What happened in Bolivia? Was there a coup?

By: Pablo Solón

[version en español version française]

  1. Evo Morales could have finished his third electoral mandate on the 22 January 2020 as a very popular president and the possibility of running for – and even winning – the 2024 elections, if he had not forced through his re-election for a fourth term. As the President of Bolivia, he a) did not recognise the 2016 referendum which voted NO to his re-election [1], b) pushed in 2017 for the Constitutional Tribunal to suspend the articles of the constitution that said that a person could only be re-elected one time, c) committed fraud in the elections on 20 October to avoid a second round and to impose a party majority in parliament.

  2. The government proclaimed itself winner of the elections despite serious irregularities: a) The rapid count was stopped inexplicably the day of the election b) the company in charge of the rapid count said that an order to do so came from the President of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and that the electricity and internet were cut so they couldn’t continue their work[2], c) independent analysts[3] and the university of La Paz revealed various electoral illegalities, d) the company contracted by the electoral tribunal to supervise the elections declared that the process was “viciado de nulidad” (corrupted and nullified) for a number of reasons[4], and e) the election audit requested by Evo Morales’ government and carried out by the OEA determined in its report that “it could not validate the results of the present election”[5].

  3. The government tried to dismiss the indignation generated by the electoral fraud. To begin with, Evo Morales said they were small groups of young protestors bought off by money and better grades who did not know how to blockade and he even offered to give workshops on how to blockade[6]. Then as the strikes grew in all the cities, he resorted to the tactics of intimidation and gave the green light to his supporters to lay siege to cities to “see if they can last”[7]. The confrontations and violence provoked a number of deaths and hundreds of injuries. Far from ending the blockades and strikes in the cities, they grew more radical.

  4. The government has treated the mobilisation as a fascist and racist coup. It is true that the sectors of the reactionary right have celebrated the protests. In Santa Cruz, the main leader of the Civic Committee, Luis Fernando Camacho, comes from an ultra-right organisation called the Union of Cruceño Youth. However, in other cities, there have been quite different articulations by independent groups with politicians from right and left leading the protests. In Potosí, the opposition to the government radicalised before the elections due to the signing of a 70 year contract without  payment of royalties for the production of lithium hydroxide in the salt flats of Uyuni. In the case of La Paz, the National Committee for the Defense of Democracy counts among its main leaders two Ombudsman who served under the Evo Morales government and had denounced human rights violations such as the repression of the indigenous march of TIPNIS in 2011. For his part, Carlos Mesa, who was vice president during the neoliberal government of Sanchez de Lozada, and became the main electoral opponent of Evo Morales does not have a structured party base and was more a vehicle for opposition at the ballot box then a key organizer of the protests. The rebellion which Bolivia is experiencing is largely a spontaneous act led particularly by young people against the abuse of power.

  5. It is important to be clear that there are indigenous peoples and workers on both the government and opposition side. The government clearly has more support in rural areas, but the opposition also includes coca producers from the Yungas, peasant leaders, mining workers, health and education workers, and above all young students, both middle and working class. Contrary to what happened in previous conflicts, it was the government that exacerbated the racism, saying that the protests were trying to take away the rural indigenous vote made in support of the government. During the conflict, there have been racist attacks from both sides. The burning of the wiphala, the flag of the Aymaran and Quechuan peoples, is absolutely deplorable. However, it is also notable that on social media, there are many groups who are part of the protests who challenge these attacks and defend the wiphala.

  6. The police initially defended groups linked to the government who were attacking the blockades. The most emblematic case happened in Cochabamba, which witnessed fierce confrontations by youth against groups from MAS and the police. In order to guarantee their support, the government of Evo Morales during the conflict gave them a ‘loyalty bonus’ of 3000 Bolivianos (431 USD). After days and nights of permanent confrontation with the population, the police mutinied. This was not a decision made by the top-ranking police but the rank-and-file. The government tried to negotiate with the police, changing some of the police commanders most challenged by the rank-and-file, but the mutiny expanded to cover the majority of garrisons. The police stopped policing the youth protesters and this changed the balance of forces.

  7. The Military High Command has been on the side of Evo Morales as we have witnessed throughout the demonstrations, evident in the statements of its commander-in-chief[8]. The military in Bolivia are the only sector that receive pensions equivalent to 100% of their salary. During the Evo Morales government, they received many benefits, state enterprises and embassies. However, the military command’s political calculus was that deployment in the streets would have high risks that could later lead to trials and prison as occurred during a government-ordered massacre in October 2003 [under a previous government]. Therefore, the military decided not to confront the anti government protests, and after hearing the audit report from the OEA, ‘suggested’ to Evo Morales that he should resign. The military rather than taking power was trying to protect its own interests and its institution.

  8. The current situation in various cities across the country is one of extreme tension, violence and vandalism. Various houses of government and opposition figures have been ransacked and burnt. Television studios and broadcast towers have been attacked. On the night of the 10 November, groups of vandals and some of MAS also attacked various neighborhoods in different cities. Residents are organizing themselves to defend themselves against attacks and looting which affect businesses, factories, pharmacies and public transit.

  9. Evo Morales has only resigned verbally and not yet sent a written note to parliament. The president and members of TSE have been detained by the police when they tried to escape. In general, there is a tendency to resolve the vacuum of power by institutional means through the Legislative Assembly. Nevertheless, this strategy will not be easy as MAS controls more than two-thirds of the parliament and must accept Evo Morales’ resignation and elect a transitional president who convenes new elections in the shortest period possible. If the MAS parliamentarians do not smooth the way for an institutional exit to the crisis, the political vacuum could create more situations of vandalism, violence and revenge and become extremely dangerous. 

La Paz, 11 November, 11am

[1] https://fundacionsolon.org/2019/10/23/carta-al-movimiento-antiglobalizador-sobre-la-situacion-en-bolivia/

[2] http://www.la-razon.com/nacional/informe-neotec-trep-elecciones_0_3249875031.html

[3] https://www.reduno.com.bo/nota/villegas-envia-pruebas-de-fraude-electoral-en-bolivia-ante-la-oea-201911724459

[4] https://www.scribd.com/document/434031751/EHC-REP-Consolidado-Resumen#from_embed

[5] http://www.oas.org/documents/spa/press/Informe-Auditoria-Bolivia-2019.pdf

[6]   https://www.lostiempos.com/actualidad/pais/20191025/morales-arremete-contra-mesa-se-burla-bloqueos-cochabamba

[7] https://www.eldeber.com.bo/154733_evo-amenaza-con-cercar-ciudades-que-estan-en-paro-y-descarta-negociacion-politica-para-salir-de-la-c

[8] https://eldeber.com.bo/130695_comandante-de-las-ffaa-manifiesta-su-apoyo-a-evo-morales-y-amenaza-a-los-opositores