Streets on fire. Infected social fragmentation, killings and human rights abuses. A leader in exile accused of fraud, counter-allegations claiming coup d’etat.
Bolivia—an underreported country has just gathered global attention with a bang. As in various parts of Latin America in recent months, roaring public demands have echoed among the population. Piling up into deadly post-election violence, the civil mobilisation has been remarkably antagonistic in Bolivia. Key dimensions have been overlooked by European news coverage. What, exactly, brought the multicultural country to this striking shake-up? Which further impact is to be seen?
On October 20th, six million Bolivians took to the polls with two major presidential candidates. Evo Morales, the Aymara indigenous left-wing head of state since 2006 and an increasingly controversial character on one side. Carlos Mesa, a former president fronting the strongest centre-right opposition in over a decade on the other. Early census figures suggested a tie leading to a second round, but the election night ended in abrupt confusion as the preliminary vote count was abolished. In its place the Electoral Court released startling figures proclaiming a decisive victory for Morales. The large acquaintance of his party Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS) in the voting authority raised immediate suspicions.
Accusations of fraud—backed by the EU and Organisation of American States—drove opposition supporters to protests. Supporters of Morales responded, and confrontations on the streets gained momentum over five weeks. Fragmentation and violence escalated and the military was quickly involved. Reports of at least 31 deceased—some by the bullets of security forces—and many injured have gone official. Most heavily affected by lethal violence were the cities of El Alto and Cochabamba, but the unrest permeated all corners of the country with blockades disabling infrastructure and public institutions. As pressure on the MAS government intensified, the government gradually lost its grip on the means of force. Deprived of the loyalty of the military, Morales resigned and sought asylum in Mexico on November 10th.
The present interim government largely derives from the ultra-right-wing nationalist orientation of civil opposition leader Luis Fernando Camacho. As transitional president Jeanine Áñez entered office, the wiphala flag—pride of a multitude of indigenous peoples—was symbolically lowered from the presidential palace. A few days earlier Camacho had symbolically entered the government mansion, Bible and national flag in hand. Since this power shift—dubbed a military coup by its opposition—the socio-political climate was further toxified. Military abuses under interim control have been seen as running contrary to fundamental human rights standards. Reports of torture, public humiliation and even crimes against humanity have emerged.
Exhaustion increased among the larger population of the agonising situation, regardless of political colour. Finally, on November 25th a minimal agreement was reached to terminate the brutish confrontations, withdrawing the military from the streets. The deal also stipulated the annulment of the October election and the formation of a new Electoral Court. Their mission is arranging a re-election, in which Morales cannot participate.
During the fourteen-year long Evo Morales era, millions of Bolivians were lifted out of poverty. According to his sympathisers, one of the most successful reforms of the MAS government was nationalising the country’s natural gas reserves. This drastically mounted public finances while counteracting economic dependency on the US. Supported by the new-found resource money, MAS invested heavily in improving welfare and social guarantees. Characteristically this transformation was brought about in poorer rural areas with high shares of indigenous population, helping to alleviate wealth inequalities.
Even more important for the social status of the indigenous/mestizo majority was an amendment that took place in 2009. Morales launched a constitutional change that ingrained Bolivian multiculturalism into the country’s official name. The Plurinational State of Bolivia institutionally depreciated the postcolonial ethno-cultural divide.
Controversies around Evo Morales soared high in 2017. Tendencies of a dismantling democracy became evident as another constitutional modification was adopted by MAS. This amendment granted Morales the possibility of running for an unlimited number of presidential terms, in diametric contradiction of the result of a 2016 referendum. His critics feared a movement towards exclusive power, pointing likewise to an impaired media climate and worsened conditions for government criticism.
From thin air, Bolivia has appeared in Swedish and European news reporting. The narration has been lacking in depth and nuance. Little context has been offered of the deeds—good or bad—of Evo Morales. Yet more importantly, present events have a place in a Latin American history of postcolonial rifts, and a half-millennium-long struggle of indigenous peoples for cultural recognition, political rights and socio-economic status. This background is meaningful, considering the ultraconservative manners of millionaire lawyer Camacho and his influence on the political transition. Camacho’s aggressive evangelical rhetoric have led many to label him “the Bolivian Bolsonaro”. Jeanine Áñez, for her part, has been attributed scores of racist tweets—both fake and real ones—taunting indigenous cultures and religious rituals. On the streets, wiphalas have been burned and Bibles have been flailed in figurative acts for “re-Christianisation”. Few recognised Western newspapers have thoroughly considered the implications of reincarnated ethno-cultural fragmentation. There has also been silence around possible CIA involvement, backing the right-wing opposition. The current Chilean uprisings contain a similar postcolonial ethnic dimension. A weighty faction of the civil movement uplifts the struggle of the Mapuche people for political and cultural recognition.
It is too early to give accurate predictions for the future, though there are certain potential impacts to be discussed. If this transitional period ends with MAS losing power, this could have radical economic consequences. Speculations spur around a potential reversal of resource nationalisation, and increased openness towards foreign corporations. For instance, Bolivia possesses 25 to 45 percent of the world’s lithium reserves. Mining of the metal has been widely regulated under Morales’ rule, in order to spread the economic profits and alleviate poverty. Before this, under the rule of Carlos Mesa, mass public protests were evoked against the economic governance that promoted US mining investors and did little to support the masses. Bolivia’s lithium supplies are globally desired among mobile phone and car producers, and they might well be unfastened for exploitation. This would dramatically alter the country’s economic orientation and potentially spark unease among the lower classes.
Nevertheless, had Evo Morales been allowed candidacy in the re-election he would opt for his fourth consecutive term and a total of nineteen years in office. Considering his poor compliance with democratic principles such as referendums, it is not surprising that many observers smell a rat. Developments like that of Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua and Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela have been feared for similar reasons. Both these leaders have been important sources of ideological inspiration for Morales.
The imminent power shift could potentially transcend this tendency of democratic backsliding. However, social cleavages in political influence are also determinants of democratic performance. As such, ravaging of the wiphala and racist hate speech among political elites, are likewise worrying signs.
What path will Bolivia take? Can MAS turn the tables after the departure of Morales from the presidential scene, and pick out a strong candidate? Or is large-scale political reorientation around the corner? Time will tell. As of now, all we know is that nothing will be the same after these stormy times. The fierce post-election uprisings brought sentiments to the surface and manifested the country’s multilayered challenges. They were also an indication of how political and ethnic dividing lines largely run parallel. The absence of violent confrontations and acts of hate is a necessary starting point for whichever side prevails in the re-election. Only on such a foundation, brighter prospects for peaceful relations and inclusive structures can blossom.