Tension had been building up over a long time, as the leftist president’s authoritarian streak became more and more obvious. Finally, faced with orders it just couldn’t countenance, the military revolted, pushing the president out of power. Down but not out, the president refused to accept his ouster as constitutional, urging resistance against the “coup.” As his opponents struggle to come up with a viable way forward, it becomes clear that now that they have lost the one thing that united them — disgust with the old president. Hard-right leaders with little in terms of popular support see a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and stand ready to pounce.
Sounds like the dramatic events that have unfolded in Bolivia in the past 48 hours, but it could also be Venezuela in April 2002. Sadly, the scenario is far from unique. To Venezuelans, the parallels are unmistakable.
After Hugo Chávez gave the order to use the military to put down a huge civilian protest on April 11, 2002, the army’s chain of command buckled. By the early morning hours the next day, Chávez had resigned. But a series of blunders over the following 36 hours saw the coup crumble and Chávez was returned triumphant to the presidential palace in Caracas.
Emboldened by the failure of the coup, he and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, went on a two-decade campaign to dismantle Venezuelan democracy and provoke the most precipitous collapse in living standards any country has experienced outside of wartime.
In Bolivia, on Sunday night, the army showed Evo Morales the door amid a wave of protests stemming from an artless attempt to steal the presidential election held on Oct. 20. That Morales — the last of the original “Pink Tide” leaders still in power — constituted a clear and present danger to Bolivian democracy isn’t really in doubt; he had shown that he would not submit to the dictates of popular sovereignty. The choice facing Bolivia’s military was stark: Acquiesce to election fraud, or overthrow the president.
Of course, no historical parallel is ever quite exact. But Venezuelans know that the risks of failing to get rid of a left-wing autocrat can be far higher than the risks of overthrowing him. That said, the absolute worst option is leaving the job unfinished: an abortive coup, felled by indecision and squabbling among opponents of the old regime, leading to a newly radicalized episode of heightened authoritarianism.
Back in 2002, I was reporting on the streets of Caracas, leading a camera crew on the street where the bulk of the massacre took place. My crew was lucky to escape with its life. I remember the elation of seeing a budding autocrat felled, followed less than two days later by the dread of grasping the opposition had screwed up and that whatever brakes we’d had on the headlong rush toward leftist dictatorship were now gone.
Today, with more than 4 million Venezuelans having fled the country and almost 90 percent of those who remain facing chronic hunger, the collapse of the 2002 coup must be counted as one of the tragedies of the Venezuelan story. Bolivians must not repeat our mistakes. Morales’s ambition to install himself as president for life was clear. Millions of Bolivians — 45 percent of the country — support his ambition. The next few hours are key. The transition to democracy could collapse if personal agendas impose themselves over the pursuit of the common good, and if Morales’s supporters continue to feel threatened and targeted.
The millions of everyday Bolivians who continue to support Morales must be reassured that there’s a future for them in a new, pluralistic Bolivia. Morales and his cronies must be offered alternatives that lessen the stakes for them: Better to allow them exile with some of their loot than to have them become a permanent destabilizing force. Efforts to round up lawmakers and other Morales allies, while perhaps legally justified, are politically foolish and dangerous.
Allowing some of these people to flee will be distasteful. It will infuriate some, and for good reason. But almost half of Bolivians today are scared, horrified by the collapse of a government that, for all its faults, they felt as their own. Unless there’s a clear plan to incorporate them in a political solution that includes clean elections and guarantees their social and political rights, the transition to democracy could collapse before it gets going. Take it from a Venezuelan: This nightmare scenario is entirely real.