In Bolivia, sharp divides over the president’s fate – and the country’s

Why We Wrote This

Coup, or no coup? That’s the question that’s dominated debate about Evo Morales’ fall from power. But a bigger question lies ahead: Where does Bolivia’s democracy go from here?

Natacha Pisarenko/AP
Supporters of former President Evo Morales block a highway during a protest in El Alto, Bolivia, Nov. 14, 2019. Morales supporters have flooded into the streets of El Alto, a Morales stronghold, waving the multicolored indigenous flag and chanting, “Now, civil war!”

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After almost 14 years in power, Bolivia’s now-former President Evo Morales had some impressive accomplishments to his name: economic growth; greater equality; and, for Bolivia’s indigenous population, a newfound sense of recognition.

But for Mr. Morales’ critics, the fact that he’d managed 14 years in power – and ran again, in late October elections – pointed to a fundamental problem: the once widely popular leader’s willingness to bend the rules of Bolivia’s democracy to his liking, skirting former rules against term limits. (A tendency other regional leaders have also fallen prey to during Latin America’s solidifying democratization in recent decades.)

Since Mr. Morales claimed victory in that contested vote, Bolivia has experienced weeks of unrest. That confusion has only continued since last weekend, when the armed forces switched their allegiance, prompting the president to resign and flee to Mexico, and leaving a power vacuum where factions jostle for control. What worries many is how Bolivia can avoid a period of polarized political conflict, and losing its considerable gains of the last decade.

“We’re seeing no sign of a willingness to dialogue and to bring Bolivia back to the path of democracy,” says Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andrean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. 

Evo Morales, the recently ousted president of Bolivia, can claim considerable accomplishments for his almost 14 years in power.

Over those years the Bolivian economy grew, inequality fell, a new middle class emerged, and the Andean country’s indigenous population enjoyed new levels of education and prosperity as the government extended basic social services.

Many in the indigenous population, which makes up about two-thirds of the country, credit Mr. Morales – Bolivia’s first indigenous president – with delivering them a new level of respect.

But Mr. Morales also seems to have succumbed to the same temptation that other regional leaders have fallen prey to in recent decades, even as democracy has solidified in Latin America. He refused to abide by the term limits placed in the constitution during his first term – a rejection of the rules that lies at the heart of the turmoil engulfing the country since he claimed victory for an unprecedented fourth term in an election late last month.

Mr. Morales, who has accepted asylum in Mexico, resigned Sunday following weeks of social unrest and what he asserted was a coup against his presidency.

Seeking another term was constitutionally prohibited until 2017, when the country’s highest court (packed with Mr. Morales’ supporters) ruled that term limits violated candidates’ human rights; the year before, 51% of Bolivian voters rejected Mr. Morales’ proposal to let him run again.

After an inquiry into last month's election, the Organization of American States and experts from the international community determined there had been irregularities, and said it could not certify the results. The president agreed to a new vote – but with unrest building in the streets, the military and police that originally stood by Mr. Morales switched sides, and the Morales presidency was over.

In the following days, Mr. Morales’ loyalists and detractors have settled in to fight about his removal’s legitimacy. But as Bolivia tries to look ahead, past this week’s confusion and instability, the question for many observers is whether the country can rebuild a firmer footing in democracy – without sacrificing the gains under his administration. 

“The mistake Morales made – and that still too many leaders make – is that he overstayed his welcome,” says Richard Feinberg, an expert on democratization in the Americas at the University of California at San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. “He decided he liked being in power, and so he disregarded the democratic norms, some of which he implemented, that were designed to limit one leader’s hold on power and to prevent this kind of crisis.”

Vying for influence

Bolivia’s problem now is that Mr. Morales’ departure has left a power vacuum with various factions – including some extremes until now kept in check – jostling for control.

A senator and leader of the conservative opposition, Jeanine Áñez Chávez, announced on Tuesday that she would become interim president, with the primary goal of organizing new elections in three months. But her legitimacy was instantly questioned, the military remained on the streets in some cities, and dialogue among opposing political leaders and parties appeared to be nonexistent.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Bolivian Interim President Jeanine Anez reads a statement at the Presidential Palace, in La Paz, Bolivia Nov. 13, 2019, three days after former President Evo Morales resigned.

“It’s a mess,” says Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. “Right now none of what is going on is democratic,” she says, referring “first and foremost” to Senator Áñez’s declaration.

“Some very frightening extremist forces are taking advantage of the situation to sow a lot of fear,” she adds. “Once again people are too frightened to go out in indigenous dress.”

Most worrisome for Ms. Ledebur is that “we’re seeing no sign of a willingness to dialogue and to bring Bolivia back to the path of democracy.”

For Professor Feinberg, Mr. Morales became an example of what he terms “minority authoritarianism,” in which a once widely popular leader clings to power through increasingly undemocratic means despite eroding political support.

Another example of this in Latin America is Venezuela, where President Nicolás Maduro has held on to power despite shrinking popular support amid the country’s economic and social collapse.

Indeed, if the protest placards declaring “Bolivia no es Venezuela” at post-election demonstrations in various Bolivian cities are any indication, a widespread fear of seeing their country follow Venezuela in its downward spiral was one motivating factor for Bolivians who marched in the streets for weeks.

“In some quarters there was that fear that Morales, if he hung on after a fraudulent election, could take Bolivia down the radical road that Venezuela has taken,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “The big difference is that Morales steered Bolivia through years of impressive growth and rising living conditions and social equity, and retained significant popularity by the time he would try to steal an election.”

Mistrust toward military

Mr. Morales maintains he was ousted in a coup, after Bolivia’s armed forces and police switched sides over the weekend and declared their allegiance to the people protesting Mr. Morales’ reelection and to the country’s institutions – including, they said, to the constitution.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Former Bolivian President Evo Morales, center, walks with Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, center right, in Mexico City Nov. 13, 2019. Mexico has granted asylum to Mr. Morales, who resigned under mounting pressure after his re-election victory triggered weeks of fraud allegations and deadly protests.

And the deposed leader quickly found support coming from well beyond Bolivia. A number of leaders from Latin America’s political left – including Venezuela’s Mr. Maduro – echoed the position that Mr. Morales was the victim of a coup, as did others as far afield as British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and U.S. senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

“I am very concerned about what appears to be a coup in Bolivia, where the military, after weeks of political unrest, intervened to remove President Evo Morales,” Senator Sanders tweeted Monday.

But Mr. Sanders also said the U.S. “must call for an end to violence and support Bolivia’s democratic institutions” – which is what Bolivia’s military and police say they are doing.

Yet Latin America’s long history of military coups almost unavoidably encourages doubts.

“The military always claims to be intervening in the name of democracy, that’s part of the legacy” of the region, says Kenneth Roberts, professor of comparative and Latin American politics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

But he says the Bolivian case is “murky” and not the cut-and-dried “coup” of the past. “This is not Chile 1973 with the military bombing the presidential palace,” he says. “But yes, it is a coup in the sense that one sector of the state has taken it upon itself to remove the president outside of the constitutional norms of impeachment.”

Not all agree. “The guy [Morales] tried to rig an election, and the country found that unacceptable,” says UC San Diego’s Mr. Feinberg. “That’s not a coup, that’s keeping democracy on track.”

But the reality is that the country remains deeply divided, over both Mr. Morales’ fate and the way forward. And what worries many now is that Bolivia will get stuck in a period of political conflict and will risk losing the considerable gains the country has achieved over the past decade.

“My biggest fear is that Bolivia slips into a scenario of mobilization and counter-mobilization that could be very difficult to get out of,” says Cornell’s Professor Roberts. “There are some very conservative groups that want to turn the clock back” on the social advances made under Mr. Morales, “and you can imagine the intense counter-mobilization that would form to stop that.” 

Much will depend on the inclinations of Bolivia’s new middle class, says Ms. Ledebur in Cochabamba. “Right now the new middle class is split. There was genuine concern in the middle class about the fourth term” Mr. Morales tried to go for, she says, “but it’s a middle class with indigenous roots that is feeling a lot of confusion over the best way forward.” 

The major threat Mr. Shifter sees for Bolivia is that its society is now “extremely polarized,” with little give and take or recognition of the opposing side’s frustrations and demands.

“The danger now,” he says, “is that there is so much polarization that it puts at risk the advances that Bolivia has accomplished and that are very real.”

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