Guillaume Long
Al Jazeera, November 16, 2019

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The results of Bolivia’s October 20 elections were hardly a surprise. Thirteen years of social and economic successes in one of Latin America’s poorest countries — including reducing extreme poverty by 60 percent and sustaining real per capita GDP growth at double the rate of the rest of Latin America — made the incumbent president Evo Morales the clear front-runner.

The polls certainly foresaw a Morales win and most of them predicted a Morales victory without the need for runoff.[1] For that to happen, Morales needed 40 percent of the votes with at least a 10-point lead ahead of his closest rival.

The official results confirmed those predictions. Morales secured 47.06 percent of the vote, compared to 36.51 percent for his contender, Carlos Mesa, himself a former caretaker president after the ouster of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Significantly, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), Morales’s political party, also won a majority in the legislative assembly: 68 seats out of 130 in the lower house, and 21 out of 36 in the senate.

The OAS mission of Electoral Observers, however, immediately cast doubt on the integrity of the electoral process and then called on Bolivia’s electoral authorities to “convene a second round” of the presidential elections. The mission’s main complaint was what it called the “change of trend” in the vote count in the first 24 hours after the elections.[2] In fact, as a report I coauthored on the elections has clearly demonstrated, Morales’s increase in his margin of victory as more votes were counted was entirely consistent with the prior trend. As in prior elections, areas that overwhelmingly favored Morales were simply counted later than those favoring his opponents. After accounting for geography, there simply was no “change of trend.”[3]

But the doubts cast by the OAS mission on the election results emboldened Mesa and a growing and diverse protest movement. Roadblocks and barricades appeared. There were calls for strikes. Soon large sectors of the opposition demanded that the elections be annulled, and some called for Morales’s resignation.

As tensions mounted, Mesa, who had sought to bring together the disparate groups opposed to Morales, was outflanked on his right by Fernando “El Macho” Camacho, who had not run in the elections, but had quickly emerged as the flag bearer of the rebellion. With links to evangelist and paramilitary groups, his own special place in the Panama Papers, and a history of racist and misogynist abuse, Camacho has been described as Bolivia’s Bolsonaro, the current far-right president of Brazil.[4] As during the eastern lowland elites’ failed 2008 coup against Morales, Camacho and his Civic Committee of Santa Cruz conjured up strong regionalist and racist, anti-indigenous sentiments.

Some of the protests were violent. Some polling stations and electoral tribunals were attacked and burned down.[5] Protesters harassed and humiliated MAS supporters, including a MAS mayor whose hair they forcefully cut off, covered her body in red paint, and marched through the streets on public display.[6] In the two weeks following the elections, several deaths, on both sides of the political divide, were lamented.[7]

In the midst of this dangerous polarization, Morales opted for appeasement and compromise. On October 25, he called for an OAS audit of the electoral process and promised to abide by its findings. When the preliminary report of the audit called for new elections, Morales agreed and announced the designation of new electoral authorities.

But it was already too late. Members of Morales’s cabinet, legislators, local authorities, and their families were threatened. Opposition supporters looted their houses, burning down some, and several senior Morales allies sought asylum in the Mexican embassy. A police mutiny made matters worse. Then the high command of the military called for the president’s resignation.

Morales resigned and then went into hiding, fearing for his life. He eventually sought asylum in Mexico and left Bolivia. But he might not have managed to do so were it not for the active diplomatic protection of the Mexican government and the involvement of the president-elect of Argentina.[8] In a November 12 press conference, the Mexican foreign minister provided a unique account of how Bolivia’s neighbors, having initially granted authorization for the use of their airspace, started to renege, one after the other, on their promise to allow the passage of the Mexican plane taking Morales to the safety of his exile. These sudden changes of position, in some instances once the aircraft was already — and perilously — airborne, raise troubling questions as to whether strong pressures were exerted to try and prevent Morales’s escape and survival.

Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration celebrated the coup by “applaud[ing] the Bolivian people for demanding freedom and the Bolivian military for abiding by its oath to protect (…) Bolivia’s constitution.” Trump, who became president despite receiving almost three million fewer votes than his opponent, proclaimed: “We are now one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous, and free Western Hemisphere” ― an unnerving reminder of the government doublespeak employed to support policies of regime change in Latin America and around the world.[9]

In Bolivia, the political vacuum lasted several days. Then, on November 12, Senator Jeanine Añez was ushered into the senate. She proclaimed herself president in an almost empty chamber and in the absence of the minimal legal quorum for the senate to convene. Añez is a far-right evangelical Christian better known for her repetitive racist remarks, including describing indigenous customs as “satanic rituals.”[10] She entered the presidential palace brandishing a huge Bible and proclaimed that “the Bible is back in the Palace” while a group of supporters accompanied her, chanting “Praise the Lord.” Camacho, the Bolivian Bolsonaro, was at her side. If there was ever a symbolic moment for the trouncing of Latin America’s strong political culture of laicismo, the separation of church and state, this was it.

The presidential sash was finally bestowed on Añez by a military officer. Whereas Añez pledged to act as an interim president and promptly call new elections, she swiftly sent signals that she intended to rule. She named a radical right-wing cabinet, ordered the army onto the streets to suppress pro-Morales protests, and quickly recognized opposition figure Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president.

The coup that has taken place is unlikely to lead to the pacification of the country or generate political stability in Bolivia. Morales’s remarkable social and economic legacy won’t be quickly forgotten by Bolivia’s popular classes. And, with nearly half of the electorate having voted for the MAS and indigenous protests spontaneously erupting all over the country, the future remains uncertain.

Any potential attempt to prevent the MAS and its most representative candidates from taking part in future elections, by mimicking other efforts in the region to outlaw the Left and its political leaders, will send the country further into a spiral of unrest and instability. Bolivia may yet experience much turmoil, repression, violence, and anguish before it sees the restoration of democracy and the rule of law.[11]


Guillaume Long is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (www.cepr.net) and previously held several cabinet positions in the government of Ecuador, including Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Culture, and Minister of Knowledge and Human Talent.

[9] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-president-donald-j-trump-regarding-resignation-bolivian-president-evo-morales/

[10] http://web.archive.org/web/20191113002729/https:/twitter.com/JeanineAnez/status/347734496273113088

[11] On the already important affectations to Human Rights in Bolivia see:
https://www.defensoria.gob.bo/contenido/afectacion-a-derechos-en-conflicto-elecciones-2019.