters of the ousted Morales, the threat that the MAS may be banned (from parliamentary elections), the willingness to issue carte blanche to the army to use violence, the abuse directed at symbols of the Indian population, the restrictions on the rights of journalists, the inability to form a broad coalition government and cooperate amid racism and support for discrimination against native Indians – these are more than warning signs.

The desire of the interim government to quickly eliminate the results of Morales’s reign (secession from ALBA and UNASUR, conflicts in relations with Cuba and Venezuela) shows that Jeanine Añez and her government do not really understand what the rules of the democratic game are, and that her task is not revenge, but an early election. And that new, legitimate government will determine the next course of action for the country.

It is too early to make forecasts about what will happen in Bolivia in the near future. The current government is able to block the movement of Indians who are supporters of the ousted president, but is unlikely to take control over the whole country. MAS, in turn, cannot take to the streets with hundreds of thousands of people demanding the return of Morales. Evo’s chances of return are illusory.

Everything will depend on how Morales’s supporters can regroup (they have a parliamentary majority) and demonstrate their ability to become a consolidated and constructive opposition (when their “leader” is in exile). If MAS demonstrates its strength and independence, it will have the opportunity to confront the revanchist segments, which are the most active, but not the most representative part of society. Otherwise, instability and violence may reign in Bolivia for a long time. The fall of Morales opened a fork in the road between the path to democracy, and another to authoritarianism, instability and violence. And now it seems unlikely that the country has confidently set foot on the first path.

Is the case of Bolivia unique or is it one of the links in the general chain of protests that have unfolded recently in Latin America? Yes and no. The uniqueness of the Bolivian protests lies in the traditional anti-reelectionism of citizens. It is not in their tradition to support eternal presidents. But there are signs of a kinship between these events and what is happening in neighbouring countries. The general and main reason for the protests is the same everywhere – the “upper classes” do not want to change anything, they feel fine, and the “lower classes” (and this term can be applied to both the poor and the middle class) cannot suffer anymore. Everywhere there is fatigue from existing socio-economic or political models. For decades, the Latin American states have evolved differently: some followed the right-wing neoliberal recipes, while others conducted socialist experiments. In any event, the populations of the protesting countries are tired of not being asked enough or not at all. All protests are united by the exhaustion of models of socio-economic or political development; the difference is only in the models themselves. In Venezuela and Bolivia, this is fatigue from the Bolivarian model and the endless re-election of either one party or the same figures. This is the fatigue of the population from the neoliberal model in Chile, and dissatisfaction with the lack of a proper mechanism for consultations with the people in Ecuador and Colombia. But it is too early to say how these protests will end, and they are not the last ones. In any case, the elites got the message: do not expect everything to be resolved by itself. One has to think about what and how to change.

Valdai Club

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