Bolivia’s Coup Is Still Happening

Bolivia’s Coup Is Still Happening

Everything you wanted to know about Bolivian politics, but were afraid to ask.


On Tuesday, the right-wing Bolivian politician Jeanine Áñez held an exceedingly large Bible in her hand and declared herself interim president of Bolivia. That same day, soldiers roamed the streets of La Paz, bearing rifles while military jets swooped low over the capital city, temporarily drowning out the sounds of protesters.

Evo Morales, the country’s iconic socialist president who had been in office for nearly 14 years when he stepped down just two days prior, had just arrived in Mexico, describing himself as the victim of “the most cunning and disastrous coup in history.”

How this extraordinary situation came about has been a source of rage, confusion, fear, and jubilation across Bolivia—and for Latin America watchers the world over.

On October 20, Bolivia held national elections during which Morales made his fourth bid for reelection. But that day was marred by strange irregularities in the preliminary vote count, which in turn sparked marches, strikes, and street fights that grew larger and more violent by the week. As demonstrations and urban combat intensified, critics became increasingly emboldened in calls for Morales to not just hold new elections but to resign.

The situation reached a head exactly three weeks after election day. The Organization of American States (OAS), which had been invited by Morales to carry out a binding audit on the vote tallies, reported finding extensive irregularities that it said annulled the election. Morales immediately agreed to new elections, and a new electoral tribunal to oversee the process. But the momentum against him and his party only escalated.

His main opponent in the election, the centrist Carlos Mesa, said he should be barred from running again; crucial political allies abandoned him and said he should consider stepping down; and several ministers and lawmakers, some of whose homes and families were targeted by rioters and kidnappers, quickly resigned. The heads of the army and police “suggested” that Morales step down, and minutes later he boarded his presidential plane and flew out of the capital. Shortly thereafter, Morales announced his resignation, describing the situation as a coup d’état, and saying he stepped down because he did not want to “see any more families attacked.”

This head-spinning sequence of events has produced an intricate social scientific puzzle: There are multiple factors that alone could be sufficient for explaining why Morales left La Paz. In interviews with dozens of Bolivians across the country and more than a half dozen political experts who focus on Bolivia, I found that the question of how and why Morales stepped down is far from settled. In particular, the issue of whether to characterize his departure as a coup has become a lightning rod, because defining it as such has huge implications for validating the movement that rose up against him, and the legitimacy of the current interim government.

It’s true that many factors contributed to Morales’s ouster. But ultimately, the military intervention, however gentle or brief, makes it impossible to avoid analyzing this as a coup.

It’s also important to understand that this coup is not a moment but an ongoing process. The events leading up to Morales’s resignation produced a multifaceted crisis of legitimacy. The far right has seized the opportunity presented by that crisis—and is using it to try to remold Bolivia.

The crisis began with a pause. On the night of the presidential election, there was an unannounced and unexplained freeze in public updates on the preliminary vote count. This was highly unusual, experts say. It also immediately aroused suspicion among voters.

Here’s why: Bolivia has a robust electoral system and a history of free, fair, and transparent elections—but many voters were on edge this year. That uneasiness stemmed from a fear that Morales might tamper with ballots for the first time in a desperate bid to secure his fourth term. In a 2016 referendum, Morales asked the public if he could get rid of constitutional term limits in order to run for an extra term in 2019. He lost, but after winning a highly controversial legal fight in a politically sympathetic court, he decided to run for reelection anyway. Now, people were concerned he could be tempted to rig the electoral process to stay in power.

It took almost 24 hours after that initial pause for the electoral tribunal to update its preliminary results—and when they came in, Morales’s lead over his main opponent, Mesa, had widened. It, in fact, had widened to just above the minimum requirement to avoid a runoff election against Mesa and win outright.

While the margin of victory was statistically plausible, public perception that the mysterious pause in the count was a cover-up for fraud sparked unrest in towns and cities across the country. Strikes, blockades, and rallies broke out in public squares and intersections, and street fights between opposition supporters and supporters of Morales’s party, MAS, began to cause instability.

According to reports and interviews, the people who took to the streets to voice their anger represented a wide cross section of Bolivian society and came from many different backgrounds and ideological views. Still, there were discernible trends. Linda Farthing, the author of Evo’s Bolivia: Continuity and Change, told me in an interview that the protests that took off at first were primarily composed of middle-class and emerging-middle-class people, the latter group consisting of people of indigenous heritage who had seen their economic situations improve dramatically under Morales’s tenure. A number of other protest observers and participants described it as majority middle class and upper middle class, with a significant contingent of working-class indigenous people.

German Huanca, a 50-year-old government worker in La Paz, represents the emerging middle class—heavily made up of small-business owners and professionals—which has become increasingly disenchanted with Morales in recent years. Huanca is the son of Aymara-speaking farmers from the Zongo Valley, and described himself as having been a “passionate” Morales supporter during the first three terms of a president who “opened his eyes” to the possibilities for indigenous people in Bolivia. But he was excited by and in favor of the protests because he was angry that Morales had ignored the referendum and had overstayed his welcome. “He didn’t give opportunities for other people,” he told me.

There was also a generational trend: University students were dominant in early protests. Elizabeth Jimenez, a professor at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres, told me that while the younger generations had heretofore been considered an apathetic set, they came out in droves in a way that surprised her. “It’s an awakening,” she said.

A third of the Bolivian electorate is under 30, which means that they’ve known only one leader since their teenage years. Polling in the run-up to the election indicated that Morales was weakest with young voters. Many of them grew up during one of the most astonishing economic transformations in Bolivian history—but have nothing to compare it to, which may have made them disproportionately likely to experience leadership fatigue.

The official vote-counting process was further complicated by the fact that opposition supporters set fire to vote-counting centers in several cities. At the time, Gabriel Hetland, a political sociologist at the University of Albany, told me that the arson “undermines their claims to be only focused on getting the vote count right.”

In response to growing public pressure and recommendations from the OAS and the European Union, Morales invited the OAS to audit the vote. Ten days after election day, he agreed to a binding agreement with the OAS. Mesa, however, said he didn’t trust the terms of the audit, and rejected it.

As Jorge Derpic, a sociologist at the University of Georgia, pointed out, Mesa became increasingly ambitious in his demands over the course of the postelection crisis. He first called for a runoff election, and then shifted to a demand for new elections altogether and a new electoral tribunal. Mesa probably rejected the audit because he feared an outcome that could ensure that Morales stayed in power. But eventually, Mesa was outshone by someone else with even more aggressive demands: an ultra-right-wing natural gas and agribusiness tycoon from Santa Cruz named Luis Fernando Camacho.

In just the week before Morales’s resignation, Camacho experienced a meteoric rise from locally known civic society leader to national populist pledging to reunite Bolivia under the Bible.

His ostentatious religiosity, his youth (he’s 40 years old), and his demand that Morales resign immediately without regard for the OAS audit helped him develop a quick following online and at increasingly popular rallies.

Camacho’s boldest political move was traveling to La Paz to hand-deliver a prewritten resignation letter to Morales, and a promise to stay in La Paz until he signed it. (He actually attempted to travel to La Paz twice: The first time, he was trapped in the El Alto airport by MAS supporters, and the Morales administration helped protect him and aided him in leaving.)

Camacho’s explosive rise introduced a new political current to the situation. While Mesa represented a centrist alternative to Morales, Camacho represented a far-right ideology—Farthing calls him a “baby Bolsonaro,” after the right-wing president of Brazil. And Camacho’s past affiliations suggests a history of virulent racism: “He was the vice president of the ultra-rightwing organization Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, during the 2003 Bolivian gas conflict in his region that beat and humiliated low-income and Indigenous people in public clashes,” Bolivian anthropologist Raul Rodriguez Arancibia told the North American Congress on Latin America.

As Camacho gained steam in the final days before the resignation and social unrest continued to escalate, Morales also lost the support of law enforcement and critical parts of his own base. In the final two days, the police began to go on strike across the country. While they framed the strike as a protest against being underworked and overpaid, the move effectively aligned them with the anti-Morales movement. They may have also been influenced by Camacho’s promises of higher pay in the future. If police across the country are walking off the job as the country is seeing some of the most frightening unrest it’s seen in decades, this dramatically tips the scale in favor of his opponents. Additionally, the military stated that it was not going to step in, out of fear of legal penalties like the ones that resulted in prison sentences for military brass after a notorious crackdown in 2003.

On Sunday, everything accelerated after the OAS report claiming the discovery of irregularities that annulled the election. (Experts I spoke to acknowledged the organization’s pro-Washington alignment, and ranged from being skeptical of the report’s conclusion to fully supporting its findings based on their own analyses and how much they believed its electoral observers tend to be technical professionals detached from high politics. Some have expressed interest in auditing the audit.) Despite Morales’s immediate call for a new election and an electoral tribunal, momentum against him only increased. His essential allies, like the miner’s union and the COB, the nation’s largest labor organization, said he should consider resigning “for the good of the country.” A rapid chain of resignations of members of his party from his cabinet, the legislature, and at local levels, further signaled that MAS was falling apart.

Many officials who resigned did so out of fear for their safety or because they were literally under siege. Experts told me that they don’t believe the attacks were all coordinated by a specific actor, and that at least some of them appeared to be a backlash to vigilante attacks against anti-Morales protesters.

When asked what role the United States may have had, every political expert agreed that covert operations are possible but currently unknowable. But many were skeptical of the idea of a large or decisive US role, and pointed out that Washington’s interest in and influence over Bolivia have waned for years, as that country has drifted toward becoming a client state of China.

The final major development came when Williams Kaliman, the head of the armed forces, “suggested” that Morales resign in order to restore peace to Bolivia. Morales was on a plane to Cochabamba, the coca-growing region where he got his political start, minutes later.

With the resignation of the top four officials in government, all of whom were members of MAS, a right-wing politician outside of Mesa’s party named Jeanine Áñez was next in line to assume the presidency.

The Bolivian citizens and political experts who argue that the country did not experience a coup tend to point out a few things. The sheer magnitude of the popular unrest in Bolivia could have made Morales realize he had no other option than to retreat and then use the claim of a coup to make a comeback. The military, with whom Morales has had a very good relationship historically, was not trying to take over the government, but finding a way to keep the peace. Based on the available evidence, there is no obvious single architect of all the chaos that culminated Sunday.

All these things could be true, yet the military’s intervention set in motion a decidedly nondemocratic and unconstitutional transfer of power. The fact that the head of the armed forces reportedly has a close relationship with Morales and did not seek to become a ruler himself doesn’t change the fact that “suggestions” have coercive power when you control the state’s most powerful firepower.

Let’s put it this way: Is it possible to have free will with the barrel of a gun trained on your head? The attacks on MAS party members as police went on strike also raise real questions about whether the resignations of the president of the Senate and the president of the Chamber of Deputies—numbers three and four in line to the presidency—could be considered political moves or acts of self-preservation. They made their decisions under duress.

Even if one rejects labeling Morales’s resignation a coup, it’s clear that the current situation exhibits clear signs of one. The right has exploited the vacuum of power in the wake of Morales’s resignation in a way that signals less of an interest in restoring democracy than in taking control of it. And Áñez is leading the way.

Áñez, the vice president of the senate, was fifth in line to the presidency, but she needed to be sworn in by the MAS-controlled legislative branch. On Tuesday, MAS lawmakers refrained from attending the swearing in, out of fear of being attacked or arrested, and also because they did not want to give her a quorum, Farthing says.

Áñez did what any aspiring Latin American autocrat would do: She swore herself in. Later that night, Bolivia’s top constitutional court issued a statement endorsing the legality of the maneuver, only without mentioning her by name. When some MAS lawmakers went to hold a counter-meeting the next day to reject her move, they were blocked from entering the government building by police.

Notably, Áñez brandished an enormous Bible during the ceremony and said, “The Bible has returned to the government palace.” The move was an explicitly political gesture: Morales’s Constitution, enacted in 2009, placed Christianity on equal footing with indigenous spiritual traditions.

Áñez has no political mandate to govern as interim president; her only responsibility is to hold elections within 90 days. That task is a nonpartisan one. And given that her leadership has been born of the most serious political crisis Bolivia has seen in decades, it would be appropriate to behave as a centrist in an attempt to unify the country. Only that hasn’t happened. Áñez immediately recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido over Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in a gesture that broadcasts hostility to socialist projects and departure from MAS policy. She put together a polarizing transition cabinet that has almost no indigenous people in it—most Bolivians are indigenous—but does include business elites from Santa Cruz. And she has said Morales will be barred from running in the next election, and criticized Mexico for allowing him to rally support from abroad.

On Thursday she issued a supreme decree that exempts the military from criminal prosecution for its crackdowns—and this weekend security killed at least eight pro-Morales supporters. Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, told me, “There haven’t been this many dead at once since at least 2008.” And extreme-right-wing culture wars have also been waged outside the presidency.

Reports of racist graffiti (“Evo take a bath please”), people burning wiphala flags (which represent the indigenous peoples of the Andes), and right-wing gang activity abound. While Camacho’s political future is unclear, he has been exploiting Morales’s ouster in ways that are distinctly hostile to indigenous culture. After Morales resigned on Sunday, he reportedly placed a Bible in the old government palace, and a pastor that was present said, “The Bible has reentered the palace. The pachamama will never return.” Pachamama refers to the indigenous Andean term for Mother Earth.

Since Sunday MAS supporters have begun to mobilize in the streets in far greater numbers than before Morales’s resignation, with blockades, marches, and, in some cases, arson and looting. The battle for legitimacy is very much still underway.

If fair elections are held by the interim government, analysts say it’s difficult to predict what the outcome will be. Most evidence suggests MAS is significantly more popular than any other party in Bolivia at the moment. At the same time, Morales is the face of MAS, and he’s not easily replaceable.

“One of the great errors that Morales made, and the MAS party made, was not to develop a kind of farm team of young, vibrant MAS political leaders who were willing to carry on with this process of change,” Mark Goodale, an anthropologist at the University of Lausanne, told me.

In conversations with Bolivians, I’ve encountered people speaking with tremendous confusion, fear, and sadness about how the past week has gone. During many conversations, people were tearing up or crying. While many Morales critics in Bolivia maintain there wasn’t truly a coup because they believe his election was illegitimate and that the military was only playing peacekeeper, they describe feeling unsafe with the rise of the far right and stripped of control.

“I’m firm with my opposition to what Evo stood for at the end of his term,” N.W. Villanueva, a 36-year-old left-wing activist based in La Paz told me. “[MAS] made so many advances, and I just don’t understand why he insisted on standing for president, why couldn’t he look for other leadership within his party, it’s all gone to shambles.”

“It’s just time to stand up, to get organized, to not let these right-wing fascists get their way,” she concluded.

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