Bolivia on the brink of an abyss

After the night of 20 October, Bolivia has lived through a complex and violent process and we are ignoring the possible short-term consequences to its democracy. Let’s look back on it. Español Português

Hugo José Suárez
12 November 2019, 12.01am
November 11, 2019, Bolivia, La Paz: a policeman tries to put out a barricade in flames. Protests broke out Monday in La Paz amid uncertainty about who is in charge in Bolivia after President Evo Morales resigned.
Photo: Gaston Brito/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Evo Morales won the presidential elections of 2005 with 53.5% of the votes. His victory was the result of the accumulation of social movements against the neoliberalist regime set up in the country in 1985 that generated cracks in this economic model, creating public mobilizations in different fronts.

That regime blew up in 2003. The result was the exile of the chief architect of the economic model, president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and two years later, the electoral victory of Movimiento al socialismo, or MAS, Morales’ party.

Since 2006 three key moments can be identified.

The first years of the reconstruction of political forces – in the middle of a national refoundation through the Constitutional Assembly.

Later, after 2009, political management, with popular support expressed in the polls, gave the government enough space to put forth an economic and social agenda – of which, the results were later to be seen.

And finally after 2010, when internal fractures within the government started to appear (distance from academics and high ranking officials, end of alliances with groups in the left, expulsion of union leaders and the creation of parallel organizations), along with the contradictions (the march of indigenous people of the Isiboto-Sécure TIPNIS Indigenous Territory and National Park in 2012 for example). These were expressed in the 2016 referendum defeat.

Now in 2019, we are in the fourth and worst moment for the MAS.

Let's go to the electoral data. In recent times, Evo Morales has gone to the polls – in different formats – on seven different occasions. We have already mentioned 2005, when he won with 53.5%.

In 2006, he called for new elections to form the Constitutional Assembly that would draft the New Political Constitution of the State. MAS received 50.7% of the representation.

The dispute caused by the approval of the constitution lead to a referendum to approve it in 2009, when it achieved 61.4% of support. This new Magna Carta led to presidential elections that same year and Morales got 63.9% of the votes. In 2014 elections were held in which MAS received 61%. Considering that the 2009 constitution did not allow re-election, in February 2016 he called a referendum that would allow him to be a candidate for third term.

He lost with 51.3% of the votes against him. However, the repeated events at the polls gave the government a vast experience in manoeuvring electoral situations using state resources.

The Morales administration

What can be weighed in the 13 years of the Morales administration? To level off and see the nuances, we must imagine multiple parallel dimensions. On economic terms, Bolivia has seen one of its best times.

The results between 2005 and 2018 – which were an important aspect at the heart of the last electoral campaigns – are surprising and enviable: GDP per capita tripled, annual accumulated inflation fell, the official exchange rate was reduced, public investment grew from $629 million to $4.458 billion, the minimum wage increased from $50 to $300, and life expectancy grew from 64 to 73 years. At the same time, the government achieved a series of international agreements with millions in strategic investments that ensured stability and development.

In parallel, economic growth has gone together with direct public redistribution programmes through bonds that have meant the reduction of inequality and the creation of an urban middle class with consumption capacity. A process of “decolonisation” has been established to generate equitable relations in work settings, trying to build a citizen culture that overcomes the racist and colonial heritage.

This integration has had many faces. One of them has been the rotation of administrative elites and political leaders: the parliamentary composition changed by including leaders of the working class and unions, media outlets have consolidated the integration of other historical figures in their screens; and much more.

The two most questionable policy areas of the government have been environmental management and political management.

The economic model rests on an extractive logic that sweeps up everything that nature offers without concessions. In fact, strategic alliances have been made with the agro-industrial elites of the east and agreements have been signed allowing them to industrialise the region at any cost. Likewise, the banking and construction sectors have benefited a lot from the increase in capital circulation. The wildfire in Chiquitania last August was a consequence of the current disregard for the environment.

Regarding politics, the party has been given a central role in the control of society as the axis of political management. Any dissent or diversity has been removed, and it has been done in different ways. The state apparatus is used for political campaigns (forcing officials to go out to the streets and contribute to the party with the threat that they will lose their jobs if they do not).

Public management resources have been instrumentalised for proselytising unashamedly. As will be explained below, the strategy was to capture judicial power and use it in favour of the government when necessary, control media outlets, and control organisations that once had relative independence (such as the Plurinational Electoral Body or the Ombudsman).

In other words, there have not been any open loopholes where anything against the government, the party and the president, could flow through.

The October 2019 debacle

This year’s elections arrived in this political environment. What happened between 20 and 21 October? Why did it get to this point?

We are at a crisis that destabilises the political management model of MAS.

The crisis started with the referendum of 21 February 2016, as stated above, the one Morales lost. For the first time, this fostered unity among an anti-Evista sector who felt profoundly deceived when – the following year – the president appealed to the Constitutional Court of the Plurinational State to declare unconstitutional the article adopted years ago by the constitution and give him a green light for a possible third term.

We are at a crisis that destabilises the political management model of MAS

This went hand in hand with the creation of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the highest authority of the Plurinational Electoral Body, composed by members allied to MAS. In fact, during this period several members resigned and were quickly replaced by people loyal to the president. From there on, the population grew disappointed of 'masismo' and of the electoral institution, realising that its legal and political tricks knew no limits.

The second episode happened during the electoral campaign. The opposition had many faces, but the most visible was Carlos Mesa, the candidate of the Citizen Community. MAS ran a state campaign. Given that government officials were also candidates at the same time, they used the state apparatus to publicise their proposals.

Without even trying to conceal it they used ministries, helicopters, cars, media and public resources to support their bid. Hundreds of government workers were mobilised – including those who give part of their salary to the party – for meetings, marches and events.

While this is a recurrent practice with a long history in the country, there was never so much power in various spheres to make it that effective.

The third episode was on election day. The country went to the polls with increasing but not extreme polarisation, and in a calmly tense atmosphere. The rest is history: everything was working relatively as planned until at 8:oo pm, the Preliminary Electoral Results Transmission System (TREP) mysteriously stopped working. Up to this point, with 83% of the votes counted, Morales had 45% and Mesa had 38%, which meant a second round was necessary.

Twenty-two hours later the TREP appears again but with a favourable trend for Morales (46.8% vs. 36.7%). Many explanations of the blackout were contradictory; no one could explain what happened. It was clear that the electoral institution was left open to play politics.

There was no legitimate, independent and impartial body: the arbiter – already of dubious reputation – had disappeared. From there, the country was unrecognisable. Mesa had declared himself the winner and the civil mobilisations started.

Between 21 and 31 October, Bolivia experiences a fourth moment of breakdown. On the one hand, the president stops leading the nation and becomes a leader of its electoral base and unions; it seems like he is leaving the presidency to lead his militants.

He disrupts the discussion in order to threaten, attack and disqualify. He gives room for his militants to unleash violence through protests, dynamite, whips, sticks and stones. He facilitates every condition for them to mobilise: transportation, food, public restrooms, and authorisation for any extremes. There is no authority to regulate.

The deputy of MAS, Gustavo Torrico, made threats by warning that many mothers would suffer if their children were killed in the demonstrations.

On the other hand, the opposition calls for a national strike, which is attacked in almost all parts of the country. Town meetings and demonstrations are organised in capital cities, blockades and marches that congregate thousands of people. Outbreaks of violence and clashes are becoming stronger. In parallel, the government reached an agreement with the OAS to conduct an audit of the ballots, Mesa and other civil leaders rejected the agreement calling it deceitful, unilateral and focusing only on some aspects of the elections and not the overall process.

Many civil organisations have also rejected it and expressed their distrust. At the same time, more information has surfaced that raises more questions about what happened in the Plurinational Electoral Body (PEB). The vice president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), Ivan Costas, resigned after "the wrong decision" to suspend the publication of the TREP results.

The crisis was the authoritarian model of political management, which the MAS had used unopposed in recent years, and its ability to reproduce.

Later it was known that the order to suspend the publication of the TREP results came from upper tiers of the government, when they had 94% of the information that included the countryside. The companies responsible for counting the votes submitted a report on October 28 which claimed that the night of the 20th they received a phone call from a member of the TSE, Maria Eugenia Choque, instructing them to suspend the publication of the results – because it did not favour the MAS enough, while also cutting the Internet service which is essential for their work.

Upon delivering his report, Marcel Guzman de Rojas - manager of the company Neotec – observes “invalid actions” that make the election questionable. Also, many allegations of fraud surfaced in those days – some were clarified and others not – from various political and professional sources. At that time, there were massive confrontations in the streets and well-grounded doubts that something was corrupt in the elections. The government appealed to the OAS to audit.

That is how we got to the fifth episode, which starts on October 30th with the death of two demonstrators against the government in Montero (Santa Cruz) and several wounded by gunfire. On the next day two town meetings were held simultaneously across the country.

The demands, as well as mourning for the dead, were even more radical than the previous ones: the resignation of Evo Morales and Alvaro Garcia Linera and new elections. In these occasions there was a new fracture between the civic movements and the leadership of Carlos Mesa. The newly formed National Committee for the Defence of Democracy – which brings together several civic leaders under direction of the Citizen Community – did not participate in the councils, and even one of the resolution paragraphs openly states that it is a civic movement not aligned with Mesa. The government asked for a truce until the results of the OAS audit are known, however, it has been rejected by members of the opposition.

Unfolding events

By 2 November the picture is completely different.

Civic leader Luis Fernando Camacho had the initiative and said – in a massive rally in the Christ Redeemer in Santa Cruz – that "we need to take tougher measures" and gave an ultimatum to Evo Morales that had 48 hours to resign. He said to the masses: "He will resign on Monday, he will go, I guarantee it."

At the same time, he openly called upon the armed forces to "be on the side of the people," and said that "we are not overthrowing a government, we are liberating an entire nation". In his speech, with an image of the Virgin in the podium facing the audience and a rosary in his right hand, Camacho introduced the religious element cogently saying: Evo offends the Bolivian people and God.

That weekend – until the arrival of Monday the 4th is the tensest. The government plays all its cards, sends its foreign minister to the OAS to denounce an alleged coup, gives an extra loyalty bonus to the police, barricades Plaza Murillo and mobilises its base.

On Sunday the 3rd it is evident that the opposition has two fronts, one led by Citizen Community (CC), the Coordinator for the Defence of Democracy, and the civic leaders at the head of Santa Cruz. The CC pulls away from the ultimatum of Camacho and calls for "a new election, administered by a new and impartial PEB with the strict observance of the international community".

On the first week of November, the country is on the edge of a civil war. Camacho flies on Tuesday to La Paz but is unable to leave the airport. There is heavy fighting on Wednesday in Cochabamba and La Paz, different sectors seize some public offices, the blockades and unblocking actions get violent, and the government police forces intensify and are confronted at various points.

On 6 November, a 20-year-old man – protesting against the government – dies beaten up in Cochabamba as a result of the clashes; in parallel, the mayor of Vinto, a militant of the MAS, is publicly humiliated and denigrated. Vice president Alvaro Garcia focuses the attention on this event denouncing racism and accusing the opposition of being responsible for the violence; manipulating data and information in their favour.

Leadership in La Paz is between Camacho and Marco Antonio Punari – the leader of the Civic Committee of Potosi – participating in demonstrations with coca growers and representatives of various sectors in Yungas. They said they will not leave the city until democracy is restored and Evo resigns. The company Ethical Hacking, hired by OPEC for a TREP audit, concludes that the process is "null and void" because of interference and anomalies. The police force mobilises to different places, breaking the cohesion of law and order institutions.

The confrontation between the government, which uses state resources and its electoral base, and the opposition with different strategies – but agree in the resignation of Morales – is radical and seemingly unreconcilable. On Saturday 9 November, the president gives a press conference in which he invited the parties which had legislators in the past elections to a meeting in order to pacify the country without a closed agenda and with participation of the church and international organisations.

Minutes later Carlos Mesa, the main guest, says he has nothing to negotiate with Morales, and the resolve this and resign. On the next day, 10 November, the OAS published its preliminary report of the election audit they conducted and concluded that "irregularities were found, ranging from very serious to indicative.” The report leads the technical auditor team to question the integrity of the election results.

That same evening the armed forces, several ministers, ambassadors, MPs and other senior officials, called for the resignation of the president. On the same day Morales and Alvaro García Linera presented their resignations.

Until that moment, what was at stake in Bolivia today? What has been called into question is not ideological, societal or state design; it is not a class confrontation or within ethnic groups; it is not two historical projects such as socialism vs. neoliberalism (although varying degrees these elements may appear).

The crisis was the authoritarian model of political management, which MAS had used unopposed in recent years, and its ability to reproduce.

The MAS model had six pillars: 1) undisputed leadership both inside the party and for the nation; 2) a party that acts as a power hub distributing it among its base and its strategic alliances; 3) a solid, stable, loyal and homogeneous union base with mobilisation capacity when needed; 4) different agreements with trade unions and communities all around the country, which were achieved through specific concessions negotiated for each sector; 5) control of all state powers (executive, legislative and judicial), the factual power (agreement with the media and pragmatic agreements with banks and the business class) and the state organisations that should have some autonomy; 6) a strategic pact with the armed forces who were given favours in exchange of loyalty.

All this happened in an optimal economic climate, underpinned by sustainable development, international investment and equity agreements and redistribution of public revenues.

The model was the result of years of slow build up, step by step, each dimension at a different pace. Its effectiveness was strong, which provided unusual political stability in Bolivia and allowed the government to carry out macro-projects that would have been impossible in another context.

However, in recent months fractures started to become more evident, and government capacity more eroded, which exploded in October as demands for democracy throughout the country. New actors appeared that the government did not control with mobilization capacity.

Now what?

If the dispute since October 20 until November 10 was for power rather than for the course of history – after the OAS report, the emergence of the Civic Committees with the Santa Cruz leadership, and the resignation of the president – it opens a new dynamic that now involves two different historical horizons.

However, in recent months fractures started to become more evident, and government capacity more eroded, which exploded in October as demands for democracy throughout the country.

One led by Carlos Mesa representing a certain continuity of the economic and democratic project vs. Camacho and the Civic Committees that embody the resurgence of the neoliberal project with an authoritarian a territorial anchor and a strong religious-conservative bias.

It is very likely that these two blocs will contest the course of the nation in the future.

Lastly, in the resignation of Evo Morales, after being stripped and confronted against the fraud found by international audit, he has introduced a strong rhetorical discourse in the history of the country, which is portraying himself as a victim of a coup, and his absence has generated dangerous power vacuum.

In principle, you cannot talk about a coup: the institutional order was not broken. After the president's resignation because of the pressure of many sectors, it is up to the Assembly to proceed with the constitutional succession process and call elections. However, this has opened a horizon of many uncertain possibilities; it has opened a Pandora's box and nobody knows what demons can come out of it.

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