Bolivia: problems in the mirror are bigger than they appear

By Nelson O. Puc Cruz, MPP 2021, Fulbright Scholar, former consultant for the Quintana Roo State Government in México.

On November 10th, Evo Morales Ayma stepped down from Bolivia’s presidency after weeks of protests by the opposition segment of the population, attacks on members of Morales’ family and government, as well a “suggestion” by army high commanders that he should resign.

The power vacuum created has been nothing short of catastrophic for the region. In a short ceremony presided by the same military chief that suggested Morales to step down, Jeanine Añez Chávez, a right-wing lawmaker, was sworn in as acting president. Although lacking recognition from the majority party (Morales’ MAS), this new government was almost immediately recognized by the United States, Brazil, Colombia, the self-proclaimed caretaker president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, and even fringe political parties, such as Mexico’s right-wing PAN.

Bolivia has always had a characteristic approach to its economic and social policies. Under Morales, an “indio” himself, the country’s least fortunate have always been put front-and-center. Extreme poverty was reduced by 23% and is at an historical all-time low, and the Gini index went from 56.7 in 2006 to 44 in 2017, the biggest decrease for a Latin-American country on the same timeframe. 

Indigenous communities have also been granted autonomy at a level that is a first for the region, and their beliefs and traditions have been so incorporated into Bolivia’s identity that the multicolored Wiphala, which represents native people from the Andes region, has been recognized as the country’s dual flag. This same flag is now being burnt and cut out of police uniforms by the new government supporters, although maybe this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

“I dream of a Bolivia free of indigenous satanic rituals”, has said Bolivia’s new president in the past, among other racist remarks. The new administration’s armed deployment and repression, which has left 23 deaths behind (as of November 19th), is contrasting with Morales’ declarations urging his supporters to protest through non-violent methods and calling for international mediation and dialogue. 

Just as contrasting is the international organisms’ response to the Bolivian crisis. While the Inter-American Commission on Human rights has recognized a decree that exempts military and police of criminal charges as a stimulant of violent repression, the Organization of American States has been mostly silent since its controversial report on last month’s elections. The Washington-based organization has been called out by its Mexico and Uruguay ambassadors for its weak approach to the crisis, which has been limited to a mild urging for the legislative branch to “guarantee a new electoral process”.

There is no denying that Morales made big political mistakes, such as ignoring the result of the 2016 referendum that should have prevented him from running again. However, this does not mean that the resulting movement stands for democracy. With foreign powers financing the opposition and the military playing a big role in Morales’ downfall, it is impossible not to look back to the time when democratically elected governments were deposed and replaced with US-backed dictatorships. While, at the time of writing this article, the new government has not called for new elections, they have announced measures that would allow them to arrest MAS lawmakers that “are being subversive”.

While we wait for the crisis to stop, hopefully through non-violent means, it is important to recognize Bolivia as a reflection of something bigger. In a region where Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Chile’s Piñera have already set worrisome precedents in regard to human rights and the use of military, it is only fair to wonder what needs to be done to prevent these antidemocratic values to come into power. While the answer to this question escapes the scope of this article, it is clear that the first step is to call out racist and violent discourse by their name and oppose those political actors who champion it.

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