Understanding the vacuum of power in Bolivia

. Nov 11, 2019
evo morales bolivia Street signs and graffiti protesting election fraud and demanding Evo Morales resignation. Photo: Devin Beaulieu/Shutterstock

In a matter of only three weeks, Evo Morales went from declaring himself the winner of a fourth consecutive term as the President of Bolivia to resigning from his office. The decision was announced hours after the commander of the Armed Forces, General Williams Kaliman, “suggested” Mr. Morales should step down. In Latin America, where military dictatorships only went out of fashion not that long ago, this sequence of events looks, smells, and sounds like a coup d’état.

</p> <p>Just last month, Mr. Morales had won a highly contested election—riddled with fraud, according to the Organization of American States—but violent protests thrust the country into intense turmoil. In recent days, attacks against Mr. Morales&#8217; family members cornered the indigenous leader-turned-president—ending his 13-year stint as head of state, which is longer than any recent politician in the region.</p> <p>Lawmakers now hope to sort out the country&#8217;s political future. An opposition member of Congress, Jeanine Añez, said she would assume the presidency on an interim basis until new elections are called. But, to do so, she would need a green light from Congress—which may be hard to get, as Mr. Morales&#8217; Movement for Socialism party controls both congressional chambers.</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img loading="lazy" width="600" height="400" src="" alt="bolivia protests" class="wp-image-27471" srcset=" 600w, 300w" sizes="(max-width: 600px) 100vw, 600px" /><figcaption>Protests against Evo Morales. Photo: Shutterstock</figcaption></figure></div> <h2>Understanding the Bolivian crisis</h2> <p>On October 20, Evo Morales was re-re-re-elected to a new five-year term. When poll numbers indicated the need for a runoff election, the government suspended the count. When it was resumed, Mr. Morales had the necessary votes for an immediate win. Challenger Carlos Mesa contested the count, saying the president tampered with the polls. The controversy triggered a series of protests against the government, leading Mr. Morales to agree to an OAS-led audit.</p> <p>Over the weekend, OAS representatives concluded that the election was defrauded, and Mr. Morales called for new elections. But at that stage, the opposition no longer wanted Morales v. Mesa—it wanted Evo Morales gone.</p> <p>The tipping point was the Armed Forces turning against the president, threatening a coup. Over the past few years, the Bolivian military has grown wary of Mr. Morales. The president had punished commanding officers who ordered violent repression of demonstrators in the past and also forced high-ranked military officers to undergo an &#8220;<a href="">anti-imperialist</a>&#8221; course before earning promotions.</p> <p>At least 20 members of the Morales administration sought refuge in the Mexican Embassy in La Paz, and the Mexican government offered political asylum to the outgoing leader.</p> <figure class="wp-block-embed-youtube wp-block-embed is-type-video is-provider-youtube wp-embed-aspect-16-9 wp-has-aspect-ratio"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> <span class="embed-youtube" style="text-align:center; display: block;"><iframe class='youtube-player' width='1200' height='675' src=';rel=1&#038;fs=1&#038;autohide=2&#038;showsearch=0&#038;showinfo=1&#038;iv_load_policy=1&#038;wmode=transparent' allowfullscreen='true' style='border:0;'></iframe></span> </div></figure> <h2>Consequences for Latin America</h2> <p>Latin America once again presents itself as a land of political instability where the rule of law is easily strong-armed.&nbsp;</p> <p>And, for investors, there is nothing worse than uncertainty. We are witnessing an increasing radicalization of the political scene in several countries—even Chile, once seen as a role model for the region, sees itself amid a wave of popular dissatisfaction and violent protests. And in countries not (yet) taken over by political instability, such as Brazil, environmental concerns have been a major red flag.</p> <p>In 2019, Latin America will post the weakest growth rate out of any region in the world—a mere 0.2 percent. And regional cooperation—key to solving problems such as drug trafficking—is a distant reality.&nbsp;</p> <p>Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo said that Mr. Morales resignation was “not a coup,” rather calling it the best possible outcome to the crisis. He added that &#8220;the left usually calls foul play when they lose,&#8221; a reference to the 2016 Dilma Rousseff impeachment—which <a href="">48 percent of Brazilians believe was a coup d&#8217;état</a>.</p> <p>President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted that it was a &#8220;great day,&#8221; without directly referencing the neighboring country&#8217;s crisis. He also used the reports of fraud to suggest that Brazil needs to abandon its current electronic voting system in favor of paper ballots. Bolivia, however, actually uses printed ballots.</p> <p>Instead of spouting bravado on social media, the Brazilian government should pay close attention to Mr. Morales&#8217; successor. That&#8217;s because Brazil faces imminent negotiations over a mammoth <a href="">3,150-kilometer pipeline transporting natural gas from Bolivia</a>.</p> <h2>Evo Morales and his legacy in Bolivia</h2> <p>Mr. Morales leaves power after a 13-year stint in charge of <a href="">South America&#8217;s second-poorest country</a>. The first indigenous person to ascend to the country&#8217;s top office, he is unquestionably one of the most important leaders in the history of Bolivia.</p> <p>When he took office in 2006, Bolivia was undergoing a cycle of political instability and social convulsion—in 2003, then-President Gonzalo Lozada resigned after a wave of protests. One of the representatives of South America&#8217;s &#8220;<a href="">Pink Tide</a>&#8220;—when the center-left won elections in many of the region&#8217;s countries—Mr. Morales kicked off his administration by nationalizing natural gas plants, which represent the lifeline of the Bolivian economy.&nbsp;</p> <p>Thanks in large part to the Lula government in Brazil—which didn&#8217;t bat an eyelid at Petrobras plants being taken over by the Bolivian state—Mr. Morales secured deals that ballooned the country&#8217;s revenue over the following decade. Between 2006 and 2018, Bolivia grew at an average rate of 4.9 percent—and is set to grow 4 percent this year, against Brazil&#8217;s expected 0.9 percent. According to the World Bank, poverty rates in Bolivia have been halved in 13 years.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/910343"></div><script src=""></script> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/910596"></div><script src=""></script> <p>Mr. Morales also came as a welcome surprise in his efficient fight against cocaine trafficking. He waived U.S. aid and expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency from his country, and while many observers thought Bolivia would become a <a href="">narcostate</a> once again, as it was in the 1980s, Mr. Morales led an anti-drug effort regarded as more efficient than that of Colombia or Peru.</p> <p>His undeniable contributions to his country, however, were undermined by his wish of perpetuating himself in power. In 2016, the population said &#8216;no&#8217; to the possibility of him seeking a fourth consecutive term. Instead of accepting defeat, he claimed it was an infringement of his human rights and took the matter to the high courts, who ruled in his favor.

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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