Political Rifts in Bolivia

 Photo source: Al Jazeera
 By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Protests in Bolivia have acquired cyclical forms which aggravated in 2019. It was a disputed election result of then President Evo Morales, that sparked fiery riots. He was seeking a fourth term. As a reaction, the protestors in La Paz had shut shops and burned the offices of the electoral body in the southern cities of Sucre and Potosi. They also set fire to ballots in Tarija. Groups of Morales’ supporters and opponents also clashed in a number of places in October 2019.

There has been no peaceful transition of power in Bolivia since 2002. The national human rights institution (Defensoria del Pueblo) reported that thirty-five persons were killed in the context of the post-electoral crisis between 20 October and 25 November 2019, while the Institute of Forensic Investigations (Instituto de Investigaciones Forenses) recorded thirty persons killed during that period. The Defensoría del Pueblo also reported that a total of eight hundred thirty-three people were injured.

There was police mutiny as well, where uniformed policemen had joined the protestors in La Paz and Sucre. Speaking to BBC, some police officers wanted to stop Bolivia turning into an authoritarian state, like Cuba and Venezuela. But its defense ministry, at that point in time, was confident that police would sooner continue doing their ‘constitutional job’ of safeguarding Bolivia.

Morales, a former cocoa growers union leader, and longest serving president in Bolivia’s history, had ignored calls for a second-round vote, and rejected criticism over the legitimacy of the election. He had also denied meddling in the vote, claiming the accusations were a ‘civic coup’ to remove him from power. The electoral tribunal had also denied claims by the opposition that it manipulated the count to help Morales win. However, US State Department accused Bolivian authorities of trying to subvert the vote.

Historical animosities were prudent in these protests. Evo Morales, who came to power in 2006, is a divisive figure praised for his social policies. Following a boom in commodities prices, Morales paved roads, sent Bolivia’s first satellite to space, and curbed inflation. Stadiums, markets, schools, state enterprises and even a village bear his name. Although, he was criticised as well, not only for curbing free speech, detaining political opponents, but also for challenging presidential term limits. In a referendum in 2016, Bolivians rejected his suggestion to ditch the limits. But, his Movement for Socialism (Mas) party took the matter to the constitutional court, which ruled in the president's favour, allowing him to stand for a fourth term. By protesting against term limits, it shows many Bolivians have become weary.

In an article by Oliver Pieper in DW, the author wrote: ‘Evo Morales, like US President Donald Trump, created a deeply polarised society where both sides of the political spectrum treat each other with disdain and malice. Both have produced societies where critical news organisations are bullied and vilified.

'There are indeed striking similarities between Bolivia and the US today — even though ex-President Evo Morales, a staunch socialist, would be loath to admit it. In both countries, the judiciary is being leveraged to gain political advantage.’

Morales’ refusal to accept the result of the referendum strengthened the opposition, and led to the formation of so-called citizen platform that launched protests against Morales presidential candidacy in 2019, calling it illegal.

Following the protests in 2019, the United Nations urged Bolivia’s government and opposition to talk and restore peace. ‘Nothing justifies clashes between Bolivians and the death of citizens is unconceivable,’ the UN statement said.

After Morales lost support from the military and police, he is called for re-election, but then announced his resignation. His vice president and the next two people in the line of succession all followed suit.

In the aftermath of the resignations, Anez, a conservative Christian senator, of the opposition Democrat Social Movement, declared herself interim president. After Anez became interim president, Morales supporters were critical of Anez’s European ancestry, fearing that indigenous groups in Bolivia, the Aymara and Quechua, among others, would lose standing among other religious and cultural groups. It set the stage for the ongoing turmoil, as even Anez started embarking on a different course. Instead of vowing to protect citizens’ human rights and strengthen the judiciary’s independence, she chose to go after Morales and his supporters.

Anez launched a callous retaliation campaign, as in the case of Patricia Hermosa, Morales’ former cabinet chief and lawyer. Hermosa was accused of terrorism, terrorist financing, sedition, and was jailed. The only evidence cited against her was a phone call with the former president. Moreover, Hermos was arrested despite being pregnant, a clear violation of Bolivian law. Without medical support in jail, she lost the child. But, even then she was not freed, with the state judge telling her she was now no longer pregnant.

There were outlandish claims against Evo Morales as well. He was accused of terrorism and terrorist financing in a 1500-page indictment. The whole case was based on private conversations that Morales had in which he is believed to have said ‘unsettling things’. But, Cesar Munoz, a researcher at Human Rights Watch believed none of this justified a possible 20 year jail sentence.

After taking power, Jeanine Anez also immediately passed a decree granting legal immunity to security forces who committed acts of violence against protesters. Officially, protesters attacked and killed each other, without any involvement of security forces. No weapons, however, were found on any of the deceased. And dozens of witness reports indicating state forces committed the murders have been ignored.

In early 2020, more protests instigated mainly from the allied pro-Morales groups because they wanted new elections, and the interim government to end its rule. With the result, many highways were blocked by the labour unions, as the interim government had promised new elections two months after. Before the 2020 general election, which had happened in October, Bolivia again sadly went into a political strife. Miguel Roca of the centrist Comunidad Ciudadana party was pelted with stones in the city of La Paz, and supporters of the country’s left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo party were prevented from holding an election rally by thugs in September 2020. Supporters of both parties had engaged in street fighting in the city of Oruro as well, in the same month. All these events reflect how polarised the Bolivian society has become.

After the protests, the 2020 general election came, which was won by Luis Arce, a Morales ally, but later in March 2021, protests again erupted against the new leftist government, regarding the arrest of Anez, former interim president, and other political opponents for allegedly organising a coup in 2019. As per inputs from US news, the largest crowds gathered for a rally around a Christ the Redeemer statue, in lowland Santa Cruz, waving Bolivian flags and carrying banners calling for a defense of democracy and freedom. The arrests had prompted fears of a political crackdown, with criticism from human rights groups and the Organization for American States (OAS), which said in a statement that the government was using the judiciary as a ‘repressive’ tool. Bolivian opposition leader Carlos Mesa, also accused former President Evo Morales of leading a ‘political witch hunt’ against him. These things have made Bolivia incumbent to disorder.

In the past, too, Bolivia has seen many demonstrations, and uprisings since the 1952 Bolivian Revolution that include the killings of peaceful protesters in the 2011 Bolivian indigenous rights protests.


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