Louie Parker | Latin America Fellow
The constitutional crisis currently enveloping Bolivia is a far cry from the small nation’s run-of-the-mill governance in recent years. With the resignation and departure of the country’s longest-serving President, Evo Morales, in the face of violent protests and pressure from the military, the unfolding events have revealed a series of fissures in Bolivian politics and society.
Global media outlets have framed the crisis as a slide into authoritarianism, with the resignation of Morales a response to popular calls for his departure. However, the reality is more complex, and touches on issues of Bolivia’s rural-urban divide, Indigenous issues, and the enduring unease of the United States (US) and US-dominated institutions with deviations from neoliberal norms in Latin America.
Morales’ attempt to abolish presidential term limits in 2016 set off a chain of events that ultimately led to him fleeing to Mexico City in late 2019. The proposal was rejected by referendum, but Bolivia’s constitutional court subsequently cleared the way for Morales to run again in 2019.
Morales’ success in his 2019 election run was marred with controversy, with violent protests overtaking large parts of the country. The Organisation of American States (OAS), the continental inter-governmental organisation (IGO) comprising 35 states from North, Central and South America, cited irregularities in the electoral process that cast doubt over the validity of his victory.
The composition of the OAS likely influences its position on the situation in Bolivia. The OAS has traditionally sided with the North American bloc of nations and Latin American countries with centre-right to right-wing governments on important issues. These include the suspension of Cuba in 1960, and the tacit acceptance of the Brazilian military junta and dictatorships between the 1960s to 1980s, given Brazil’s support for a neoliberal economic agenda.
Despite the allegations made by the OAS regarding electoral irregularities, the margin of Morales’ victory reflected previous polling. Furthermore, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) notes that the OAS’ concern over the suspicious late-surge in votes for Morales can be attributed to late-reporting rural areas which have proven a stronghold for him.
The developments in Bolivia are reminiscent of the historic inclination of Western powers, particularly the US, to interfere in Latin American affairs. Countries such as the US remain convinced that left-of-centre governments who buck the trend of the free-trade limited-government orthodoxy pose a threat to the region.
This was evident in the US-backed coup against Chilean democratic socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973, as well as America’s support for the Contra movement against the Sandinista junta government of Nicaragua in the 1980s.
The rhetoric of interim-President Jeanine Añez has also served to heighten tensions in Bolivia, particularly in relation to Bolivia’s Indigenous population. As the first Indigenous president in Bolivia’s history, Morales supported Indigenous interests and re-enfranchised a large swathe of Bolivia’s Indigenous people in the political process.
Añez’s hostility toward Indigenous culture may alienate Indigenous Bolivians once again. She recently proclaimed that “the bible has returned to the Bolivian government” and stated in previous tweets: “I dream of a Bolivia without satanic indigenous rituals, the city isn’t made for Indians, they need to go back to the countryside!”
Perhaps most concerning is Añez’s declaration that Morales’ party could be prohibited from participating in the next elections. This would exacerbate the constitutional crisis and unrest in the country, and mimic the regressive example of Venezuela in banning the political opposition.
Morales’ intention to extend his presidency beyond the previous constitutional norm is not without legitimate criticism, particularly as the referendum on term limits was defeated. As Oliver Stuenkel of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) argues, Morales’ sidestepping of the referendum results reflect a broader phenomenon across Latin America of “leaders that are struggling to let go”.
Nonetheless, Morales’ tenure as president should not be understood so simply as a slide towards authoritarianism. Commentary on Bolivia has suggested that anti-Morales protests are evidence of a repressive government without popular support. Some segments of the population, particularly in urban areas, have vigorously contested the Morales government. However, the numerous counter-protests in support of Morales - particularly following his removal suggest a less uniform and aggrieved public sentiment.
The speed at which Bolivia quickly descended into chaos both during and following the elections has ultimately obscured the popularity of the Morales government. As the CEPR notes, Morales’ economic policies since the start of his presidency in 2006 have had a significant impact on everyday Bolivians, especially Indigenous and low-income people. These include the doubling of the minimum wage and the rollout of education vouchers for low-income families. By 2018, poverty rates had more than halved and GDP per capita had more than tripled since 2006.
As such, equating the political situation in Bolivia with a slide to authoritarianism fails to grasp the complexity of Bolivian society and politics. This is also the case when applying dichotomies to Bolivia, such as left vs. right or capitalist vs. socialist. Rather, the unfolding of events underscores some of the enduring cracks in Bolivian politics and society, and the unease of US-led institutions with deviations from the neoliberal orthodoxy.
Louie Parker is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.