The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the U.S.-backed government in Bolivia unleashes a wave of political persecution, the Trump administration remains silent

Interim Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez delivers a speech during the celebration of Plurinational State Day on Jan. 22 at the Palacio Quemado in La Paz. (JORGE BERNAL/AFP/Getty Images)

LA PAZ, Bolivia — The knock at Orestes Sotomayor's door on the outskirts of this high-altitude metropolis came just as he was about to leave for work. The 35-year-old publisher of the Resistance, a left-leaning online news outlet, answered to find a group of plainclothes police officers eager to speak with him about a "cybercrime."

He accompanied them to the station, where he was informed that he, in fact, was the cybercriminal they sought. The charge: sedition against the state, for running news stories critical of Bolivia’s U.S.-backed interim president, Jeanine Áñez.

“My arrest is part of a much larger effort by this government,” said Sotomayor, who spent five weeks in prison before he was transferred to house arrest. “This is no different than what happened in Bolivia during the military governments of the past.”

In Bolivia, an interim leader is leaving her conservative mark

Critics cite another glaring similarity. As a right-wing, pro-American government represses, threatens and jails its leftist opponents, the United States has stayed largely silent — just as it did during the abuses of the Latin American dictatorships it supported during the Cold War.

Washington’s response — or the lack thereof — reflects what analysts say is the most ideological policy on Latin America by an American administration since the region’s shift toward democracy in the 1980s and early 1990s. Critics say the Trump administration has played down a wave of repression unleashed by Áñez in Bolivia, the killings of left-wing community leaders in Colombia, shootings by police in poor Brazilian neighborhoods, and the alleged drug-trafficking links and human rights abuses of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández. All are countries run by conservative, pro-Trump governments.

At the same time, the Trump administration has led Washington’s most aggressive campaign in years against abuses committed by leftist leaders, particularly in socialist Venezuela and communist Cuba. Those abuses are among the most severe in the region. But critics say the failure to also call out wrongdoing by right-wing governments has rewarded leaders who have themselves been seriously and credibly accused.

That double standard, analysts say, could be working against the administration’s stated goals in Venezuela, where U.S. officials are trying to turn the leftists in President Nicolás Maduro’s inner circle against him.

Perhaps no country exemplifies the double standard better than Bolivia. When socialist President Evo Morales resigned and fled in November amid accusations of election fraud, Áñez was a second vice president of the Senate from a conservative opposition party. In the absence of Morales and other top leaders from his Movement for Socialism, she declared herself the nation’s interim president — and was quickly recognized by the United States.

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Since being sworn in, the fiercely anti-socialist Áñez has presided over the detention of hundreds of opponents, the muzzling of journalists and a “national pacification” campaign that has left at least 31 people dead, according to the national ombudsman and human rights groups. Washington has yet to comment.

“There is an unwillingness on the level of the Trump administration to hold Áñez to account, so she has a lot of room to do what she wants, including what seems to be the carrying out of vendettas,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “I think this is only going to further entrench governments like Maduro’s. Because they see what’s happening in Bolivia, and they know what awaits them if they leave power, despite any guarantees they might be offered.”

Nadia Cruz, Bolivia’s ombudsman, said her office has grown increasingly concerned that protest is being criminalized, and that charges of “sedition” and “terrorism” are being brought for simply disagreeing with or questioning the Áñez administration.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet expressed her “concern” last week over “the prosecution of dozens of former government officials and persons related to the previous administration.” Human rights groups denounced the Áñez administration for vetoing the participation of two experts on a commission linked to the Organization of American States to help investigate abuses in Bolivia during the last months of 2019.

Áñez and senior members of her government declined repeated requests for comment. Congressman Tomás Monasterio, a solid Áñez backer, said the criticisms against her are unfounded. He said Áñez represents “a clear vision of the future, of a modern Bolivia, which is why traditional parties want to stop her.”

Monasterio called allegations of political persecution “fake news.” The “true” persecution, he said, occurred during the long rule of Morales’s socialists.

“We can talk about death threats, but the ones I received,” he said. “They and not us are the ones threatening and provoking death.”

Bolivia’s Morales resigns amid scathing election report, rising protests

Publicly, the Áñez government denies using hard-line tactics — officials say they’re simply responding to Morales’s genuinely seditious and violent backers. Morales, accused of corruption, controlling the courts and clinging to power, resigned after a scathing report by the OAS upheld opposition allegations of fraud in the October presidential vote that Morales claimed to have won.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently questioned the OAS report, arguing that they found no “statistical support for the claims of vote fraud.” An article by the researchers, published by The Washington Post, prompted the Mexican government, which has backed Morales, to demand an “independent” review of the election results. The OAS fired back, saying the researchers’ analysis contained “countless falsehoods, inexactitudes and omissions.”

In Bolivia, even anti-Morales politicians and activists who once backed Áñez now say her administration has used threats and intimidation to consolidate power. The targets have included former Morales cabinet ministers and socialist politicians brought up on charges as varied as corruption, sedition and “making illegal appointments.”

There’s a “real persecution of people in the previous government,” said José Luis Quiroga, the policy director for Carlos Mesa, a former president who finished second to Morales in the October election.

Opinion polls now show Mesa running second to the socialist Luis Arce, Morales’s former finance minister, in a May do-over. Áñez, who at one time pledged not to seek the office, is also running. Morales and another senior socialist ally have been barred by the newly reformed electoral council from running for the Senate.

“In many cases, they are doing exactly what [the socialists] did to their political enemies,” Quiroga said. “A simple accusation is made, and the prosecutor and police go all out.”

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The U.S. government, a sharp critic of Morales, has refrained from criticizing Áñez publicly. In December, weeks after protesters were killed in her pacification campaigns, Trump tweeted his support for her “as she works to ensure a peaceful democratic transition through free elections.”

The following month, Mauricio Claver-Carone, the director of Latin America policy for the National Security Council, traveled to Bolivia “in the name of President Trump to greet and recognize the labor of President Áñez at this moment of transition and optimism for Bolivia,” he told reporters in La Paz.

A senior State Department official, asked why the United States had refrained from addressing alleged abuses by the Áñez government, said that “our message has been consistent all the way through to all actors, that they need to be able to create a framework of impartiality. . . . That goes for every actor in the system, including the transitional authorities.”

Morales, Bolivia’s president for more than 13 years, resigned Nov. 10 after the OAS issued its preliminary report on the election and Bolivia’s military and national police withdrew their support for him. Confusion reigned as the senior socialists next in line for the presidency followed him out the door.

Catholic Church leaders called an emergency meeting with Bolivian officials and dignitaries from the European Union and Brazil, according to Waldo Albarracín, a prominent anti-Morales human rights activist who attended. That night, he said, Morales supporters attacked and burned his home.

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Áñez was invited to serve as interim leader. But Albarracín, like others, now denounces her for going back on the promise that she would not seek a full term.

“Her role was to lead the country to transition, not to run for president,” he said.

Critics say Áñez has polarized the nation in part through rhetoric — she warned voters in January against allowing the return of “savages” to power, an apparent reference to the indigenous heritage of Morales and many of his supporters. Right-wing Bolivians had long accused Morales of exerting undue pressure on the news media — but Áñez’s government has appeared to do the same, labeling as “seditious” outlets critical of her administration.

Humberto Pacosillo closed his Inti Pacha Radio in November, he said, after he was warned by authorities that he could be jailed for sedition. His station had aired reports that blamed the interim government for the killings of left-wing protesters during clashes that followed Morales’s resignation. At least nine people were killed in the central city of Sacaba on Nov. 15, and at least eight more were killed four days later in El Alto, according to the ombudsman’s office.

“We report on what is going on in our communities,” Pacosillo said. “It is the reality, but those in power don’t want to hear. They started calling us ‘communication terrorists.’ ”

Áñez’s government initially blamed the killings on Morales supporters, claiming that demonstrators shot their own allies to cast blame on her administration. Officials continue to deny that security forces were at fault, but in mid-February they began negotiating compensation packages with victims’ families.

After Morales resignation, a question for Bolivia: Was this the democratic will or a coup?

Iveth Saravia, who runs a community organization in El Alto, said she saw police and soldiers open fire on protesters there. The government had said the demonstrators were plotting to blow up a storage facility that provides metropolitan La Paz with cooking fuel — a claim she and other protesters deny.

“They claimed we were at fault, but we did not have guns or tear gas,” she said. “The only weapon we had was our voice. We pleaded with the military, asking why they were shooting.”

“It is hard to say anything, because if you talk, they accuse you of all sorts of crimes,” she said. “If you post something on social media, it is sedition. They persecute anyone who is critical and praise anyone who attacks their opponents.”

Faiola reported from Miami.

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