Bolivia in crisis, new elections called

November 11, 2019
Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Bolivia is embroiled in one of the worst political crises of the past decade. Following the presidential elections on October 20, the country has been paralysed by road blockades and marches Protests in cities across the country by opposition and pro-government forces have led to three deaths amid outbreaks of street violence.

On November 8, police forces in cities across the country left their posts in mutiny against the government. The sound of exploding cuetillos, or firecrackers, rings out daily in La Paz. Opposition groups cry fraud; President Evo Morales has described the strikes and blockades as an attempted coup d’etat.

Two weeks ago, Morales triumphed over his rival Carlos Mesa, of the Citizen Community (Comunidad Ciudadana) party by a narrow 10-point margin in the presidential election. Morales obtained 47.08% of the vote and Mesa 36.51%.

Under Bolivian electoral law, to win the presidency outright, a candidate must achieve at least 50% of the vote, or a 10-point lead over the closest rival.

Opposition groups accuse the president of fraud but no independently-verified evidence has yet been produced to support this.

These accusations of fraud preceded the election but intensified when the “rapid count” system known as the Transmission of Preliminary Electoral Results (TREP) ceased counting at 83% of the total vote.

The TREP is used by the electoral authority, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), to publicise an approximate vote count ahead of the official result. However, that the TREP stopped counting before 100% is not a sign of fraudulent activity: in 2016, for example, it stopped counting when it reached 85%.

After a pause in counting, Morales appeared to take the lead over Mesa where previously he was behind. This was not wholly surprising, however, because around 10% of the uncounted votes were from rural areas that tend to come out strongly for the Movement Towards Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, MAS).

There is currently no evidence to suggest that the election was not conducted under fair and free terms.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) released a report on November 8, which found no evidence that irregularities or fraud affected the official result that gave Morales a first-round victory.

International observers were present during the election and, at the government’s invitation, the vote is being audited by the Organization of American States (OAS). It should also be noted that polls consistently predicted a victory for Morales over Mesa in the run-up to the election.

Yet, worryingly, in the aftermath of the election there has been the resurgence of darker expressions of racial hatred and social polarisation, as political and institutional conflicts appear to coalesce with deep-rooted ethno-racial tensions.

Graffiti was daubed outside the Universidad Mayor de San Andres (UMSA), the public university in La Paz, demanding “Indians out of UMSA”.

According to social media posts, chalked on roads was “Long live Bolivia free from Indians”. On November 6, a woman wearing an aguayo (a cloth used to carry children and objects) was confronted by anti-government protestors who demanded to know what it contained.

Incidents such as these have deep historical significance in Bolivia, where indigenous peoples, until the late 20th century, experienced harassment and exclusion for wearing indigenous dress. In 2005, Evo Morales, an indigenous former coca grower, came to power with the MAS, backed by social movements with an indigenous rights agenda.

There has been an outpouring of support for the president from many indigenous organisations, as well as miners and campesinos (land workers), ayllus (indigenous communities) who have been a vocal presence in defence of Morales across the country. 

On November 6, the “Bartolinas”, a group of peasant women, marched into the city of Cochabamba to support the election outcome. The organisation takes its name from Bartolina Sisa, the eighteenth-century Aymara rebel and wife of Tupac Katari, who was executed for leading a rebellion against Spanish colonial forces in 1781.

Some have been quick to identify the racialised and gendered elements within opposition mobilisation. The MAS mayor of the town of Vinto, Patricia Arce Guzman, was viciously attacked by opposition protestors who forcibly cut off her hair, dragged her through the street and covered her in red paint and dirt before she was rescued by police. She has since stated, “if they want to kill me, let me be killed. For this process of change, I will give my life.”

Executive secretary of the mining union, the Union Federation of Mine Workers (Federación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia, FSUTMB), and supporter of the MAS, Orlando Gutiérrez said on November 4: “These k’ankas [whites] do not accept that a comrade, a peasant leader [Evo Morales] assumes power of the country and has taught them to govern.”

At the same time, the opposition seems to have become more intransigent and less amenable to democratic protocol. The demands of protesters swiftly changed from a second round of elections to entirely new elections. Neither Mesa nor the main civic opposition groups accept the audit of the election by the OAS.

The NGO, Andean Information Network has highlighted a video in which the main Santa Cruz anti-government youth group adopt a Nazi salute, after their leader was questioned about the burning down of a MAS party headquarters.

Meanwhile, Luis Fernando Camacho, president of the Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee, a group dominated by agribusiness elites in the city of Santa Cruz, has been attempting to fly from Santa Cruz to La Paz to demand Morales’ resignation.

On November 5, MAS supporters prevented him leaving the airport and he was taken home to Santa Cruz on a specially chartered plane. Camacho, a wealthy businessman, has called for “lists of traitors” to be drawn up “in the style of Pablo Escobar”, as part of the drive to oust Morales.

Without doubt, this is a deep crisis for Evo Morales and the MAS. Resentment at Morales’ failure to respect the 2016 referendum, in which voters rejected his attempt to run for a fourth term, and the subsequent abolition of presidential term limits runs strong. As his diminished majority reflects, Morales’ constitutional manipulation has alienated many supporters.

Morales is facing a crisis of legitimacy, which current events suggest will be near impossible to resolve. Large swathes of the population are against him, and this time it is not only in the anti-MAS heartland of Santa Cruz.

However, there is little in terms of ideology which unites the disparate anti-government movement, except the desire to remove Morales as president.

Camacho has repudiated an alliance with opposition candidate Mesa, for instance. And it would be incorrect to cast all anti-government protesters as urban, middle-class and white-mestizo (mixed race), although these demographics feature strongly in the opposition movements. Nor do they all support Mesa and the right-wing Citizen Community.

Mesa was vice-president during the notorious Black October in 2003, when the army killed 68 people in El Alto and La Paz during the neoliberal regime of then-president Gonazalo Sanchez de Lozada. They were protesting plans to export natural gas to Chile at terms unfavourable to the Bolivian people.

The MAS has much to fight for and much is at stake. Under Morales, Bolivia was transformed into a plurinational state, giving autonomy to many indigenous communities. There have been immense gains for the historically-oppressed indigenous populations as well as for women and the poor.

Over a 14-year tenure, income inequality is down by two-thirds, while extreme poverty fell from 38% to 17%. Bolivia has enjoyed steady economic growth while nationalising key industries and rejecting neoliberal paradigms of economic organisation.

It is possible that the results of the vote audit by the OAS could lead to an escalation in protests. For now, Bolivia remains at an impasse, paralysed by civil unrest and its future deeply uncertain.

[Reprinted from]

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