What if a clique of far-right extremists used the chaos of a disputed election to seize power and try to do away with a democracy? Would the enlightened nations of the world speak out? Would the United States, European Union and United Kingdom impose sanctions and withdraw diplomatic recognition of the coup government?
The answer, at least in the case of the South American nation of Bolivia, is a resounding and dismaying “no” – and it provides a harsh lesson to those who see in the liberal west a bastion of democratic values.
What transpired in the Andean nation of nearly 12 million people over the last year has not received enough attention, but the country’s experience and its ultimate emergence from a dark period of right-wing military rule merits scrutiny.
The backdrop was a series of controversial constitutional manoeuvres by President Evo Morales to maintain his office despite term limits. Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader and a favourite of the left, had been president since 2006.
Morales’s rule, unlike that of like-minded populist leftists in Venezuela, hasn’t been an economic disaster; in fact, under his leadership La Paz has won praise for spreading the country’s wealth without destroying the private sector or spurring inflation, turning the largely agricultural nation into Latin America’s fastest growing economy. His Movimiento al Socialsmo (MAS) party is by far the most popular political force in the country.
But his attempts to extend his presidential turn also suggested authoritarian tendencies that hurt his popularity. From his apex, when he received 64 per cent of the vote in the 2009 elections and 61 per cent in the 2014 vote, he narrowly lost a 2016 referendum to run in 2019 by 51 per cent to 49 per cent. Still, he received the blessing of the Bolivian supreme court to run for a fourth term in 2019.
Election day was tense, with many in the opposition hoping to deny Morales the 40 per cent of the vote, plus 10 per cent more than the second-place candidate, he would need to avoid a run-off.
A 20-hour interruption in vote results – which wound up showing a big jump in Morales’s lead – triggered concerns of fraud. Violence and rioting erupted once results showed him garnering 47 per cent of the vote, enough to secure him an outright first-round victory.
Dozens of people were killed in rioting and protests and counter-protests. The Organisation of American States conducted an audit and reported initial irregularities. But those were subsequently challenged as politically motivated and flawed by other organisations. Analysts argued that Morales’s performance improved as ballots cast in far-flung provinces, which are bastions of his support, were counted.
Two weeks after the vote, under pressure from military and police leaders, as well as the country’s oligarchs, Morales resigned and sought refuge abroad.
Jeanine Áñez, a far-right Christian evangelical figure from a tiny party with ties to the old guard and the military establishment, declared herself president of the country. The toppling of Morales quickly earned the enthusiastic support of the US administration of Donald Trump, which has long viewed Morales as an ideological enemy.
“Morales’s departure preserves democracy and paves the way for the Bolivian people to have their voices heard,” the White House said. “The United States applauds the Bolivian people for demanding freedom and the Bolivian military for abiding by its oath to protect, not just a single person, but Bolivia’s constitution. We are now one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous, and free western hemisphere.”
Áñez, a member of the Senate, was quickly embraced by Washington. “The United States applauds Bolivian senator Jeanine Áñez for stepping up as interim president of state,” said Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state. The European Union implicitly endorsed the US-backed Áñez government by aligning itself with the OAS audit, but called for the interim leadership “to prepare for new elections, and to avoid a power vacuum”.
There were no calls for sanctions, or rescinding of diplomats. In the end, the world’s democracies seemed to be pretty relaxed about the coup.
Scholar Bret Gustafson, a professor of anthropology specialising in Bolivia at Washington University in St Louis, said the west quickly embraced the interim leaders as an antidote to Morales’s brand of fiery, leftist populism. “Because of the Venezuela situation and general opposition to left-leaning governments by the west, there was a predisposition to embrace the fraud narrative as a way to pursue regime change,” he said in a phone interview.
Morales’s departure did not bring about democracy, but initiated a long year of repression at the hands of the same tyrannical demons that Latin America has for decades been attempting to exorcise.
Bolivia’s new leaders torched Morales’s home, weaponised the judiciary to terrorise Morales supporters, arrested journalists, and shut down news outlets that questioned what some describe as the coup government. Citing the Covid-19 pandemic, the Áñez government repeatedly delayed elections, entrenching its far-right policies, while giving tax and economic benefits to the super-rich.
Añez declared that “the Bible has returned to the palace” of the presidency and described Morales supporters as “savages”, reflecting the long-standing bigotry of the country’s elite against the indigenous peoples of the hinterlands.
“The government used the pandemic to not only postpone the elections but to suppress its critics,” said Gustafson, author of Bolivia in the Age of Gas. “It’s clear they emptied out the treasury. Debt went up $1.5bn. There was corruption. It was basically a looting operation. It was like they hit the piñata and scrambled to get everything that fell to the ground.”
International players also got in on the action. Bolivia is a major source of lithium, the key mineral in the batteries that keep mobile phones and laptop computers powered, and Elon Musk, CEO of electrical car giant Tesla, has a major stake in keeping prices down.
“We will coup whoever we want!” Musk wrote in an angry tweet this summer in response to accusations he was profiting off the political instability in Bolivia. “Deal with it.”
But during the dark year, it also became clear that Morales’s MAS party was more of a widespread social movement supported by deep political networks than a cult of personality around Morales. Despite the repression and pandemic, they held protests, maintained cohesion and kept the spirit of democracy alive. “They were able to strengthen networks of organisations that have very clear political objectives,” said Gustafson.
Under international pressure, Bolivia finally agreed to hold elections on 19 October. Morales’s MAS party ran with his former finance minister and longtime ally, Luis Arce, as the standard bearer.
Many thought MAS would be lucky to win enough votes to get into the second round. Instead, Arce trounced the opposition, winning 55 per cent of the vote in the first and only round, suggesting that there may in fact have been no fraud in the 2019 vote. The second-place candidate, the historian Carlos Mesa, received only 29 per cent of the vote.
“I was blown away; I really thought it would go to a second round,” said Gustafson. “The opposition was shocked because they really thought they had a chance.”
The outcome in Bolivia is a relief to democracy advocates. But it’s also an ugly lesson: if a band of right-wing thieves with powerful local and international backers seizes power of your country, the world’s democratic powers cannot be counted upon. You’re on your own.
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