Bolivia’s dangerous juncture: Pandemic, protests and postponed elections

August 14, 2020
Anti coup protest in Bolivia.

Bolivia is once again living through critical moments. The de facto government responded to roadblocks initiated by the social movements on August 3 with repression by military and armed civilian groups. Minister of government Arturo Murillo publicly stated: “Shooting [protesters] would be the politically correct thing to do.”

The trigger for the protests was the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s (TSE) decision to postpone presidential elections for a third time, shifting the date from September 6 to October 18, with a potential second round set for November 29.

In response, the Bolivian Workers Center (COB) and other social sectors, such as indigenous and campesino groups, held a protest on July 28. That day, COB general secretary Juan Carlos Huarachi gave the TSE 72 hours to reverse its decision and keep the September 6 date.

With no agreement reached, protests and blockades began across the country on August 3.

While, initially, the demand was to keep the September 6 date, as time passed it shifted to calling on Jeanine Añez to resign. Añez has continued in the role as president since the coup against Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) president Evo Morales last November — despite saying she would only occupy the post for 90 days. Añez is also a presidential candidate.

MAS senator Adriana Salvatierra said: “We are dealing with an extremely weak government that the popular sectors are calling on to resign, because it has impoverished Bolivian families, failed to guarantee the minimum conditions required to confront the health crisis and taken away fundamental rights such as access to education.”

Weakness, delay and repression

With each passing day, the de facto government has become weaker. This is why it is seeking to delay the elections. Together with declining support for Añez and Luis Fernando Camacho, who was part of leading the coup; polls indicate MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce is leading the race.

Its weakness — a product of the government’s illegitimate emergence, and made worse by the massacres of indigenous protesters in Senkata and Sacaba shortly after the coup — has been accentuated as time has passed. The pandemic, accusations of corruption and its failed response have been key aggravators of the situation.

Journalist Freddy Morales said: “For almost two months now there have been no basic medicines such as azithromycin, aspirin and others, and a lack of medicinal oxygen. There has been very little COVID-19 testing for five months and hospitals have been in a state of collapse for three months.”

The pandemic was the reason given for postponing the elections from May 3 to August 2, then to September 6, and now to October 18. But, given the political crisis, any new delay required dialogue with all sectors to reach consensus.

Since this did not occur — and in light of the government’s refusal to negotiate with organisations once protests were announced, and accumulating discontent and growing opposition to Añez — the blockades began.

The de facto government’s response was as expected: threats, criminalisation of blockades, a national dialogue without key actors and the reappearance of the armed civilian groups that were mobilised during the coup.

Armed civilian wing

Edmundo Juan Nogales Arancibia, a lawyer and analyst, said: “These are groups that use violence, in many cases armed violence, with the complicity of state authorities, especially the police.

“They appear in public wearing bulletproof vests and carrying small caliber weapons, and act with impunity, attacking popular sectors protesting against the de facto government.”

These groups played a central role in the coup, attacking pro-Morales protests, beating women in the street for being indigenous and assaulting the homes of MAS leaders and kidnapping their relatives.

“They are an operational arm that allowed the de facto government to take power and help it conserve power by attacking mobilised social sectors demanding national elections. They operate in the country under the label of ‘Resistencia’, adding adjectives such as youth and the name of the region they are based in,” Nogales said.

The oldest of these formations is the Crucenista Youth Union (UJC), which also participated in a 2008 coup attempt against Morales. Journalist Nicolás Lantos described it as “a paramilitary organisation of the racist, separatist and anti-communist Bolivian oligarchy”.

Among the key leaders of the 2008 coup attempt was business owner Branko Marinkovic, who left the country after the plot failed and his involvement in an operation to assassinate Morales was exposed.

Marinkovic, who mentored Camacho when the latter was a member of the UJC, also played a role in the 2019 coup against Morales from outside the country before returning to Bolivia in January. He was appointed planning minister on August 5.

The coup plotters

The forces behind the coup were heterogeneous, but made up what Salvatierra calls the “November bloc” that came together to overthrow Morales.

Following the coup, these forces “returned to their political-electoral bunkers. However, Añez’s candidature, which came as a surprise as it transgressed the principles of the ‘transitional government’, and Camacho’s electoral adventure, further fragmented the anti-MAS opposition”.

The anti-MAS front has divided behind different candidates: Añez, Camacho, and former presidents Jorge Quiroga and Carlos Mesa. Of these, Mesa, who was the main anti-Morales candidate in the 2019 elections, maintains the highest level of support, with 26.8% according to a CELAG July poll. Arce has 41.9% support.

Marinkovic’s entry into the de facto government could be a sign that Añez and Camacho are seeking unity, even if the latter continues to maintain his critical discourse towards her and Murillo.

Añez, Camacho, Mesa and the rest of the coup forces have two main points of agreement: impede MAS’ return to government and support for the economic model imposed since the coup.

Nogales said: “What unites all these fractions is their implicit agreement to impose a neoliberal economic agenda: reduce the role of the state in the economy, privatise state companies, reduce public spending and make employment more insecure.”

Growing crisis

A public assembly in El Alto on August 11 ratified the demand for Añez to resign. However, the demand that is now being raised by various actors and protests could have complex political consequences.

Arce said: “If we are going to seek the overthrow of this government, as the comrades are saying ‘Añez out’, what government will come in its place? This is something I think we have to consider.

“Overthrowing Añez implies a new transitional government that would have to call new elections, and which therefore would imply an even longer period of uncertainty until we get a democratic and legitimately elected government.”

Morales has called on “leaders and the mobilised people” to consider the idea of a draft proposal, elaborated by social organisations and the TSE, and with the United Nations as observer, “to ensure October 18 is, by law, the definitive, unpostponable and immovable date for the election”.

The hope, at this critical juncture, on the part of the MAS is to reach an agreement and avoid any further escalation that could lead to more armed civilian confrontations or new massacres.

There is another scenario in play, one Arce and Morales have warned of: a plot for a “military self-coup to perpetuate itself in power and override the constitution”. 

On August 10, CNN en Espanol presenter Fernando De Rincón not only praised the armed right-wing groups, but exhorted Murillo to send the military onto the streets to impose order, describing the blockades as “war crimes”. That was when Murillo said “shooting would be the politically correct thing to do” and that “time is running out” to “avoid a civil war”.

The attorney general announced on August 10 they had accepted the request to investigate Morales, Arce, Choquehuanca and Huarachi on charges of terrorism. The fight for free and fair elections not only faces the issue of postponement, but persecution and attempts at proscriptions.

[Translated and abridged by Federico Fuentes.]

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