Bolivia saw a political crisis in the Fall of 2019, President Evo Morales was ousted in what his supporters termed a coup d’etat. But others called this power switch a return to democracy.
Evo Morales grew up in a poor rural area of Bolivia and began his political career as the leader of the union of coca growers. Coca has been grown and utilized by indigenous people for centuries for religious purposes, to combat altitude sickness and as a mild stimulant. The continuation of coca cultivation for sustenance farming is something Morales fought for in spite of U.S. opposition given their War on Drugs and coca’s use in the production of cocaine.
In Bolivia at least 40% of the population belongs to one of 36 indigenous groups, the highest percentage out of any South American nation. So it was significant that when Evo Morales came to power in 2006, he became the first indigenous president. He oversaw strong economic growth, a massive reduction in poverty, and an improved literacy rate. In 2006 poverty was at 38% and in 2018 it had decreased to 17%. However, critics point out that poverty has been on the rise in the past two years.
His regime is situated as part of the “pink tide,” a wave of leftist governments that came to power in the early 2000’s, including leaders like Hugo Cháves in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. The pink tide has since ebbed as a wave of conservatism has washed over the region.
In 2019, Morales ran for his fourth term as president, confident that he needed to remain in power to complete what he set out to do. He claimed victory even though critics said the result should have resulted in a run-off against his opponent, former Bolivian president Carlos Mesa.
The election was held on October 20th, 2019 and weeks of protests followed with demonstrators accusing Morales of being a dictator, saying he was violating the constitution by running for a fourth term and complaining about increased corruption. The protests became more and more violent, as residents clashed with police in clouds of tear gas.
The Organization of American States (OSA) stated that Morales rigged the vote and on November 10th military commander Williams Kaliman held a press conference calling on Morales to step down. On the same day, he resigned, claiming he was the victim of a civic coup d’etat. A few days later he left for Mexico, where he was granted political asylum.
After Morales resigned so did his vice president, the senate president and the lower house president, all in line to take over, leaving a power vacuum. New Senate President Jeanine Áñez assumed the interim presidency as she was next in line under the constitution. Morales called it “the sneakiest and most nefarious coup in history” while Áñez, denied it was a coup at all saying he left voluntarily.
Áñez is a conservative Christian who proudly brought a bible into the presidential palace for her swearing-in. This was in direct contrast to Morales who banished the book in favour of recognizing Pachamama, or Mother Earth of the Andes, as the official Bolivian diety in the constitution instead of the Catholic church.
Jeanine Áñez acted swiftly to break all diplomatic ties with Venezuela and moved to recognize Juan Guiadó as the president, overturning Bolivia’s support of Maduro under Morales. The U.S. and Brazil recognized Áñez’s presidency quickly, confirming both nation’s preference for a more conservative administration.
Since then, Áñez has been accused of overseeing the detention of political opponents and silencing journalists, as a part of her campaign to “pacify the nation.”
When she assumed power Áñez was clear that free and fair elections needed to take place as soon as possible but she took her time getting them arranged. Elections were scheduled for May 3rd, 2020 but have since been postponed due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
In Bolivia the debate still surges over whether this was democracy denied or democracy restored. Evo Morales was clinging to power by questionable means and by overstaying his welcome he paved the way to Jeanine Áñez’s conservative take over.
However, Latin America has a complicated history with regime change with many instances of left-wing governments being overthrown to instate military dictatorships. It is still unclear whether that is what could happen here and only time will tell what direction this deeply divided nation will travel in. But one thing is certain, the outcome will undoubtedly have broad implications for democracy in the region.