Bolivia: coups, pandemics, and elections

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[Written by Ella Mayne (she/her)]

[Photo by Milos Hajder on Unsplash]

Content Warning: Death

On the 18th of October 2020, Bolivia re-elected the MAS (Movement towards Socialism) party into power. Luis Arce was the previous president, Morales’s Finance Minister. Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, was forced out of office last November by the military and the opposition after thirteen years in power. This year has been an unstable time for the country. 

Jeanine Anez from the Democratic Social Movement (DSM) party is one of those who forced Morales out the government and was instated as the unelected interim president. Anez then created a provisional cabinet which consisted entirely of people of European descent, undoing years of work to decolonise Latin American politics and ignoring all the quotas. Anez’s seizing of power sparked protests in many Bolivian cities; in El Alto eight MAS supporters were killed, in Sacaba five of a group of largely indigenous peaceful protestors were killed by law enforcement. Mamani, who witnessed the protest, said “our government is racist, they are trampling on our democracy. This lady president has to go”. Anez‌ on the eve of the election, ‌urged‌ ‌the‌ ‌people‌ ‌of‌ ‌Bolivia‌ ‌to‌ ‌not‌ ‌allow‌ ‌“the‌ ‌savage‌ ‌return‌ ‌to‌ ‌power” (referring to Morales).‌ Anez represents a colonial past of western ideals and racist policies being enforced on Bolivia’s indigenous people, echoing of a not so distant past. Morale’s campaign, as the country’s first indigenous leader, relied in part on the support of fellow indigenous people. In his time in office he repatriated lands, recognised 36 official languages, reduced poverty from 35% to 15% and lowered Bolivia’s illiteracy rate. Issues of minimum wage, poverty and illiteracy disproportionately affect people of colour and Morales’ policies recognised that and made moves to improve this. An unelected racist as president undermines years of work.

The new unelected government with Anez at the helm, declared a state of national emergency during the pandemic giving the executive more power than ever, especially over the budget. The state of emergency was claimed to be in the interest of public health and for the good of the many. Yet, throughout the covid-19 pandemic the health services were chronically underfunded, understaffed, and under-resourced. There were not enough hospitals for the sick and the dead were found on the streets, as victims of the virus and the government’s lack of provisions. The government’s lack of compassion and failure of policy left many people without the medical care they desperately needed and created an environment where the virus spread quickly and dangerously.

In 2014 Morales altered the Bolivian constitution to allow him to run for a third term in office. In 2016 he called for a referendum on his fourth term, which was denied by the public only to be later overturned by the supreme court, which was formed from a MAS shortlist, allowing the president to run again. In October 2019, Morales and the MAS party won the election for the fourth time. However, following violent protests, ransacking of his house and pressure from military forces, Morales fled to Mexico for safety. Anez and the right wing refer to the former president’s time in office as “the Morales dictatorship”. The calls for Morales to leave office followed after the Organisation of American States, OAS, (a collective of states across the Americas which was founded during the cold war to stop the rise of communism) declared the election as fraudulent. They noticed election irregularities in the voting, and this was used by right-wing opponents of the Morales to stage a coup. The OAS’s headquarters are in Washington and the USA continues to be a dominant force within the organisation. 

Following Morales’ resignation and fleeing, the White House commented, “Morales’s departure preserves democracy”. The seizing of power by a right-wing faction and their installation of Anez as president is extremely threatening to democracy in Bolivia. Anez is an evangelical Christian and has very conservative ideals, she has been consistently anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ and racist. Her presidency threatened those who are most vulnerable and the human rights of thousands. Yet, this was not recognised by the US, as they remain selfishly invested in Bolivia being run by a non- progressive government. Bolivia has a monopoly on the world’s lithium stores, around 70% of the world’s supplies; this natural resource remains essential in the manufacture of lithium batteries amongst other things. Morales attempted to nationalise the country’s natural resources, including their lithium, to ensure the resources of the land would bring benefits to the many. In contrast, Anez in her short time in office, welcomed trade talks with the White House and effectively flipped many of Bolivia’s foreign policies. Pompeo, the American Secretary for State, said “The United States applauds Bolivian Senator Jeanine Anez for stepping up as Interim President of State to lead her nation through this democratic transition”. The USA officially recognised Anez’s undemocratic snatching of power as legitimate.

The US is not the only developed power using Bolivia for their own gain. Putin has been a supporter of Morales and was encouraged when the Bolivian courts allowed Morales to run for election again even after reaching the term limit. In 2024, Putin will seek further re-election for his fourth term in office and was encouraged by the support for Bolivia’s extending of presidential terms. Russian nuclear agency is building a nuclear centre in Bolivia and entered trade talks with Morales over gas and lithium. Superpowers like China, Russia and America continue to use Bolivia, Bolivians, and their resources for their own gain. Putin’s interest in the political regime was only aimed at gathering empirical evidence for his own re-election and securing valuable trade deals. The USA continues to exploit the country and its people for their invaluable lithium and natural resources. Until imperialist powers stop using Bolivia for their own self-interest, the country can never be truly democratic. The continued influence of colonial powers reinforces outdated ideas and threatens the rights of their citizens.

MAS has won the popular vote in the recent elections, and the party led by Morales became an important socialist presence in South America, continuing the democratisation of what was once an unstable region. However, many Bolivian women’s rights protestors have pointed to the Morales’ administrations abortion policies. In 2017, a broad decriminalisation of abortion was passed in Latin America, allowing eight grounds for abortion like foetal disability or being a minor. The bill was considered progressive for a region that is linked with a strong Christian faith and was welcomed as a start of more comprehensive abortion legislation by campaigners. However, just two months after it was passed, it was abolished by the Bolivian Assembly with Morales’ backing. Furthermore, Morales changed the constitution while in office, to extend his term and continue his presidency, increasing the term limit from two to four terms in office. Although Morales represents a progressive and anti-colonial Bolivia, his manipulation of his power in office to extend his leadership seems like a democratic backslide. 

The postponed elections were held on the 18th October 2020, with Anez withdrawing from the presidential race in fear of dividing the anti- MAS vote and Morales’ former minister Luis Arce running for the MAS party. Arce won the vote by a considerable margin, with a high turnout from indigenous people amongst others. Bolivia’s new progressive president hasn’t appointed Morales an official role, but he is expected to return to Bolivia. It was a democratic win for the people of Bolivia; they firmly voted for a progressive government. Nonetheless, democratic processes in South America have no chance of long-term stability or survival with the continued self-interested presence of countries like the United States and Russia, who continue to exploit the country and its people for their own gain.


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