Why the World Got It Wrong with Bolivia
For many people, Bolivia is not a well-known country. It lies, landlocked, in the centre of South America in between Peru, Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina and Chile, with a population of 11 million. With diverse landscapes, from deserts and salt flats, to jungles and mountain ranges, it is a country of extremes. La Paz, Bolivia’s political capital, is also a city with extremities. Their subway is not underground, but in the sky, with cable cars taking you up and down — enough to make you hold on tightly to the hand rails. But perhaps what is most striking are the people, multiethnic and multilingual, with an ethnic distribution of around 30% Quechua, 25% Aymara, and the rest white, Hispanic or mixed. Bolivia thus is a country of diversities, in land and in people.
On a Sunday afternoon in Cochabamba, a city in the centre of Bolivia, I sat with my boyfriend and his mom in front of the television, watching the government unravel after three weeks of protests that rocked the country. We all sat in awe, and the country was holding its breath. Then the news came, Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, was resigning. Almost instantaneously, fireworks, crackers and rockets set off all around us as people celebrated the news.
“We did it!”, everyone shouted. However, the same enthusiasm was lost on the international community.
All over social media, many claimed that Bolivia’s democracy was under threat due to a coup d’etat by the national military. From U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet: “What’s happening right now in Bolivia isn’t democracy, it’s a coup. The people of Bolivia deserve free, fair, and peaceful elections — not violent seizures of power,” to damning statements that “Bolivia coup led by Christian fascist paramilitary leader and millionaire — with foreign support.”
What became lost in translation? And why was the collapse of the Morales government met with such a huge misunderstanding?
In 2005, Evo Morales, born to an Aymara family, became Bolivia’s 80th president. He promised a government in favor of the indigenous people, and a new, secular constitution to represent the diverse groups all around the country. Morales’ first actions and left-wing policies as president were encouraging. However, that facade over his 14 years of presidency, crumbled.
As a socialist, Morales cut his own salary and those of his cabinet, yet, over the years, he and his administration had been criticized for failing to lead a clean government. As a former coca farmer, the ex-president has been criticized for his dealings with the coca trade in the El Chapare region, with the U.N. claiming that areas where Morales has empowered coca farmers continue to supply major drug trafficking schemes.
“Trafficking of cocaine in Bolivia is fueled by a lax justice system that fails to hold traffickers to account.” — World Politics Review
Many Bolivians question how it came to be, that a president earning $2000 a month, could afford luxuries such as a recently built $34 million residence in La Paz and a $38 million plane.
“Public disquiet turned to outrage when it was reported Morales would enjoy a 1,068 sq metre suite fitted out with a jacuzzi, sauna, gym and massage room.” — The Guardian
Though many cannot prove corruption within the Morales government, it takes just a short walk in the centre of La Paz, or a glance at the skies, for anyone to scratch their head and wonder how such luxuries came to be.
It was not long ago that the world cried out at pictures of the Amazon rainforest burning, with the international community turning their attention to Brazil and their president, Jair Bolsonaro, criticized for his actions over the protection of the rainforest. However, overlooked was the role of Bolivia’s own government.
Under the Morales administration, the Bolivian people have long demanded better policies and protection against the destruction of the Amazon, which makes up almost half of the country. Particularly controversial, was a new policy introduced, allowing farmers to clear more land than before by controlled burning— quadrupling the allowance from five to 20 hectares.
“So there’s a policy by the Morales government — although it shows itself internationally as being incredibly environmental and supportive of environmental rights but their policy has been going the complete opposite direction.” — Jhanisse Daza, an environmental activist in Bolivia
Aside from policy criticisms, many have also said that the government’s slow reaction time in fighting fires, and lack of investments into domestic resources such as firefighters, demonstrated negligence.
“We need to hold Evo Morales to account for this situation. When is he going to account for all of this? He needs to be held accountable for all the times that the rights of the indigenous people have been violated, as well as those of mother nature.” — Alex Villca, an indigenous leader in the Amazon region
According to the constitution, which only allows presidents to rule for two consecutive terms, Evo Morales was technically meant to step down in 2015 after 10 years in power. However, instead of resigning, Morales changed the constitution to run for a third-term.
In 2016, the government convened a national referendum to let the public decide if the constitution could be changed again in order to allow the ex-president to run for a fourth-term. Morales lost in the referendum, but far from accepting defeat, he turned to the Bolivian Constitutional Court, arguing that his human rights would be violated if he were to be barred from running for the fourth time. The Court, which many believe was controlled by Morales, agreed and allowed him to run for the fourth time on the 20th October, 2019.
“Evo Morales ignored the constitution that he himself asked us to vote for.” — Jorge Quiroga, former president of Bolivia
After Morales secured his chance in running for a fourth-term, on the 20th October, 2019, the race began. Once votes were cast in local polling stations, the people of Bolivia returned to their homes and switched on their TVs at 8pm to watch the results.
As the evening progressed, it was clear to see that Morales’ opposition, Carlos Mesa, was closing in, meaning the likelihood of both candidates going into a second-round run-off was high — this meant that the president would have a much lower chance of securing his presidency.
At around 10pm, the vote count stopped at 83% of the population, with Morales leading at 45.3% and Mesa behind at 38.2%. The vote tally had been suspended. The then president assured the people that he was confident of winning the first-round once the rural areas were tallied, and there would be no need for a second-round. The next day, tallying resumed, and over the course of the few days that followed, the total count (100% of the population) was continued. On the 24th October, 2019, Morales declared an official victory following a count which gave him 46.83%, and his opponent, Mesa, 36.7%, just over a 10% difference to prevent a second-round run-off.
For many, the 24 hour lapse in releasing results fueled strong suspicion of electoral fraud.
What happened next?
Once Evo Morales declared his victory to run as president for the fourth consecutive time, peaceful protests erupted across Bolivia. The people refused to acknowledge the results. What transpired afterwards were three weeks of road blocks, a tactic used by protestors to shut down cities, and ultimately the country. Across La Paz, Sucre, Cochabamba, Potosi, Oruro and Santa Cruz, the major cities of Bolivia, people continued to block roads, paralyzing all activity. Town halls were held where masses of people gathered to protest and decide further action to stop Morales resuming power for the next 5 years.
On many occasions, violence from government supporters, which many allege were paid by the Morales administration, rocked cities, ultimately leading to the death of 4 protestors. For days, hope was fading amongst the pro-democracy movement.
On the 9th November, 2019, the tide turned when a police division in Cochabamba publicly denounced the Morales administration, joining the people’s protests in demanding the president to step down. As the day progressed, police all over the country joined the movement until every division across Bolivia had deviated.
The following day, on the 10th November, the Organization of American States (OAS) released an election audit report of Bolivia’s election, showing a “clear manipulation” of votes. Shortly after, Morales called for a new election due to the irregularities found. However, the head of the military suggested that the president resign. At around 5pm that day, Evo Morales publicly resigned as he had lost the support of the people, the police and the military. Upon resigning, he declared that his government had suffered from a coup, prompting backlash against his resignation from the international community.
Why did everyone get it wrong?
Why did everyone believe that the ex-president’s resignation signaled a coup and a failure in Bolivia’s democratic institutions?
Arguably, many people’s first line of sight fell on the fact that Morales and his government were left-wing and socialist, with many news outlets highlighting him as Bolivia’s first indigenous president, coming from humble beginnings. Because of this, an assumption was made that surely, ousting a left-wing, socialist and indigenous president equalled a coup d’etat and a failure of democracy. In many people’s minds, it was surely an attempt by the right-wing to overthrow government and gain power.
However, this is far from the truth. It was not a coup, but simply a fight for democracy.
If anything, what happened in Bolivia highlights how important it is to understand the details of a political situation that clearly, many people missed completely. It also highlights why we must take what we hear with a pinch of salt, instead of jumping to conclusions, which only served to drown out the voices of the Bolivian people on the ground, who in reality were fighting for their democracy all along.
When I think of what transpired, the fable of the wolf in sheep’s clothing comes to mind, but instead, it was a power-hungry president in left-wing, socialist clothing.