‘Coup’ in Bolivia raises deep questions
AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - November 16, 2019 - 12:00am

One after the other, starting in early October, three nations in South America have been engulfed by massive street protests that shook their governments. First the people of Ecuador, led by the indigenous people’s confederation, choked the nation’s capital, Quito; then about a million Chileans did the same in Santiago; and more recently the Bolivians took their turn to protest in La Paz.

I wrote about the Ecuadoran and Chilean protests in this space on Oct. 19 and Nov. 2. Gut economic issues caused the unrest: In Ecuador, it was the withdrawal of a 40-year fuel subsidy and other austerity measures set as a condition by the International Monetary Fund for granting a $4.2-billion loan. In Chile, it was a 3.7% hike in subway train fares, which burgeoned into demands for broader economic and political reforms. The Ecuadorian issue was resolved, but in Chile government response failed to mollify the protesters. Sustained protests caused the cancellation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum this month and the climate crisis convention in December.

In the case of Bolivia, it’s not any neoliberal economic measure burdening the people that caused them to say “No.” The past 14 years under President Evo Morales have yielded palpable economic growth and reduced poverty and inequality. Bolivians, most of whom are indigenous and mixed-blood (mestizos), have largely benefitted from the progressive socio-economic programs initiated and implemented by Morales, the country’s first indigenous president. (He was elected in 2005 with 54% of the votes, and reelected twice, each time winning a bigger number of votes – 64% in 2009, 61% in 2014.) Up till then the presidency had rotated within a small circle of the white elite.

What apparently ignited the indignation rallies was Morales’ controversial bid for a fourth term in the presidential election last Oct. 20. Under the 2009 Bolivian constitution promulgated under Morales himself – the president’s tenure is limited to two five-year terms. That would have disqualified the incumbent, but for the second time he convinced the Constitutional Court to allow him to run again. Adding fuel to the anger was the report by the Organization of American States that there was “clear manipulation” of the voting to show that Morales had decisively won against four rival candidates.

As the unrest intensified, the police unit securing the presidential palace withdrew and joined the protests. Morales agreed to hold new elections, but his closest rival, former president Carlos Mesa insisted he shouldn’t be a candidate. At that point the chief of the armed forces, Gen.William Kaliman, urged the besieged president to step down in the interest of peace and stability.

Last Sunday, Morales announced his resignation. His deputy president and the heads of the Senate and the Chamber [House] of Deputies, all his allies, also resigned. Because the three were all in the line of succession to the presidency, their resignation created a vacuum in the nation’s leadership. Later, the deputy senate head, opposition Sen. Jeanine Añez, on Tuesday declared herself interim president even without a legislative quorum; the legislators belonging to Morales’ ruling party, the Movement Towards Socialism, which holds 2/3 of the seats had boycotted the session. But the Constitutional Court upheld Añez’s action saying it wanted to avoid a leadership vacuum. Morales supporters poured into the streets, calling on Añez to quit. Eight protesters have died so far in clashes with the police.

Saying there was a threat to his life, Morales accepted the asylum offered by the Mexican government. He was flown to Mexico in a military plane, along with his deputy president, Alvaro Garcia, his close political collaborator. He thanked Mexico for “saving my life” and accused his political rivals of having induced a coup that forced him to resign.

“I thought we had finished with the discrimination and the humiliation [of the Bolivian people], but new groups have emerged that have no respect for life, let alone for the fatherland,” he declared, adding: “It’s another lesson to learn.”

Back in 2006, in his inaugural speech, President Morales recalled the “sea change” embodied by his electoral victory, by way of defining the gigantic mandate he had assumed to uplift the lives and dignity of his people. He said then:

“Our communities, historically, have been marginalized, humiliated, hated, despised and condemned to extinction. Our people were never recognized as human beings, even though these communities are the rightful owners of the noble land and its natural resources.”

Forthwith, Morales proposed profound changes to Bolivia’s power structure. The journalist Ernesto Londono, who has extensively covered South America, stressed that during his first term Morales “oversaw the drafting of a new Constitution that sought to erase the structural classism and racism that had long kept Bolivia’s indigenous people, a majority in the nation, second-class citizens.”

Consequently, with the new president’s pragmatic economic policies and programs, the Bolivian economy grew steadily, with inflation held in check, and robust foreign currency reserves. This enabled the government to spend “billions over the years on subsidies and infrastructure, broadening access to health care and education,” Londono noted. “The standard of living for millions of people improved dramatically,” observed Calla Hummel, an American political scientist who has researched on Bolivia. “The people,” she wrote, “were able to stay in school longer, build and buy houses, buy cars, do things that hadn’t been possible before 2006.” 

The “sea change” Morales envisioned when he was sworn in as president did indeed become reality for Bolivian communities that had been “condemned to extinction.”

Yet, after having engineered the changes, he has now lost the presidency. What went wrong? Critics pointed to his disregard for the constitutional term limits as indicative of his “authoritarian tendencies”which, they said, alienated many people. Morales argued that he simply needed more time to carry out all the reforms he had set out to achieve. These are shallow explanations. Deeper inquiry into the historical political dynamics is called for.

“If [Morales] had groomed a successor and accepted a transition of power, he would have been seen as a Nelson Mandela of South America,” suggested University of Lausanne anthropology professor Mark Goodale in Switzerland. “He wouldn’t have been [just] a good leader for Bolivia, but one of the great political leaders in Latin America.”

Bolivia remains in political turmoil, with Morales’ supporters demanding his return. Watch for further developments.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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