Nor Yungas, Bolivia—By the time President Evo Morales announced his resignation on Sunday, the country had been in turmoil for three weeks. Flanked by his vice president and the head of the Senate, who were also stepping down, Morales called for an end to the violence that followed a contested election and for Bolivia’s conservative opposition to stop “pursuing, capturing, and mistreating my ministers, union leaders, and their family members.”
By that night, at least 20 officials from Morales’s political party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), had sought asylum at the Mexican embassy. The political exodus was abrupt. Morales had only begrudgingly agreed on Saturday to hold new presidential elections, after mounting political pressure from the Organization of American States, the European Union, the United States, and a handful of Latin American countries.
It’s difficult to see this as anything but a coup. Mere hours before Morales stepped down, Bolivia’s Armed Forces had publicly called for his resignation. The day before, police in La Paz and Cochabamba, two of the country’s largest cities, had joined anti-government protesters and threatened not to maintain order in the event of civil war. Police mutinies and protests quickly spread across the country, and all major cities have devolved into crisis amid violent confrontations between government sympathizers and opposition supporters.
Santa Cruz, traditionally an anti-government stronghold, has been locked down by blockades for more than 20 days, while two people have died in clashes between government and opposition supporters. Riots have broken out in Cochabamba, a largely pro-opposition city, while Morales has maintained firm levels of support from the cocaleros and campesinos in the Bolivian countryside, especially in the Chapare region, where he was a union leader two decades ago.
This heightened political division between largely indigenous and campesino government supporters and white, upper-class dissenters has proven deadly: In Cochabamba, a 20-year-old student died during clashes between pro- and anti-government groups, while reports suggest that citizens of El Alto—a largely Aymara indigenous city and home to president Morales—have begun arming themselves. On Tuesday, the head of special operations for El Alto’s police force was killed in an auto accident while trying to control protests as thousands marched along the highway towards La Paz, bringing the death toll to four people, while dozens more have been injured.
Bolivia’s far right has exploited the power vacuum and stoked anti-indigenous sentiment. Since Morales’s resignation, many officials down the line of succession for the country’s presidency have resigned as well, to protect themselves and their families, leaving Jeanine Áñez Chavez, a conservative opposition leader and second vice president of the Senate, poised to take over Bolivia’s presidency. (Áñez is married to a leader of a Colombian conservative party with historic ties to paramilitary groups.) Luis Fernando Camacho, a right-wing evangelical lawyer from Santa Cruz who has largely led the opposition movement over the last three weeks, has spouted extremely violent and xenophobic rhetoric, to the point that he’s been dubbed the “Bolsonaro of Bolivia.” After Morales’s resignation, Camacho entered the government palace in La Paz, and placed a Bible on the Bolivian flag. The pastor by his side then said that the Pachamama (the Andean Mother Earth goddess) will “never return to Bolivia. Bolivia belongs to God.”
The potential return of a conservative government after Morales’s 14-year rule has brought with it a resurgence of a virulent strain of anti-indigenous hatred with deep roots in Bolivia, reminiscent of the country’s “gas wars,” in which discontent over the government’s exploitation of Bolivia’s natural gas grew into large-scale protests led in part by Morales. In 2003, the unrest left more than 60 Aymara indigenous citizens dead after clashes between protesters and the national army. Sanchez de Lozada, the country’s unpopular president, resigned his post, leaving his vice president, Carlos Mesa—the opposition candidate who has instigated Bolivia’s current political crisis—to step in. Mesa himself stepped down months later as protests continued, and, in 2005, Morales was elected the country’s first indigenous president.
Morales’s tenure was far from perfect. His administration allowed transnational extractive projects on indigenous lands, including a dam project in the Beni lowlands and the revival of a highway to be constructed along the Bolivian Amazon. In 2016, Morales held a constitutional referendum asking Bolivians if he could run again for a fourth term, despite the Constitution’s barring a president from serving more than 12 years in office. The referendum was narrowly voted down, but Bolivia’s Electoral Court eventually carved out a constitutional concession for Morales to run in 2019, leading to protests, blockades, and strikes across the country. “A snowball has been forming,” Miguel Reynaga, the director of a leftist theater collective in Cochabamba, said while describing the escalating violence in the city.
Under Morales, the Bolivian government also furthered economic growth, slashed poverty, reduced the country’s illiteracy rate, improved public health care, and promoted social and education policies that have radically improved the lives of native peoples in Bolivia. The country’s 2009 Constitution, passed under Morales, explicitly recognized the rights of indigenous groups and Afro-Bolivians, changing everyday political and cultural life—from the clothes worn by public officials to the languages taught in schools. Those who still support Morales continue to do so largely for these reasons.
Nearly a decade and a half later, the toppling of Morales’s government threatens a potential return to anti-indigenous violence. On Monday, Morales loyalists started burning police stations in El Alto, an act of retaliation after the police mutiny, but also in response to lowering and burning of the Wiphala flag—which represents dozens of indigenous groups in Bolivia and throughout the Andes—by police forces at the Legislative Assembly in La Paz. (In 2009, Morales had instituted the Wiphala as Bolivia’s second national flag.) Police personnel across other cities followed suit, ripping off and cutting a patch containing the Wiphala flag out of their uniforms.
The current crisis is encroaching into previously safe cities such as El Alto. Over the past few weeks, countless families have been caught in the cross fire, in a way not unlike the bloody breakout of the gas wars in October 2003—maybe they support Evo, maybe they don’t, but beyond the questions of election fraud, OAS reports, and coup allegations that have dominated Western media, civilians are focused on the immediate matter of self-defense and finding refuge from the escalating violence. “This is a very dangerous scenario,” said Ruth Alipaz, an environmental activist from the northeastern lowlands of Bolivia. “The climate on Sunday was one in which anything could happen.” The question on many Bolivian tongues now is the same as it has been for the last three weeks: ¿Hay salida? Is there a way out?
For now, the answer seems grim. That El Alto and other Morales strongholds with a rich history of self-defense are mobilizing highlights not only the gravity of the current political situation but also the desire to defend Bolivia’s indigenous working class. That, at least, provides a glimmer of hope. Earlier this summer, I asked a taxi driver in Sucre his thoughts on Carlos Mesa’s potential election. “It would be a shame if Mesa were elected,” he said. “But it also is not the same Mesa from 2003. Neoliberal presidents can no longer take advantage of the people like they could before. The pueblo has awakened.”
Correction: A previous version of this article attributed the following quote to Luis Fernando Camacho: The Pachamama would “never return to Bolivia. Bolivia belongs to God.” It was actually spoken by a pastor who was accompanying him.