Bolivia is going through its worst political unrest in decades.
After nearly three weeks of nationwide protests against overwhelming evidence of electoral fraud, president Evo Morales resigned and fled to Mexico. While most Bolivians responded to the news with jubilation, several far-left commentators in the foreign press declared this a violent coup d’etat courtesy of the right-wing elite.
So which is it, then?
An illegal seizure of power or a heroic revolution to ouster an illegitimate leader?
I’m leaning heavily towards the latter.
And before you dismiss me as just another right-wing fascist, I should clarify I sit firmly on the left side of the political spectrum. I deplore economic inequality, detest racism, and don’t believe unchecked capitalism is the solution to all of South America’s ills.
(While I’m at it, I should also disclose I no longer live in Bolivia, having moved away in late 2018).
In fact, I used to love Morales’s brand of socialism and will concede he’s done plenty of good for the country: he nationalised Bolivia’s resources at a pivotal moment and distributed the spoils among the poor; he fought tirelessly for indigenous rights in a nation with a dark racial past; and he presided over economic growth and stability the likes of which Bolivia had never seen.
Eventually, though, his authoritarianism became too much for Bolivians to bear.
“Power corrupts,” as the old saying goes. And an insatiable appetite for power saw Evo Morales become absolutely corrupt.
Evo’s Anti-Democratic Tendencies
Let’s go back to the earliest indications something was amiss.
In 2009, Morales held a referendum to modify the Bolivian constitution. Although most of the amendments were above board, he added a questionable decree that would allow Bolivian presidents to seek one term of re-election, as opposed to one term in total. And because his party, The Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), had been so successful in its initial years, he won the referendum and the subsequent election in a landslide.
By the time his second term was due to expire, Evo had already filled the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE, High Electoral Court) and Tribunal Constitutional Plurinacional (TCP, High Constitutional Court) with loyalists. Although the far-left media will argue the public elected these judges, which is technically true, they neglect to mention Bolivians had no other choice than MAS candidates on the ballot. During the 2011 TSE elections, approximately 60% of the country spoiled their vote in protest.
Unsurprisingly, Evo’s partisan court of handpicked judges was all too eager to declare he could stand for office once more. This time, they argued the third term would only be his second term under the new constitution.
Authoritarian Latin American leaders have made the same power play before, most recently in Venezuela (and we all know how that turned out). Of course, you wouldn’t be able to pull off a stunt like this in the more air-tight democracies of the developed world (at least not yet; let’s see how the Trump presidency pans out).
Nevertheless, things were still going pretty well for the Bolivia. The economy was in good shape despite the end of the commodities boom, the indigenous majority was more empowered than ever before, and the worst corruption scandals were yet to hit. Thus, Evo won his re-re-election convincingly in 2014.
Now he’s in his third term and has been in power over a decade. And it’s right around this time that his base, mostly working-class indigenous, start to turn against him.
A 2015 corruption scandal involving his party saw millions of dollars siphoned off from an indigenous fund, the very people he was supposedly championing. A year later, his ex-lover was caught managing a Chinese Corporation with a multi-billion dollar government infrastructure contract despite having zero qualifications. Indigenous rights activists criticised his plans to path the divisive TIPNIS highway, and environmentalists lamented the destruction of Madidi National Park to build a hydroelectric power plant.
In a 2016 referendum to propose his re-re-re-election, 52% of the country voted “No.” Evo graciously agreed to honour the result and respect the will of the people.
Nevertheless, Morales continued to spend public funds on his legacy. If earlier investments such as the $300 million Tupac Katari Satellite (half of its funds went “missing”) were controversial, his later projects were downright perverse.
In 2017, he inaugurated the Museum of the Democratic and Cultural Revolution, an extravagant propaganda machine built to bolster his own ego. The outrageously ostentatious complex resides in his hometown of Orinoca, a desperately poor and isolated highland village some four hours down a dirt road from the nearest city.
Next was the Casa Grande del Pueblo, an ultramodern 120-metre tower in the middle of La Paz’s low-rise colonial-era old town. His private quarters boasts a jacuzzi, massage room, and a helicopter pad.
The airport serves Chimore, a rural town of 21,000 that’s known for its involvement in the narcotics trade.
By late 2017, Evo still wasn’t ready to call it a day, so he got his loyalists in the Tribunal Constitutional Plurinacional to enable him to run again.
Their reasoning this time?
Now, the far-left will argue the constitutional court legally granted him the power to run again. And that is true, technically speaking.
But to hold a referendum, ignore the results, and get your partisan cronies in the High Court to change the constitution in your favour is hardly democratic.
Though none of this came as a surprise given Morales publicly declared admiration for Nicholas Maduro throughout his tenure.
And speaking of Maduro, the economic calamity and brutal authoritarian rule that defines present-day Venezuela was a major driver of anti-Morales sentiment in Bolivia. Bolivians kept a close eye on the nation’s woes and became increasingly weary of unchecked totalitarian rule.
Nevertheless, Evo’s autocratic tendencies didn’t stop there.
Knowing full well he’d struggle to win the 2019 election, Morales decided to cook the books.
October 20, 2019
The year leading up the election was tense.
The possibility of electoral fraud became a hot topic around the country, and those who’d been through political unrest before stocked up on essential supplies.
On election night, the preliminary count had Morales in front by less than 10%, which in the Bolivian system would see him in a perilous second-round run-off with runner-up Carlos Mesa.
But then suddenly, the counting stopped and the whole country lost their shit.
For almost 24 agonising hours, nobody from the government gave a word of explanation as to what was going on. Evo Morales declared victory even though he was losing before the counting stopped, claiming the final votes were from his rural supporters.
When the count finally resumed again, a “drastic and inexplicable” change put Evo just over the necessary 10 point margin for an outright win.
Sound a little suss?
Older Bolivians remember all too well what it’s like to live under a dictatorship, and the younger lot presumably weren’t too keen to find out.
“Todos a las calles” (everyone to the streets) became the catchphrase on social media that night.
That Claim That It Is A Right Versus Left Issue
The far-left narrative is the uprising was a right-wing coup in which the bourgeoise sought to remove the proletariat from power. The reality, however, is this was a bipartisan protest against the electoral fraud of a dangerously authoritarian leader.
Miners, coca growers, bankers, students, hippies, and businessmen marched together for a common cause. Even the country’s biggest labour union, the Central Obrera Boliviana, started protesting against Evo Morales.
(Notably absent were the country’s civil servants who have long been forced to publicly support MAS for fear of losing their jobs).
Sure, there was undoubtedly a sizable contingent of conservatives in the mix.
But to declare the entire uprising a right-wing coup is erroneous.
Left, right, and centre banded together with anarchists and the apathetic to fight for democracy. Even the staunch feminist María Galindo, who is as far removed from the right as you get, joined the fray.
The Claim That The Racist Elites Took Over
Most of the left-wing ire is directed towards Luis Camacho, a little-known Santa Cruz civic leader who became a powerful figurehead during the uprising.
Camacho, who has long been a fierce critic of Morales, declared the election results illegitimate and demanded the president immediately resign. With the bible in one hand and a letter of resignation in the other, he theatrically sought to confront Morales in La Paz to great fanfare from his own side.
A quick look at his Wiki page suggests reports of Macho Camacho being a far-right radical appear true. He served as the vice president of the extremist Santa Cruz Youth Union (albeit almost 20 years ago), who are known for engaging in violent operations to oppress minorities. Critics have labelled him everything from the “Bolsonaro of Bolivia” to a “Christian Fascist” and a “Right-Wing Extremist.”
Certainly not someone I’d want running the show.
But what the far-left press neglect to mention is the civil rebellion was never intended to propel Camacho to power. On the contrary, despite rising from obscurity to stardom, Camacho has said on numerous occasions he has no intention of running for office.
Bolivia didn’t protest for three weeks to put a right-wing racist in; they hit the streets in their millions to kick an authoritarian dictator out.
You also won’t hear the far-left press speak of how Camacho sought to heal racial divides during the uprising: he formed a powerful alliance with indigenous leader Marco Pumari and called for Bolivians to respect the Wiphala flag.
Nonetheless, it would be naïve to suggest there aren’t any racial undertones at play.
Shortly after Evo resigned, a group of opposition protestors burnt the indigenous Wiphala flag, and police were filmed cutting the sacred symbol out of their uniforms. Both these disturbing incidents highlight the deep-seated racism that mars Bolivian society. And sadly, there’s still plenty of scope for racist white elites to fill the power vacuum, potentially undoing the last 14 years of indigenous reconciliation under Evo.
But racism hasn’t been the driving force behind the Bolivian uprising.
The overwhelming majority of the opposition, many of whom were indigenous themselves, fought to safeguard their democracy in the face of blatant electoral fraud.
The Claim That The Military Seized Power In A Coup
Another commonly spread falsehood is that Morales is the victim of a military coup.
Now, the semantics of a coup versus a political uprising are complex, and I’d rather leave that debate to the New York Times.
But regardless of whether you call it a coup or a revolt, there’s no doubt in my mind the succession of power was justified.
Let’s look at the order of events:
- Many Bolivians lose faith in Morales for his anti-democratic tendencies.
- Many Bolivians are outraged at electoral irregularities and begin an indefinite nationwide protest, later demanding Evo’s resignation.
- The military declares it will not raise arms against its own people.
- The police mutiny against the government due to the overwhelming evidence of electoral fraud.
- The OAS releases a preliminary report confirming electoral fraud.
- Morales makes a statement calling for new elections (without mentioning the OAS report or whether he will run).
- The Bolivian military suggests he should step down to restore order to the country.
- Evo quits and flies to Mexico.
Those calling it a coup do so for the military’s suggestion Evo should resign. And, to be fair, their suggestion was undoubtedly the pivotal moment that prompted his political demise. No more military; no more presidency.
But unlike your run-of-the-mill Latin American military coup, Bolivian General William Kaliman, who was a strong supporter of Evo Morales until then, was merely echoing the wishes of the people. The so-called “military intervention” was done to restore peace to the country in the face of now confirmed voter fraud.
The military also didn’t attempt to take control upon Evo’s resignation. Instead, the constitutionally mandated presidential line of succession allowed senator Jeanine Añez to assume the top job until new elections could be held. And One of Añez‘s first actions as president was to replace her high level military officials, including Kaliman.
The far-left may then argue the military ignored Morales’ calls for fresh elections upon the release of the OAS report.
But let me ask you this: why should Morales run again if it’s now proven he committed electoral fraud? He’s just going to try and rig it again. Would you give a guy like that another shot if your democracy was at stake?
Electoral fraud also amounts to immediate disqualification under the Bolivian constitution, as it presumably does in any reasonable democratic state.
The Claim That The Opposition Seized Power Through Violence
An oft-repeated claim of the far-left is that violent forces overthrew Evo Morales.
But the independent Bolivian media paint a different picture: pro-government supporters instigated the vast majority of the violence while the opposition exercised remarkable restraint.
Let’s take a look at the major incidents involving MAS and its supporters:
- All three casualties of the uprising (until Morales resigned) were opposition protesters killed by government supporters.
- MAS aligned coca farmers attacked the rural town of Montero with firearms, killing two and wounding dozens.
- MAS supporters stormed the city of Cochabamba, killing one and injuring dozens.
- MAS supporters attacked a group of protestors in El Alto, injuring dozens.
- MAS supporters ambushed a convoy of opposition protestors en route to La Paz, injuring 30 and stripping young female students of their clothing.
- Different MAS supporters later ambushed the same convoy again when snipers opened fire on unarmed protestors, injuring three.
- MAS paid impoverished Bolivians 50-100BS ($7 to $14) per day to fight on their behalf.
- Reporters uncovered a Molotov bomb depository in the Ministry of Communication parking lot.
- Multiple reports of involvement from Cuban and Venezuelan soldiers surface.
- At least one FARC soldier was found fighting for the government.
- MAS supporters committed widespread looting and vandalism upon Evo’s resignation.
Of course, the opposition wasn’t entirely peaceful all the time:
- The opposition burned down several electoral offices on election night.
- The opposition publicly humiliated a MAS mayor.
- The opposition ransacked Evo’s house and burned his sister’s home down.
- The opposition kidnapped MAS politicians and made death threats against others.
These are all unacceptable incidents, without a doubt.
But in the weeks leading up to Evo’s resignation, pro-Morales protestors instigated the vast majority of the violence we’ve seen in Bolivia.
The Claim That It Was An Imperialist Coup
Predictably, the far-left is declaring this a US-backed coup.
And it wouldn’t be uncharacteristic for America to be involved in some covert way. The CIA has long been meddling in Latin American affairs, after all. And the yankees are certainly not upset about how things have panned out, as the official statement from Donald Trump shows.
But even though I’ll concede the United States may have played some kind of role, there’s yet to be any credible proof to support the theory.
The Claim That The Election Wasn’t Rigged
Some reject the OAS findings in favour of a report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, an American left-leaning thinktank. CEPR’s report concludes the official results, in which Morales won by a 10% margin, were legitimate and claims there isn’t sufficient evidence of electoral fraud. These same people argue the OAS is a biased US-funded agency that serves American imperial interests.
Now we’ve got two completely contradictory reports: OAS who say there was fraud and CEPR who say there wasn’t.
So who do we believe?
Once you factor in all the available evidence, the OAS are far more credible in my eyes.
First up, both organizations are potentially biased. CEPR are known to lean heavily towards the left and OAS may be White House lackies to some extent.
(Interestingly, opposition candidate Carlos Mesa initially rejected the audit fearing the OAS would be biased towards Morales because Secretary-General Luis Leonardo Almagro is a known associate).
Now, the CEPR analysis, which was conducted stateside from publicly available electoral data, concludes the “inexplicable change” seen after the 24-hour shutdown could, in fact, be explained by the late arrival of rural votes. They claim it wasn’t so “inexplicable” after all.
Unlike the OAS, however, CEPR wasn’t able to review Bolivia’s electoral infrastructure and procedures on the ground to analyse vulnerabilities and exploits. And while I’m admittedly no electoral systems expert, the OAS’ findings of falsified tally sheets and manipulated IP addresses do come across as rather suspicious.
There’s plenty of other evidence to support the case for fraud as well.
Boxes full of uncounted tally sheets turned up in the days following the count, while scores of deceased Bolivians were mysteriously enrolled to vote. Shortly after election night, a systems engineer called Edgar Villages presented an in-depth analysis of the electoral fraud on national TV; he and his associates subsequently received death threats. Then there’s Ethical Hacking, a firm hired by the government to monitor the electoral process, who declared the IT system wasn’t sufficiently secure.
Of course, we must consider the character of Evo Morales himself, who has repeatedly demonstrated his disregard for the will of the people.
And now, to top it all off, María Eugenia Choque of the Tribunal Supremo Electoral has admitted high-ranking MAS officials obliged her to turn off the electricity and internet on election night.
Evo is out but the battle for a better Bolivia has only just begun.
The right-wing interim president initially failed to appoint a single indigenous member to her transitional cabinet, fuelling fears of further polarization down racial lines. Bigoted comments by a Camacho-aligned priest have also fanned the flames of hate: “The Bible is returning to the Government Palace. Pachamama (The Indigenous version of Mother Earth) will never return.”
Morales’ remaining supporters, primarily impoverished indigenous, have taken to the streets in violent protest. In response, President Añez sent the police and military in to restore order, which will likely result in significant bloodshed.
Tensions are running high as indigenous Bolivians are rightfully worried the widespread discrimination of the pre-Evo era will become the new status quo. A civil war is certainly not out of the question at this stage.
Things will likely get a lot worse before they get any better. And only time will tell whether the people’s three-week battle for democracy will have been worth it in the end.