Is Death Coming for Bolivian Democracy?

Morales ousted in military coup, replaced by interim president

Democracy is on the line in Bolivia. In the last few weeks, the control of Bolivia’s presidency has changed hands by way of a military coup from Evo Morales, the leader of the Socialist Party, to Jeanine Áñez, the leader of the opposing party. After allegations of corruption following the recent elections, the opposition to Morales forced him to resign and leave Bolivia for fear of being tried for treason, leaving a power vacuum for at least a week. Finally, Jeanine Áñez declared herself interim president with her party backing her up. Morales has vehemently denied her legitimacy from exile, but right now there is not much he can do against the current government. Throughout this process, violent protests have been occurring on the streets of Bolivia, both in favor of and against Morales. Bolivian democracy is on the decline, beginning with the events surrounding Morales’ victory earlier this year up to the current governmental situation.

Morales had been an active member of government for many years. The first indigenous president of Bolivia, he spent much of his time working for indigenous rights. He protected indigenous languages, encouraged indigenous people to be more active in government, and drafted laws protecting indigenous people from racial targeting. More recently, he worked towards reducing poverty in Bolivia, resulting in a dramatic reduction of both poverty and inequality during his terms. Near the end of his last full term, however, Morales had been subject to some controversy. According to previous Bolivian law, his latest full term was supposed to have been his last. He had already been in power for fourteen years when he proposed changing Bolivian law to allow him to run again, claiming it was his right as a citizen. The proposal was granted, and he ran again. He won by enough points to not necessitate a redo of the election, but there were many people who believed there was foul play, so Morales asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to look into it. The OAS said they had found unusual discrepancies in the votes that could indicate manipulation, so Morales stated that he would redo the elections. Before the new elections happened, however, the chief of the armed forces, General Williams Kaliman, asked him to resign, after which Morales fled the country.

 The idea behind Áñez serving as interim president is to bring some democracy back into the position by having someone there until new elections can be held. There are some warning signs that this won’t be that simple, however. First of all, the current party in power declared Morales a traitor and is looking to investigate and try all who sided with Morales for treason, which would be most of the high-ranking members of his party in the government. Secondly, the current government is also reacting extremely aggressively to the protestors, already resulting in several deaths. Finally, Áñez is a known conservative Christian. In her short time in office, she has already broken ties with some of Bolivia’s closest allies because they have socialist governments. She is also incredibly racist towards the indigenous people of the country, at one point calling into question on her Twitter whether or not some people were truly indigenous because they were wearing shoes. There is a high chance that if she stays in office, she will try to repeal several of the laws Morales put in place to protect indigenous peoples and cultures.

I spoke with Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Sofia Vera on this topic and what it would take for there to be positive change in the country. She said, firstly, that the Bolivian people should have nonviolent protests pressuring the government to hold free and fair elections. The protests show how the people are feeling, and nonviolent expressions of that discontent are more likely to come across as reasonable and to be heard by the government. Governmental escalation, unfortunately, means that many protests that start nonviolent often don’t end that way. So, as part of this process, the government must also be willing to listen to their people and respect their right to show their discontent. In order to encourage peace, the events happening in Bolivia must be continuously and fairly reported on. Bad press about overly cruel treatment of their citizens would not be good for the Bolivian government, so reporting on the events might cause the government to consider their actions more carefully. Finally, the most crucial aspect of bringing the democratic process back is, if elections do happen, the people of Bolivia must go out and vote. By not voting, they cannot express how they want their country to be run and could lose their opportunity to try to legally shift the government back towards democracy.

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