Understanding the Bolivian Coup: Latin American Democracy and the Cold War Paradigm

Understanding the Bolivian Coup: Latin American Democracy and the Cold War Paradigm

In 2019, Bolivia saw one of its most turbulent political crises in recent memory. The OAS accused the government of committing electoral fraud to secure Evo Morales a controversial fourth term in office. One of the OAS’s main claims was that there had been a “drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results revealed after the closing of the polls”. Several electoral studies, including a widely disseminated one recently published on SSRN and featured in the New York Times (Idobro et. al.), have criticized the OAS statistical finding, claiming they can “offer a different interpretation of the quantitative evidence that led the OAS and other researchers to question the integrity of the Bolivian election”.

This has led many to ponder how best to explain what happened. The changes in the political landscape were drastic. The OAS’ accusation ended with Morales – a socialist anti-imperialist and the first indigenous President in Bolivia’s history – removed from office. He was replaced by an unelected white, conservative, and anti-indigenous interim government. The OAS’ statistical analysis was a key part of this story; its deficiency is a serious blow to the OAS’ credibility, even if the remaining accusations not analyzed by Idobro et. al. – “secret servers, falsified tally sheets, undisclosed late-night software modifications, and a fragile chain of custody for voter rolls and ballots” – are confirmed.

Many Global North observers see a familiar pattern in all this that reminds them of Cold War interventionism. For Glenn Greenwald, for instance, “the OAS is a subservient tool of the U.S. State Department”. For him, this is yet another instance in which the US used its political influence to enable coup-mongers to get rid of a bothersome left-wing government.

While I have no liking for US interventionism, I believe this is the wrong paradigm with which to approach the Bolivian crisis. Instead of looking at the political developments within Bolivia itself, it tells the story from a US gaze that removes Bolivian agency over its own crisis. Specifically, it does not seem to fully grasp the complexity of democratic erosion in  post-democratization Latin America and the challenges the region is facing to address it.

Take, for example, the role of the OAS. I have no shortage of criticisms for the OAS’ performance in and beyond the Bolivian situation. Despite this, it would be remiss not to mention that five months before the election, it was the right wing of Bolivian opposition that strongly criticized the OAS. Morales’ third reelection bid coincided with the OAS Secretary General’s first reelection bid. For many in the opposition, the Secretary General’s public approval of Morales’ re-re-reelection seemed politicized – a plan to stay in Morales’ good side until after he voted at the OAS. This is of course a speculative and unfounded accusation, but it paints a fuller picture of the attitudes of key actors than what Greenwald’s narrative might suggest.

We should be careful, therefore, not to fall into cliché views of Latin American politics. Evo Morales’s situation in 2019 was more complicated than the classic Cold War trope might suggest. Bolivians were not simply “duped” into supporting a military coup. Morales was an extremely popular president, but thirteen years in office wore out support for his attempts at perennial rule.

Fracturing began when he sought to build an inter-American highway through the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS, for its Spanish acronym). Morales fought a long-lasting battle with local indigenous communities over the project’s environmental impact, leading many – including former members of his government – to break with him.

Support also suffered due to his more undemocratic practices. Morales created an environment of “mounting hostility” towards the media, referring to it as his “main enemy”. Amnesty International also frequently complained that the government obstructed the work of human rights organizations, looking to de-legitimize them. Similarly, opponents frequently accused him of harassment through use of spurious judicial charges. For many, including close supporters, Morales had “distorted his essence” by pursuing a policy of “the ends justify the means”. 

The final straw came when Morales refused to acknowledge defeat in a 2016 referendum. 51.3% of Bolivians refused to approve a constitutional amendment eliminating presidential term limitations. Morales vowed not to respect the results, arguing before the Constitutional Tribunal that term limitations were contrary to human rights. The Tribunal agreed with him amidst great controversy. The decision was frequently criticized as contrary to Inter-American human rights law. His opponents also cast doubt on the Tribunal’s impartiality, as a majority of the justices had had previous affiliation with Morales’ party. According to the EU’s Election Expert Mission (EEM), the case cemented a “widely held belief that Morales was very reluctant to relinquish power”.

In the run-up to his re-re-reelection bid, while Morales remained widely popular at a personal level, support for this specific candidacy was far from universal. According to pre-electoral polls, 65% of Bolivians considered Morales’ candidacy illegal and 68% expected electoral fraud. 

This accumulated frustration exploded late on election day, October 20th, when the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) stopped the preliminary count, known as TREP, without a convincing explanation. At the time, preliminary results suggested that a runoff election would be likely. Protests started almost immediately. When the counting resumed, almost 24 hours late, Morales had surpassed his rival by a difference wide enough to make a runoff election unnecessary. It is at this point, on October 21st, that the OAS raises its concerns over the “drastic and hard-to-explain change” in the TREP. The next day, on the 22nd, protestors burned down two departmental electoral tribunals, as clashes between protesters and militias loyal to Morales turned violent. That day, TSE Vice-President, Antonio Costas, resigned claiming the electoral process lacked credibility. The OAS issued its Preliminary Report on the 23rd, calling on Bolivia to hold a runoff election regardless of the final results, and announcing it would conduct an audit in collaboration with the government. It is with this audit that the OAS presented its statistical evidence of fraud, on December 4th. Morales resigned on November 10th.

The facts, therefore, are not as simple as fabricated data by a US-subservient OAS being solely responsible for the coup. As the EEM puts it, “the TSE´s failure to explain why the TREP process was suddenly stopped on election night was the worst example of poor communications and it generated huge suspicions”. While the EEM did not formally declare a fraud, it did believe “that the TSE´s decisions combined with their failure to provide explanations for their decisions or for the change of results, irrevocably damaged trust in the results process”. Arguing that the weeks of protest following Bolivia’s election were a wholly external operation concocted by the OAS and State Department not only contradicts domestic reality but is also outright condescending. It reduces the population’s frustration with Morales to simple foreign manipulation, stealing their agency, and ignoring their wish to keep their leader in check. The ultimate undemocratic outcome of the crisis should not obscure these very real local concerns with indefinite reelection and lack of transparency.

The OAS, without a doubt, played a critical role in catapulting Morales’ downfall, and it should face stern criticism for it. On this regard, Idobro et. al.’s findings are a welcomed development that will allow the kind of harsh evaluation that the OAS deserves. That said, instead of looking at the coup against Evo Morales as the result of dark foreign forces acting in the shadows, we should look at the trends of democratic erosion in the region itself. Just like populists like Morales are finding more ways to stay in power beyond constitutional limitations, opposition coup-mongers in key public institutions are finding ever more nuanced ways to get rid of leaders they do not want under a veneer of legality. Take, for example, the coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, in 2009. Zelaya’s opponents accused him of seeking to approve a new Constitution to bypass a constitutional ban on reelection. The Honduran Constitution stated that a President that advocated for legal reform to allow for reelection “will immediately cease performing their respective positions”.      

The Honduran Congress, dominated by the opposition, passed a law banning him from calling for a referendum. When Zelaya ignored it, the Attorney General accused him of “crimes against the form of government”. The next day, a judge ordered Zelaya’s arrest. Within 24 hours, soldiers irrupted into the Presidential Residence, took Zelaya captive, and put him on a plane to Costa Rica.

Whatever one may think of Honduran law, summary deportation to Costa Rica is not an expression of democracy. Zelaya’s ouster is the first of a new kind of coup, where opposition forces manipulate existing law to secure the ouster of an unwanted leader. Variants of these “soft coups” were staged in the so-called “impeachments” of Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo in 2012 and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Similarly, a hostile Congress unsuccessfully attempted to unseat Peru’s Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in 2018.

This is exactly what happened to Morales. On November 8th, the company hired by the TSE to run the election had issued a statement saying it could not “give faith of the integrity of electoral results”. From then on, Morales’ government began to crumble around him, with many, including sectors of the police, calling for his resignation. By November 10th, even old allies of Morales, like the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), and other indigenous organizations were also asking him to resign.

At this point, several high-ranking members of Morales’ government began to resign and many of his party’s mayors and governors received threats to their life and family. That same day, Evo Morales’ own personal home was sacked by protestors. It is at this point that the armed forces step in and “suggest” Morales to resign. Abandoned by police and armed forces, and fearing for his life and safety, Morales, his Vice-President and the Speaker and Vice-Speaker of the Senate resigned.

The armed forces based their “suggestion” on Article 20 of the Armed Forces Organic Law, which allows them to “analyze internal and external conflictive situations to suggest appropriate solutions to whom it may concern”. Any reasonable reading of this law, however, would not lead to the military making a public pronouncement on national TV suggesting a change in government. The manipulative interpretation of the armed forces was the final straw that directly led to Morales’ resignation and so, can only be seen as an unlawful request – a coup d’etat, in the tradition of 2009 Honduras, 2012 Paraguay and 2016 Brazil.

With the entire chain of Presidential succession gone, Bolivia faced a power vacuum. The Senate’s Second Vice-Speaker, Jeanine Añez, proclaimed herself President in an improvised session of Congress, with less than a third of representatives present, as Morales congressmen boycotted procedures. One of her first acts as President of Bolivia was to march to the Palace of Government holding a Bible, amid cries of “the Bible returns to the Palace”. Whatever grievances the Bolivian population had with Morales, clearly, Añez’s anti-indigenous views does not represent them. In fact, in the upcoming election, Luis Arce, Evo Morales’ candidate, leads the polls with 33.3% of the vote. Añez is third, with 16.9%.    

It is important, therefore, that we tell Bolivia’s story paying attention to the voices of Bolivians themselves, even while recognizing the OAS’ faults. Añez’s government is not autocratic and illegitimate because it was the result of a US-backed coup in the same way as Pinochet or the Brazilian junta were. It is so because it betrayed the legitimate concerns of the Bolivian people over Morales’ potentially unlimited reelection plans, by taking advantage of a power vacuum, to impose a minoritarian, racist and autocratic policy of disenfranchisement of Bolivia’s indigenous majority.

These kinds of processes are not unique to Bolivia. Manipulation of presidential term restrictions has been a consistent problem for post-democratization Latin America, by presidents of all political ideologies, in Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela. Manipulation of impeachment or other domestic legislation to unlawfully remove a president has also been a problem in Brazil, Honduras, Paraguay, and Peru. The narrow focus on statistical analysis and Cold War dynamics rather hides this important aspect of the conversation. Democratic erosion in post-democratization Latin America cannot be properly understood by using the same lens with which we understood the military dictatorships of the 60s and 70s. It does little favors to the region to try to shoehorn its problems with autocracy into old yet popular paradigms.

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