Bolivia: Coup or election fraud?

Quechua scholar Américo Mendoza-Mori and political scientist Tulia Falleti discuss the ousting of the country’s first indigenous president and the tumultuous state of Bolivian politics as the country prepares for elections in May.

Bolivian flag flying on high rocky terrain with mountain peaks in background

Bolivia, a landlocked South American country famous for its salt flats, silver, and mountain-ringed lake, has a long history of indigenous uprisings and military coups since it was conquered by Spain in 1538. Most recently, Gen. Williams Kaliman asked President Evo Morales to resign on Nov. 10 in the wake of mass protests and accusations of election fraud following the president’s controversial fourth bid for office, which violated the terms of the constitution Morales helped to pass. Morales left for safe haven in Mexico and has since moved to Argentina after being granted asylum. Morales’ November resignation was followed by those next in line for the presidency: Vice President Álvaro García Linera; Senate President Adriana Salvatierra; Víctor Borda, president of the Chamber of deputies; and Rubén Medinaceli, first vice president of the Senate.

That left Jeanine Áñez, the Senate’s second vice president who assumed power on Nov. 11. In her first seven days of office, she replaced senior military officials, cabinet ministers, and the leaders of several state-owned companies with her own picks. When pro-Morales supporters protested in the streets, Áñez granted prosecutorial immunity for those “participating in operations to reestablish internal order.” At least 31 people died as a result of the confrontations between protesters and soldiers, according to CNN.

While some argue that Morales’ deposition was a coup, the United States quickly recognized Áñez’s presidency via Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Nov. 13, saying, “The United States applauds Bolivian Senator Jeanine Anez for stepping up as Interim President of State to lead her nation through this democratic transition.” According to Bolivia’s constitution, these elections must happen within 90 days of Morales’ resignation. Bolivia’s electoral committee  recently confirmed that elections are expected to happen on May 3. In the meantime, her government has issued a warrant for Morales' arrest on the grounds of terrorism and sedition.

The topic of Bolivia’s political state was part of a panel “Protest, Repression, and Democracia Lacrimógena: What is going on in Latin America?” hosted in December by Penn’s Latin American and Latino Studies Program at Perry World House. Panel moderator Tulia Falleti, professor of political science, along with Américo Mendoza-Mori, weighed in on Bolivia’s political history and its future for Penn Today.

First of all, was this election fraud or was this a coup?

Tulia Falleti: In fact, it was both. As soon as the system of rapid count of votes (Transmisión Rápida y Segura de Actas, or TREP) was stopped at 7:40 p.m. on the evening of Oct. 20, there was a generalized perception that the government of Evo Morales was engaging in electoral fraud to win in the first round. Morales needed a difference of 10 percentage points over the opposition candidate Carlos Mesa to avoid a second round. When the TREP was stopped with only 83% of the votes counted (despite the fact that it is customary to run the rapid count until about 95% of the votes), Morales had a 7% lead in the general vote. At that point, under generalized suspicion of electoral fraud, massive popular demonstrations and attacks were staged against electoral authorities and departmental electoral tribunals, especially in the cities and departments that are strongholds of the opposition.

As a result, it is very hard to tell whether or not Morales did indeed win the election in the first round because so much of the electoral counting process was contaminated, possibly by government actions (the Organization of American States, or OAS, denounced the existence of a server that had not been previously authorized, for instance) and also by the interference of the opposition, which burned electoral tribunals once they considered that the government was engaging in fraud.

Three weeks later, on Sunday, Nov. 10, there was also a coup. After three weeks of unrest and social demonstrations against the final results that gave the victory to Evo Morales (with a difference of 10.57% over opposition candidate Mesa), the police declared mutiny in three cities, and days later the head of the military ‘suggested’ that Evo step down. The fact that the military’s demand was made public—unlike what had happened with the resignation of former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 2003, for instance—does make it a military coup, even if it happened in the aftermath of major societal protests and unrest against an electoral process that was largely perceived as unfair and rigged by those in the streets.

What do the events in Bolivia say about democratic stability in Latin America?

Américo Mendoza-Mori: The involvement of the military in the political scene brings back disturbing memories of authoritarianism and foreign intervention in Latin America. This situation is also a reminder on how fragile democracy is still in the region and therefore the importance of working to strengthen it. We need to go beyond our political preferences and call out any abuses or restriction of liberties, whether this happens in Honduras, Venezuela, Chile, or Bolivia. The Bolivian interim government is not clear on their actions and requires more public scrutiny; it proclaimed a temporary decree allowing the military to ‘defend themselves’ from the street protestors without facing any judicial consequences; they are also making important changes on foreign policy. The interim government has ended reciprocity agreements for foreign visas to the United States, for example. These small but symbolic changes move Bolivia away from the autonomous independence on which Morales’ government prided itself.

What is Evo Morales’ legacy in Bolivia, and how much of that will survive?

 Mendoza-Mori: Bolivia changed dramatically with Evo Morales, an Aymara leader and the country’s first indigenous president. In addition to the reduction of poverty and expansion of economic development of the country, his party worked on policies and initiatives to change the negative perception of indigenous peoples. Many indigenous peoples occupied important roles in Congress, global diplomacy, and government. The Vice Ministry of Decolonization was created, and public officials were required to have a basic knowledge of an indigenous language. Even the UN 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages was a joint proposal of Bolivia and Ecuador to the General Assembly.

Morales’ tenure also exposed the complexity of indigenous politics: Some of Morales’ decisions affected negatively other indigenous groups, such as the case of the highway project across the Tipnis rainforest, inhabited by Chimanes, Moxeños, and Yurakarés peoples.

Falleti: Morales meant social and ethnic inclusion for a large portion of the Bolivian population (between 40% and 60% are indigenous) that had been historically excluded and discriminated against by a racialized culture and political and economic system. The socioeconomic changes were impressive, and this could be seen for instance in the creation of a new Aymara business class or Aymara petite bourgeoisie. The colorful, multilevel cholet in El Alto, which serves as both a residence and a place of business, is a symbol of that new emergent bourgeoisie. I don’t think all that socioeconomic inclusion can be reversed. In any future democratic government, there will have to be indigenous actors seating at the negotiating table. However, the hate, discrimination, persecution, and racism unleashed during the interim government of Jeanine Añez is extremely worrying, as revealed by the human rights report of the Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH).

What does this mean for the indigenous movement? How can indigenous and Spanish cultures coexist within Bolivia?

Mendoza-Mori: During this time of uncertainty, it is important to remember that Indigenous movements didn’t start and won’t finish with Evo Morales. They have their own independent dynamics. For instance, public manifestations against the interim regime are not necessarily coming from Morales’ supporters but from a wide spectrum of leaders. Unfortunately, in a polarized context, an anti-indigenous sentiment has grown from Christian evangelical parties and other supporters of the current interim government. Many prominent Bolivian intellectuals and activists, like Silvia Rivera-Cusicanqui [a former Alice Paul Center visiting scholar at Penn], are calling for leaders to overcome this division and remember indigenous issues during the upcoming electoral process.

Falleti: Since at least 2014, the government of Evo Morales and Álvaro García Linera had ruled the country by ‘dividing and conquering’ the organized social movements, including the indigenous movement. Two of the largest indigenous organizations, the CONAMAQ and the CIDOB, had two factions under the last years of the MAS government: the official faction and the opposition one. The removal of Morales and García Linera could entail a new opportunity for the fractured indigenous organizations to come together.

The human rights report of the CIDH is deeply troubling and concerning for the prospects of a harmonious coexistence between the indigenous and the Spanish cultures. The report reveals systematic persecution against MAS activists, the majority of whom are indigenous. Fourteen years of MAS government were not sufficient to undo 500 years of racism. In fact, it appears that the inclusionary achievements of the MAS government may have exacerbated the backlash we are witnessing from the white and mestizo elites.

What are the next steps for Bolivia? What can we expect to see?

Falleti: Elections, elections, elections. Free and fair elections. It is also imperative to stop the repression and persecution of MAS activists and former government officials. Reconciliation and tolerance are musts to move Bolivia forward in a democratic way.

Tulia Falleti is the Class of 1965 Endowed Term Professor of Political Science and director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program in the School of Arts and Sciences, and a Senior Fellow of the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Américo Mendoza-Mori teaches Quechua and Spanish and designed and directs the Quechua Language Program at the University of Pennsylvania.