In 1944, the international correspondent John Gunther exclaimed in astonishment: “Bolivia is not a country … it is a problem!” Two years later, Bolivians starred the only lynching of a South American president in the 20th century. The crowd’s target was the president/dictator Gualberto Villarroel, a philo-fascist. The mob entered the government palace, went up to the first floor, and went straight to the presidential office. At first, they did not see Villarroel. One of them, suspicious, decided to open the door to one of the cabinets in the office. There was the president. The crowd beat him up and threw him out the office’s window. Minutes later, Villarroel was hanged on a pole on the front sidewalk of the Palacio Quemado (the Presidential Palace of Bolivia, and the main seat of the country’s executive power). Villarroel went down in history as El colgado (The hanged).
This is just the preamble to a history of political instability and controversy that resulted, two weeks ago, in the arrest of former interim president, Jeanine Áñez. Do you want to understand how Bolivia got here?
Chronic instability: Bolivia holds the coups d’état regional record
Bolivia’s proclaimed its independence in 1825. Since then, the country boasts the regional record of coups d’état, with a total of 193 violent attempts (including successful coups and failed coups) to overthrow an existing government. The country had 89 governments, of which 32 were dictatorships. Among civilians and generals, this gives Bolivia an average of one president every two years.
Another symbol of Bolivia’s political instability is the presidential palace itself, the Palacio Quemado (the Burned Palace): in the 19th century it was incinerated twice by folks angry with their presidents.
Not even the country’s Constitution has escaped historical instability: since its independence, Bolivia has had 16 Magna Cartas. And five additional reforms were made to adapt the country’s Constitutions to the tantrums of the presidents on duty. In addition, several presidents, instead of reforming the Constitution, resorted to the judicial system to go over the law.
One of the protagonists of the judicial “dribbling” in the country’s highest law was ex-president Evo Morales – a rural union leader who grew up politically in the 1990s, heading the social demands of impoverished traditionally discriminated areas in Bolivia.
In 2003, leading intense social upheavals, Morales overthrew President Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada. Two years later, as leader of the Movimento Ao Socialismo (MAS) party, which was the second-largest political force in the Bolivian Parliament, he demanded President Carlos Mesa‘s resignation. Morales coordinated roadblocks and intense protest marches. Mesa resigned. Several sectors accused Morales of having carried out “coups” against Sánchez de Losada and Mesa. Months later, elections were held, and Morales was elected. He took office in January 2006.
A president of “two different countries”
In 2009, after a constituent assembly, Morales enacted a new constitution, which allowed for two consecutive terms and changed the country’s name from “Republic of Bolivia” to “Plurinational State of Bolivia.” Morales was re-elected and took up his second term – which, according to the Constitution he proposed, would have to be his last term in government.
In 2014, however, Morales argued that his first term had been spent in the finitada “Republic of Bolivia” and that at that time he was in his first term as president of the “Plurinational State of Bolivia”. That is a kind of “new country”. He claimed, therefore, that he could comfortably dispute his “second term” (in practice, third).
The supreme judges, obedient to Morales, agreed. Morales was re-elected and took office for his third term in January 2015, saying: “when this term ends, I will retire.” Months later, he called a referendum to reform the country’s Constitution (again) and allow more reelections, but he was defeated at the polls.
Bolivians, in general, were satisfied with the reduction of poverty during Morales’ administration and with the persistent economic growth (from 2006 to 2018, the GDP had an average growth of more than 4%, with a peak of 6.8% in 2013). In addition, vast indigenous sectors emerged from poverty and became middle class, and along with that, there was an appreciation of the original cultures.
Nevertheless, Bolivians wanted a political leadership renewal. There was a weariness with Morales’s figure (not necessarily with his party) because of his tendency towards authoritarianism and his allies’ increasing corruption.
Despite his constitutional reform being overturned at the polls, Morales appealed to the judiciary, saying that the Magna Carta “violated” his “political rights” since it prevented his reelection. The peculiar detail is that this Constitution that “violated human rights” was the Magna Carta that he had created.
Once again the Supreme Court accepted an unusual argument by Morales, creating a new legal “saphenous bridge” so that he would again be a candidate for reelection in 2019.
The first round of elections took place on October 20. The 2nd shift, if it had occurred, would have been on December 15th. Between the two rounds of the election, another chapter of the Bolivian crisis broke out. The first round’s results took several days to be released, increasing political tension in the country. When the numbers came out, Morales appeared re-elected by a small margin of votes.
At this point, it is necessary to explain a peculiar detail: in most of the planet, one wins the first round of the presidential elections with 50% plus one of the votes. However, by copying the Argentine system created by ex-president Carlos Menem in 1994, in Bolivia, it is also possible to win the first round when the first place reaches 40% of the total number of votes and the second place is 10 percentage points below. In this case, Morales would win in the 1st round with 47.08% of the votes since his main adversary, Carlos Mesa, had 36.51% of the votes – that is, Mesa was 10.57% below Morales.
The delay in counting the votes, a mysterious blackout, in addition to the celebration of Morales before the end of the counting, unleashed distrust of the population. Demonstrations (several of which violent) against the government broke out across the country. The Organization of American States (OAS) proposed an audit of votes. Morales and the opposition agreed.
The protests continued. On November 8, the police announced that they would no longer repress the movement and that they would stay inside the barracks. In the early morning of November 10, the OAS issued a report indicating irregularities in the election. Morales announced that he would call for new elections. At this time, however, the historic left-wing Central Operária Boliviana (COB) “suggested” (that was the verb used) that Morales resign.
A few hours later, the Catholic Church leadership in the country also “suggested” Morales’ resignation. A few hours more later, it was the army’s turn, commanded by General Williams Kaliman, an ally of Morales, but who, following the COB and the Church, also “suggested” Morales’ resignation.
The president finally resigned, formalizing this with a letter to Parliament and, the next day, left the country. Its militants were abandoned. Morales did not try to resist pressure, nor to organize a government in exile.
Bible in hand: Áñez’s irregular possession
Bolivia was, once again, facing a situation already seen before, that of being without a president due to the political turmoil. In the past, the country had already been ‘presidentless’ from periods of 5 days to 23 days (the worst phase of all, in the 19th century). This time, Bolivia had no chief of state for three days.
Morales’ vice president, Alvaro García Linera, had resigned and had also gone into exile with his former boss. Later, both presidents of the Senate and the House of Representatives resigned, followed by the Senate’s first vice-president.
In succession, the next figure was the second vice-president of the Senate, Jeanine Áñez, who had ended up in that position simply because her party was a minority. Unlike the other parliamentarians of the succession line who had resigned, she decided to accept the presidency.
Áñez, after grumbling about the lack of a quorum, overstepped the Constitution and made her own interpretation of the Senate’s regulation, declared that Morales’ resignation did not need approval and that she was automatically president of the Senate. In this way, she called herself President of the Republic without being voted by the Parliament. Then, carrying a huge bible, she went to the door of the Quemado Palace to speak to an almost empty square.
Hours later, Áñez was endorsed by the Supreme Court of Justice (the same Supreme Court that had been discredited for authorizing Morales to ignore the Magna Carta months earlier and run for new reelection).
On November 24, The Bolivian Parliament approved the full annulment of the October 2019 elections. This approval was achieved thanks to the votes of MAS, Morales’ party. Throughout Áñez’s mandate, MAS continued to participate in Parliament (and remained the majority).
In Áñez’s early days in power, Justice ordered Evo Morales’ arrest for “terrorism.” However, he was in exile (first in Mexico and then in Argentina) and could not be detained. Besides, the Bolivian Justice itself had not forwarded the classic request for detention to Interpol, nor had it asked for Morales’ extradition to the Argentine government.
From two months to … well, a year in power
Áñez would have had to hand over the presidency on January 22, 2020, the date on which she would complete Morales’ unfinished mandate– as the original prediction was that she would only be in power for two months. But there was no time to prepare for new elections and run a campaign in such a short time. That is why they decided to carry them out in March. That month, however, the COVID-19 pandemic reached South America.
Several governments in the region believed that the pandemic would be short-lived. That is why Bolivia scheduled the elections for May. But with a long-term pandemic scenario, the election was delayed until August. Then to September. And later, due to a new spike in the number of infections, to October 18th.
First, Áñez said she would not run for election. But months later, she declared that she would participate in the presidential race. However, with her bad management of the fight against the pandemic, she did not take off in the polls, not exceeding 12% of voting intentions, and ended up giving up in the middle of the campaign.
A new president (of Morales’ party)
Morales’ base of supporters wanted to put former Chancellor David Choquehuanca as a candidate for the presidency. In addition to him, they demanded the cocalero leader Andrónico Rodríguez for vice-president – the first, a representative of the Aymara community and the second, of the Quechua indigenous people.
Morales was opposed to this combination. He considered it too “left-wing,” which could scare the middle-class electorate that his party needed to get a majority of votes in the first round (and not run the risk of a second-round with an eventually unified opposition).
For this reason, Morales imposed Luis Arce‘s candidacy, his former Minister of Economy, the creator of the Bolivian “economic boom” of the previous decade, who had good relations with the market and was considered a “moderate.” Even so, Morales’ supporters managed to put Choquehuanca as Arce’s VP.
“Coup” or “Constitutional succession”?
The abrupt change of power in Bolivia in November 2019 was intensely discussed, not only in the country but throughout Latin America and the rest of the planet. Was it a “coup d’état,” as Morales’ supporters claimed, or a “constitutional succession,” as his opponents argued?
The discussion also contemplated a third hypothesis: a “coup by a traitor over another traitor,” in reference to the several times Morales violated the Constitution to keep himself in power until another person replaced him; a person who had stepped over the Constitution too.
Arce, during the election campaign, had referred to Áñez as “the transitional constitutional president.” Morales, while in exile, continued to talk about Áñez as “putschist.” Áñez replied Morales, stating that there was no coup since, during his 12-month government, the Parliament continued to function, with a majority of Morales’ party.
Áñez in jail
On Friday, March 12, 2021, the Court accepted a request from the Attorney General’s Office to arrest Áñez on charges of “terrorism,” “insurrection,” and “betrayal.”
Early Saturday morning, the police arrested Áñez in Trinidad, in her home state of Beni, in northern Bolivia. She was at a relative’s house, hidden inside a bed-box. She was taken to La Paz on a military plane. There she was placed in a cell. Two former ministers of Áñez and a former military chief were also detained.
The minister affirms that Áñez deserves such a sentence for having signed, on November 14, 2019, the decree that determined that the security forces that acted in the repression of protests were exempt from criminal responsibility. A day later, the police killed 11 civilians demonstrating in the cities of Sacaba and Senkata.
Right after the arrest, opposition sectors organized demonstrations in favor of Áñez’s release in several Bolivian cities, again creating a climate of political tension.
Analysts point out that Arce may have decided to insist on the arrest of Áñez to satisfy sectors of the MAS that requested her detention. They also speculate that it was a way to regain prominence after the elections for mayors and governors, in which MAS did not perform as expected.
The non-governmental organization Humans Rights Watch, which had criticized the terrorism charges against Evo Morales last year, this time condemned the same charges against Jeanine Áñez.
A peculiar fact: the Catholic Church and the Central Bolivian Workers (COB), who “suggested” Morales’ resignation in 2019, were not targeted by justice.
Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes