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Unpacking the last 12 months in Bolivian politics with Dr. Tulia Falleti

The Director of UPenn’s Latin American and Latinx program discussed Bolivia's political turmoil and their recent election. 

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The Plurinational State of Bolivia has experienced political instability and multiple acts of civil unrest after a disputed national election in October 2019. 

That election would have determined if the country’s first Indigenous president, Evo Morales, would have won an unprecedented fourth term. 

Rise of Evo Morales

Morales overcame several challenges on his road to power. He was born to a poor family of  llama headers, but after moving to the Chapare province in 1977 for mandatory military service, he became a trade unionist for coca farmers. 

It was in this role that the Aymara activist began to anger the United States by going against their interests in Latin America. 

In the 1980s, Morales heavily campaigned against America’s policy of coca eradication, which was a response to the “War on Drugs” and intended to stop the flow of cocaine — processed coca — from entering the country. 

Coca leaf farming was a large part of the economy for Indigenous communities in Bolivia. The U.S. funded military operations to enforce the eradication measure and it led to accusations of human rights violations and a severe economic crisis in 1985.  

“More Bolivians die every year in the coca conflict (proportionately to population) than U.S. citizens die from cocaine abuse... [For us] the remedy is worse than the disease,” Morales said at the time.

He later won a seat in the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies in 1997 and within months of entering politics, he assumed the leadership of the Movement for Socialism party (MAS). 

Morales continued to garner national attention after leading anti-government protests between 2000 and 2002 in Cochabamba in response to efforts of water privatization in the landlocked country. The conflict forced president Jorge Quiroga to expel him from congress. 

The activist leader still placed second in the 2002 presidential election. This came after the U.S. threatened to lower aid to Bolivia if the MAS candidate won. 

More people were calling for popular ownership of the country's natural resources after the Bolivian Gas Conflict (2003 - 2005). The privatization of the Andean country’s natural gas supply along with its sale to the U.S. below market value via neighboring Chile led to another string of protests. 

After 60 people died and hundreds more were injured in confrontations with government forces, president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and his defense minister fled to the U.S. His vice president, Carlos Mesa, took over but ultimately resigned in 2005 after failing to balance U.S. and activist demands. 

In December of that same year, Morales won an overwhelming victory in the presidential election, beating Quiroga by more than 25 points. The result made him Bolivia's first Indigenous president. 

The Morales presidency

Professor Tulia Falleti, Director of the Latin American and Latinx Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania, has been closely following the political situation in Bolivia for a number of years. She recently discussed with AL DÍA News how Morales went from being an adored leader, to being ousted in a military coup, and how his Socialist movement lives on today. 

After being sworn in as president in 2006, Morales made well on his promises. 

He nationalized natural resources, lifted more than 2 million people (or nearly 20% of the population) from poverty and changed the constitution to make it more inclusive for indigenous people. 

The new 2009 constitution was very progressive as it granted rights to Mother Earth, set aside seats in congress for Indigenous groups, and made the country a secular state.

"He made the state accessible to a large percentage of the population that was previously excluded from the state and its political process as well,” Falleti said. “Before his advent to power, there was a great process of registration of many citizens who did not even have identity cards and did not participate in the Bolivian political process." 

The Indigenous president maintained a highly favorable image throughout his first two terms. People outside of Bolivia became skeptical of him when he ran for a third term in 2014. 

Bolivia allows for its leaders to only serve two terms, but Morales argued that since he had only served one presidential term since the constitutional reform in 2009, which changed the country’s name to the Plurinational State of Bolivia, he was entitled to run again for a “second” term under the new constitution. 

Tensions within his base started in 2011 after his government proposed constructing a highway that would run through the protected TIPNIS rainforest. Inigenous leaders went to the capitol, La Paz, to protest the move because they were not asked for prior consultation. 

Morales canceled it then, but brought it back in 2017. 

"Those who lived in Bolivia, by 2011 and largely due to the TIPNIS conflict,were already beginning to feel a division. A division among those who used to support the government. From 2011 onwards a significant portion of the social bases of support of the MAS began to see that the government  was no longer representing them,” Falleti said.

The TIPNIS conflict and Bolivia’s increasing dependence on natural gas made MAS supporters question why Morales was not upholding the ecological standards he promised in the 2009 constitution and the right to free prior and informed consent of the Indigenous communities that live in the natural reserve. 

This meant that by the time the 2019 election rolled around, he did not just have to worry about Luis Fernando Camacho and the right-wing, but also disaffected former loyalists. 

 2019 election mayhem 

The justifications given for a Morales fourth term were even less convincing than the ones given for a third term.  

"The argument that he needs to be the president, that the revolution needs him, that he should be the leader who continues, is already beginning to be interpreted abroad and in Bolivia as an undemocratic concentration of power,” Falleti commented. 

In 2016, the country held a referendum on whether the constitution should be amended to remove term limits for the presidency. Morales lost the vote on the referendum, but the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal got rid of term limits anyway.   

"We arrive in 2019 with international observers who fear that Bolivia could be the new Venezuela, in the sense of the unlimited perpetuation of Morales and García Linera's power,” Falleti said. “I believe that if the situation in Venezuela had not existed, the observers would have acted differently."

One observer, the Organization of American States, was worried about the situation based on their staunch opposition to Daniel Ortega’s rule in Nicaragua and Nicolas Maduro’s regime in Venezuela.

Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the OAS, traveled to Bolivia weeks before the election and took photos with Morales, essentially certifying the legitimacy of his aspirations. 

The questioning of the electoral process started on election night, Oct. 20, 2019, after the system of rapid vote counting (Transmisión Rápida y Segura de Actas or TREP) was stopped at 7:40pm.

Falleti stressed that the TREP is simply a provisional way of letting the greater population know how the projection of the election is going. The votes accounted for by the TREP would still have to be further verified, but it is helpful when there is not reliable exit polling, particularly in the more rural provinces. 

It was halted with 83% of the vote counted, although it had been routine to let the quick run until about 95% of votes were tallied. At that point, Morales had a seven-point lead over second place Mesa, but he needed at least a 10-point difference to avoid a runoff election.  

The suspicious halt in the TREP’s count by the government and the narrow lead by the MAS candidate led many Bolivians to claim fraud. On that same night, protesters burned polling stations and offices of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. 

The OAS came out with a preliminary report on the electoral process in Bolivia less than a week after the mayhem that occurred on election night. 

"That report that I read carefully, is not good from a political science point of view. It presents information that seeks to make an argument rather than show evidence in a transparent way,” Falleti explained.

After weeks of protest where people were accusing the MAS government of fraud based on the suspicious stoppage of the TREP and the OAS report, Morales came out on Nov. 10 to offer to hold new elections.

Camacho and the opposition said it was too late for new elections and within hours, Morales was forced to resign following a police, civic, and later military coup. He fled to Mexico after president Andrés Manuel López Obrador offered him asylum status. 

Jeanine Añez became interim president in the midst of the coup. The right-wing Christian fundamentalist was previously an overlooked member of the minority in the Bolivian Senate.   

In December, after Añez had taken office, another report was released by the OAS, who had contracted Professor Irfan Nooruddin from Georgetown University as the electoral statistics expert. Prof. Falleti highlighted the mistakes in this second report that have been made public by a series of papers and media.

"When the OAS electoral analyst entered the timestamp instead of putting it in the 24:00 hour format, and seeing how the votes were arriving throughout the day, he left the AM and PM format of the data. Then everything got mixed up because after 1:00 a.m., you saw 1:00 p.m. and after 1:01 a.m. came 1:01 p.m. That error completely invalidated the statistical analysis," she said. 

 The mistake was made public, even showing up in a New York Times editorial piece in June, but the OAS has yet to come out with a statement apologizing for the errors in its report. 

Ultimately, this does not conclude whether or not fraud was committed at all, but it does cement the fact that it cannot be determined from the OAS report.  

"The results of the current election, where Luis Arce has 55% of the popular vote, make me think that in 2019 there was no fraud and that indeed Morales won with a little more than 10%," Falleti said.

She also noted that the TREP system was not used in the recent election.

Morales’ Exile

After Morales was forced to resign the presidency many were asking where he would seek political asylum.

The quick response was to say that he would flee to a country that also had a Socialist government, these countries being Cuba and Venezuela. Falleti believes that the MAS leader did well in not going to either.

"Morales makes a very good calculation of not going to one or the other. If he had done that, he would have been stuck with the idea that he was going to do the same thing as Nicolás Maduro. I think going to Mexico first was strategically good for him," she explained.

Falleti also noted that even though Morales would later gain political refugee status in Argentina on Dec. 12, he could not go to the neighboring South American country immediately after resigning because former president Mauricio Macri would not have offered him asylum as a result of ideological differences. 

New president, Alberto Fernández, was inaugurated on Dec. 10 and Morales already had a good relationship with Argentina’s new vice president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. When she was president, they were part of the “pink tide,” a group of left-wing presidents across Latin America in the 2000s.   

Being in Argentina gave Morales the geographic proximity to his home country and there are also many Bolivian migrants there.  He made sure they voted for MAS in the 2020 election. 

From exile, he also sometimes met with compatriots in the border province of Salta. 

He has continued to oversee the MAS party from Argentina, and this was part of what led to Añez accusing Morales of terrorism. She claimed he was fanning street protests and blockades, which suffocated La Paz. 

Añez also barred Morales from running for president in the 2020 election and a Bolivian court rejected his appeal to run for Senate in the same year. 

The 2020 Election

The road blockades worsened every time the government delayed the election because MAS supporters saw this as the interim government trying everything to hold onto power.   

Elections were originally scheduled for May 3, but it was soon pushed back to Sept. 6. After a spike in COVID-19 infections, the electoral tribunal settled on Oct. 18

Añez was set on winning the presidency through the democratic process, but she was usually always placing third in the polls. She constantly battled for second place with former president Mesa, but after he took a commanding lead over her, she withdrew her candidacy on Sept. 17.

It is unclear whether she dropped out in order to consolidate support for Mesa, or the independent candidate, Camacho. 

There were several actions taken by the interim government that also complicated their chances of holding onto power. Their biggest missteps came in their handling of global pandemic and the treatment of indigenous communities.

Falleti argues that Añez’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was widely unsuccessful mainly because of the spread of misinformation. 

In May, she was promoting the use of a card for people to wear that contained chlorine dioxide, a cleaning substance, as a way to protect people from the virus. 

There were also issues that any leader of this peripheral country was going to have to face that would have made it difficult to fully follow health mandates.

"Bolivia having an informal economy and a highly precarious labor market also makes the possibilities of social distancing or protection very difficult. There are many people who do not have the option of quarantine because they live day-to-day and need to work,” Falleti outlined.

Optics were also not on her side when she tested positive for COVID-19. At the same time, health officials were finding hundreds of bagged bodies across the country suspected of perishing from the virus.

The way she assumed the office of the presidency was an act that went against everything Morales stood for. Beyond contrasting political ideologies, Añez held up a bible to a majority indigenous country and proceeded to make racist comments about their culture. 

"I dream of a Bolivia free of indigenous satanic rituals, the city is not for the Indians who should go to the altiplano or the chaco!" she wrote on Twitter.  

The MAS leader fought to have the Indigenous community be more represented in government, but the interim president had no Indigenous people in her cabinet. 

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a body within the OAS, released a report that found that under Añez’s rule, there were “strong indications of human rights violations, with profound repercussions for the life of Bolivian society.” 

Accusations of horrid acts such as torture, persecution and genocide were also levied against the interim president. 

There was a general consensus that MAS would win the presidential election in the Fall, but there were doubts if they could do so without a runoff. 

They chose to have Luis Arce, Morales’ Minister of Economy and Public Finance, head the Socialist party’s ticket. 

He crafted and implemented policies associated with Bolivia’s economic “miracle,” which saw millions lifted from poverty in one of Latin America’s most impoverished countries. 

Arce did more than enough to avoid a runoff election by obtaining more than 55% of the vote. Second-place Mesa was nearly 30 points behind. 

The president-elect will have a tough job sowing the tensions left by the last 12 months Bolivia has witnessed, but the economist has assured the world he will not abandon his left-wing philosophy.

“I have had my ideas since I was 14 years old and I started reading Karl Marx. Since then, I have not stopped having the same ideological position and I am not going to change for anything,” Arce told Reuters.

Since his victory, he has also stated that Morales will continue to head MAS, but he has no intentions of making the ex-president part of his administration. 

Arce and his running mate, David Choquehuanca, will have their inauguration ceremony on Nov. 8. However, the president-elect is still worried as he does not rule out another right-wing coup being attempted. 

"Everyone wants to control Bolivian lithium. Everybody again wants to negotiate for Bolivian gas. Is there a possibility of a coup d'état again? Without a doubt," he said. 

A Bolivian court has since dismissed terrorism charges and annulled an arrest warrant made against Morales. He has also made a foreign trip to Maduro’s Venezuela and now waits to see when he can go back home to the people he has fought for. 

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