It’s not just a ‘coup’: Bolivia’s democracy is in meltdown
As a rapidly changing political tragedy unfolds in Bolivia, and former president Evo Morales takes asylum in Mexico, English-language commentators have been preoccupied with what to call it. Was it a coup? No, say critics of Morales: It is “in fact something very different: proof that Bolivians … resent arbitrary rule,” according to Yascha Mounk, a Johns Hopkins political scientist, writing in the Atlantic. He and others argue that Morales sacrificed much of his legitimacy after 2016, when he lost a referendum to run for a fourth term, and decided to run anyway (a pliable constitutional court overturned the referendum results).
Yes, it was a coup, say his defenders (and Morales himself): “This is not a resignation. No one resigns with a gun to their head,” a public letter drafted by academics and activists says. On Twitter, #ThisIsACoup and #ThisIsNotACoup are both trending as competing hashtag catechisms, as if reciting the words will cast out the demons on the other side.
Let’s not mince words. It’s a coup. When an elected president is forced to resign by the head of the armed forces, after weeks of escalating street violence and a police mutiny, the word “coup” fits.
But the question of what to call it is far too narrow, and such labels risk becoming empty signifiers in a left-vs.-right morality play, in which “coup” or “no coup” simply serve to identify whichever side one supports.
How politics lines up in Bolivia is more complicated than these simplistic narratives suggest. While the most vociferous proponents of Morales’s ouster, and most likely beneficiaries of it, have been the far right, there are many actors on the left whom he alienated, including indigenous leaders once allied with him, mineworkers who marched on La Paz demanding his resignation, and the country’s labor federation, the Bolivian Workers’ Center, which had long criticized Morales from the left.
A more urgent question is how to end the violence, and how the Bolivian people can reestablish a democratic government with broadly accepted legitimacy. For much of his rule, Morales had clear majority support, and his achievements early in his tenure in reducing poverty and empowering the long-disenfranchised indigenous majority are undeniable. But his gravest error was making his movement all about himself and never grooming a successor. His administration drifted into corruption and authoritarianism. Now there is no credible unifying figure on the left to take his place, even if free and fair elections were to be held — and there is currently little interest among the remaining political actors in creating the conditions necessary for anything free or fair.
One problem with focusing so much on the “coup” question is that it tends to reduce the conversation to the role of the United States. The United States welcomed Morales’s ouster, and the U.S. presence in Bolivia, particularly in drug policy, has long been unhelpful. But “the CIA is behind everything bad in Latin America” is a lazy analysis by those who don’t care to understand the internal dynamics of other countries. It’s also one that inflates the omnipotence — and interest — of the United States while denying the agency of domestic actors. (The United States has not had an ambassador in Bolivia for more than 10 years, and both the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Agency for International Development were kicked out of the country by Morales years ago. Far from its Cold War reputation as an all-powerful puppet master, the United States now treats Latin America with indifference and neglect. Today, the foreign power that matters in the region is China.)
As Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales displaced a white minority political elite who had ruled its indigenous majority for most of history. His early achievements were remarkable: cutting extreme poverty in the country by more than half, steeply reducing inequality with universal social benefit programs while growing the economy. He renegotiated Bolivia’s natural gas extraction rights with foreign investors and redistributed proceeds to the poor. Most important, he empowered the long marginalized indigenous majority and enshrined their rights in a new constitution.
But his tenure was also marked by a series of scandals of his own making: influence peddling (and money laundering) by China involving a former girlfriend, a dubious deal with a German firm over lithium extraction rights, environmental destruction and uncontrolled wildfires, and a planned highway through a protected area of the Bolivian Amazon over the protests of its indigenous residents, among others. It was not only conservatives, let alone reactionaries, who were distressed by these episodes.
His dubious decision to run for a fourth term cost him much of his support. He lost even more this month, following an election marked by irregularities. On election night, the live vote tally — showing him with a slight lead — was paused, and when it resumed the next day, it showed him winning by nearly the exact margin he needed to avoid a runoff. A subsequent post-election audit by the Organization of American States found credible indications of fraud: forged signatures, hundreds of polling stations reporting 100 percent votes for Morales, absentee ballots from Bolivians in Argentina outnumbering the number of eligible voters there.
None of this amounted to a slam dunk case that the results were cooked, but the suspicions were enough to delegitimize Morales in the eyes of much of the electorate — and, crucially, the security forces. The irony is that if Morales did commit fraud, he didn’t have to. Polls ahead of the election showed him consistently ahead of his main opponent, Carlos Mesa, a former president — from 2003 to 2005 — who hailed from the old political elite class that Morales had pushed out. Few voters liked Mesa; what support he achieved came from his status as the anti-Morales candidate. Had there been a second round, Morales probably would have won, albeit more narrowly than the official result.
And sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much faith in democratic norms at the moment. As Morales called for his supporters to surround and starve out the cities, the opposition’s demands escalated from a new election to Morales’s removal. Mesa’s profile has faded after the election, and protest leader Luis Fernando Camacho, a far-right religious fundamentalist, has emerged as the face of the anti-Morales forces. Camacho has called for a “junta” of “notables” to rule the country, an anti-democratic sentiment that conjures something out of “Game of Thrones.”
Meanwhile, Morales-allied politicians are resigning under threats to their lives, and anti-Morales mobs are burning their houses, while his supporters have attacked press outlets and called for civil war. Opposition Sen. Jeanine Añez has declared herself interim president, without a congressional quorum because of a boycott by Morales allies. Morales is now in Mexico, where he may plot his eventual comeback from exile, much like his onetime rival, former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (who returned from the United States to win in 2002, running with Mesa; he later resigned in the midst of massive protests against an unpopular gas pipeline plan).
So far, response from the United States has been disappointing. President Trump has, predictably, welcomed Morales’s ouster, while the Democratic response has been muted, at best. (Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) did condemn the coup. Disclosure: I work as an unpaid foreign policy adviser to the Sanders campaign, but do not speak for him).
The current situation remains chaotic, and threatens to escalate into a civil war or outright military takeover. Morales’s ouster has opened a power vacuum that figures openly hostile to democracy are beginning to fill. Reactionary mobs are burning indigenous flags. Morales’s remaining supporters are preparing for violent reprisals. All sides have lost faith in the electoral process. Any elections held under the shadow of a recent ouster of a sitting president will be of dubious legitimacy
Simply calling all this a “coup” is not sufficient. Denying Morales’s mistakes and dismissing valid concerns about fraud — concerns held by a majority of Bolivians — is a fool’s errand. There are more urgent needs for Bolivia: namely, ending the violence and reestablishing democratic institutions before they are destroyed for good. Doing so does not require exonerating a deeply flawed leader.
Michael Paarlberg is an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies.