Why what happened in Bolivia was a coup

. Nov 13, 2019
Why what happened in Bolivia was a coup Evo Morales Bolivia coup Jeanine Áñez takes office as Bolivia's interim president. Photo: Senado BO

Bolivia woke up to a new interim president today in Jeanine Áñez, who was serving as the second deputy to Bolivia’s Senate President. She proclaimed herself the new head of state — even without being elected by her peers, as the country’s constitution determines. She promptly promised to hold new, “clean” elections soon.

Brazil quickly recognized Ms. Áñez as Bolivia’s legitimate leader, with Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo claiming that “all [democratic] rites have been respected,” and that Ms. Áñez “takes office legally.”

But did she?

To answer that question, let&#8217;s first recapitulate the <a href="">Bolivian crisis</a>.</p> <script src="" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>A timetable of the crisis in Bolivia</h2> <ul><li><strong>2016–2017. </strong>Three years ago, Evo Morales&#8217; supporters called for a referendum to change the Constitution and allow him to run for a fourth consecutive term. The population voted no. The following year, however, the Supreme Court granted Mr. Morales that right, accepting his argument that by not being able to pursue his third re-election, his human rights were being violated.</li><li><strong>October 20, 2019.</strong> On election day, early polls suggested that Mr. Morales would have to meet challenger Carlos Mesa in a runoff stage. The vote count was suspended and, when it was resumed, the results gave the president a first-round win.</li><li><strong>October 22, 2019.</strong> Protests erupted across Bolivia, with the opposition accusing the government of tampering with the polls.&nbsp;</li><li><strong>October 30, 2019.</strong> The OAS begins an audit of the electoral process.</li><li><strong>November 10, 2019.</strong> In the days following the start of the audit, violence breaks out again, gaining steam when the OAS confirmed election fraud. Mr. Morales called for new elections, but the top brass of the Armed Forces &#8220;suggested&#8221; he should resign, in order to bring &#8220;peace&#8221; to Bolivia.</li></ul> <p>Mr. Morales is now in political asylum in Mexico and has called the moves against him a &#8220;coup.&#8221; In ideological disputes, there is much confusion about what constitutes a coup. But from the terminological standpoint, the definition is clear. A coup is an irregular change of the head of government perpetrated by actors within the state.</p> <p>Three typical events can be called a coup:</p> <ol><li>When a head of state is unconstitutionally removed;</li><li>When a new head of state is unconstitutionally appointed;</li><li>When a head of state unconstitutionally holds on to his power.</li></ol> <p>An example of the third type was the “<em>Estado Novo</em>” coup of 1937 in Brazil, when <a href="">then-President Getulio Vargas canceled elections</a> and extended his rule beyond the previously established limit. An example of the second case happened in Brazil in 1969: when dictatorship President Costa e Silva suffered a stroke and was incapacitated, the Army didn&#8217;t allow civilian vice president Pedro Aleixo to take office, naming a military junta instead.</p> <p>Case number one is the typical definition of a coup. The last such case in Latin America occurred in Honduras ten years ago, <a href="">when then-President Manuel Zelaya was deposed</a> in the middle of the night and sent into exile.</p> <p>It seems simple to understand, but people keep adding layers that don&#8217;t belong in the discussion.&nbsp;</p> <p>For instance, many believe that a coup <em>must</em> change the regime in place (typically, from a democracy to a dictatorship). It doesn&#8217;t, like the aforementioned example of 1969 Brazil.&nbsp;</p> <p>Others believe (in part due to the previous confusion), that a coup implies an authoritarian leader following a democratic one. It doesn&#8217;t. There can be coups against authoritarian regimes, with succession paths leading to elections.</p> <p>Another common mistake is believing that a coup is not a coup if there is popular support. Unless the population expresses its opinion at the polls, it really doesn&#8217;t matter what the people think, as far as our definition is concerned.</p> <h2>So, what is a coup in Bolivia?</h2> <p>The case of Evo Morales is quite simple to understand. He was trying to perpetuate himself in power—coup option number three—but was ousted by a military coup carried out by Armed Forces leaders who &#8220;suggested&#8221; his resignation. Anywhere in the world, this kind of move has coup written all over it.</p> <p>The fact that Mr. Morales may have been angling for his own coup, or that the military didn&#8217;t seize power for themselves—or even that most Bolivians were <em>in favor</em> of Mr. Morales&#8217; removal—do not change the notion that what happened in Bolivia was a textbook coup.</p> <p>One can argue that the former president was no longer legitimate. While a fair point to be argued, that doesn&#8217;t interfere in the definition of a coup. The way to deal with presidents who become illegitimate after violating the constitution is to remove them through legal means. If the president has stacked the deck in his favor so that a constitutional process is no longer possible, the only option left for the opposition is a coup, whereby insiders illegally remove the president.</p> <p>This article is not meant to be a value judgment on whether Mr. Morales&#8217; ousting will be good or bad for Bolivia in the long run. It could have a democratizing effect if the new government calls for free and fair elections in the upcoming months, but it could also have anti-democratic consequences if new elections are not free and fair—for instance, if Evo Morales&#8217; Movement for Socialism party is barred from running—or if the new government stays in power without electoral contestation. </p> <p>This, in fact, is the most important question for the future of Bolivia.

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Fernando Bizzarro

Ph.D. Student in Political Science at Harvard's Department of Government. His research is focused on the nature, the causes, and the consequences of political institutions, particularly on political parties, regimes, and their impacts on human and economic development.

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