The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Bolivia is falling into the grips of a brutal right-wing regime

A supporter of former president Evo Morales is detained by police after a clash with protesters near Sacaba, Bolivia, on Monday. (Ronaldo Schemidt/Afp Via Getty Images)

Gabriel Hetland is an assistant professor of Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies and Sociology at University at Albany, SUNY.

Presdient Evo Morales’s forced resignation, in a military coup, has not led to the “restoration of democracy” in Bolivia, as some of those who supported his ouster claimed, but to the rise of a far-right regime of terror. If anyone doubts this, horrifying recent events ― the killings of protesters, attacks on political opponents, a decree allowing armed forces to kill at will and rising racism — should lay those doubts to rest.

Morales is one of the most successful presidents in the country’s history. He presided over a remarkable period of political stability and economic growth, which facilitated a steep drop in poverty and a process of unprecedented inclusion of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples. This explains why Morales secured nearly half the vote in the Oct. 20 election, far surpassing his closest rival. Yet Morales faced growing opposition, which is why he did not win an outright majority. Many felt Morales should not have run in 2019 after losing a 2016 referendum on indefinite presidential election. A 2017 court decision allowed Morales to run, but generated widespread dissent, particularly from urban middle classes. Morales also faced middle-class rage over the perception he stole last month’s election.

The Organization of American States (OAS) led the charge of fraud, and on Nov. 10 issued a report finding significant irregularities in the election. A Center for Economic and Policy Research report makes a convincing case that the OAS failed to present evidence of actual fraud. But many Bolivians were convinced there was fraud, and took to the streets, initially to demand the election’s annulment, and then for Morales to resign. Luis Fernando Camacho, a conservative businessman, led this call. By eclipsing the centrist Carlos Mesa, who finished second in the election, Camacho also pushed protests to the right. Police mutinies set the stage for the military’s Nov. 10 “suggestion” that Morales resign.

Bolivia’s vice president and the Senate and Chamber of Deputies presidents, all Morales allies, also resigned as conservative vigilantes burned houses belonging to Morales’s Movement for Socialism party (MAS) officials and threatened their relatives. This cleared the way for Jeanine Áñez, a Senate vice president, to declare herself president. A close ally of Camacho, Áñez is a fiercely Christian conservative with racist views. She was sworn in with an oversize Bible, and stated, “The Bible has returned to the palace.” Áñez’s ascension to the presidency is highly questionable since it required the forced resignations of those above her, and happened during a Senate session lacking a quorum, with MAS senators — who control two-thirds of seats — boycotting, in part, because of safety fears.

If the manner in which Áñez assumed the presidency is concerning, the way she has governed is terrifying. To the extent that Áñez, whose party received 4 percent of the Oct. 20 vote, has any mandate, it is only to schedule new elections. She has pledged to do so, but has taken no concrete steps. Meanwhile, she has replaced Bolivia’s top military brass, cabinet ministers and the heads of state-owned companies. Her ministers have threatened to arrest “seditious” journalists and lawmakers. She has also fundamentally reoriented Bolivia’s foreign policy, breaking relations with Venezuela and leaving the Union of South American Nations and Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas.

Áñez has also unleashed the police and military against protesters who have condemned the burning of the indigneous people’s wiphala flag and have called for Áñez’s resignation, new elections, the military’s return to the barracks and the release of detained protesters. Police and military forces have fired tear gas and live rounds at demonstrators. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Bolivia’s recent violence has left at least 23 dead and 715 injured. The worst violence was on Nov. 15, when police and military forces killed nine nonviolent protesters in Sacaba. This occurred just after Áñez issued a decree exempting armed forces personnel from prosecution for the use of force.

Bolivia’s political situation is also highly alarming. Áñez has stated that MAS members may not be allowed to run in future elections. Her minister of government, Arturo Murillo, called an ex-minister of Evo Morales “an animal” whom he would “hunt down.” Murillo also said he will detain MAS senators and deputies engaged in “sedition and subversion.” Another minister threatened to arrest journalists “involved in sedition.” And, on Nov. 13, the police roughed up MAS senators and prevented them from entering the legislative chamber.

Áñez is turning Bolivia into a far-right military dictatorship. The regime’s vindictiveness, fomentation of racist speech and action, repression of political opponents, willingness to kill peaceful protesters, and flagrant dismantling of accountability mechanisms that protect human life and basic freedoms are deeply disturbing. So, too, is the fact that the Trump administration has embraced the regime with undisguised glee.

While the picture is decidedly grim, there are flickers of hope. Áñez’s actions have elicited condemnation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights and a growing number of U.S. Democratic politicians. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) condemned the coup against Morales, while other Democrats have denounced state repression. MAS and some opposition sectors have discussed plans to hold new elections. And Bolivian social movements have shown they will not take the far-right’s rise lying down, with marches and blockades posing a real threat to Áñez’s ability to govern.

Bolivia’s fierce social movements have successfully brought down far-right regimes of terror in the past. The question is, how many will die before they succeed in doing so again?

Read more:

Álvaro Vargas Llosa: The Bolivian ‘coup’ that wasn’t

Gustavo Flores-Macías: Latin America’s generals, back in the political labyrinth

Francisco Toro: Bolivia needs a political solution out of this messy coup

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