Late last month, Bolivia’s transitional government decided to postpone elections yet again, propelling the country into its most profound political crisis in decades.
The most popular party — the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) — has been repeatedly denied its right to govern. The MAS won Bolivia’s last four elections by historic margins: 54-29 percent in 2005, 64-27 percent in 2009, 61-21 percent in 2014, and 47-37 percent in 2019. Current polls point to the socialist party securing another easy victory in 2020 of 42-27 percent.
This latter performance is striking, given the Right’s previous assumption — shared by many within the MAS — that the Left would collapse without its ousted former president, Evo Morales, who remains politically active from his Argentine exile. Moreover, despite Morales’s 2019 victory having been marred by dubious claims of fraud from a hostile Organization of American States (OAS), mainstream opinion is finally coming around to the realization that the US-funded organization’s insinuations of electoral misconduct last fall — based on discredited statistical analysis — were errant, either by incompetence or design.
President Trump’s White House and State Department applauded the fall of Bolivia’s socialist democracy, and his administration subsequently launched an aid program to support the country’s transitional president, Jeanine Áñez. Áñez, previously minority leader of Bolivia’s senate, declared herself president in an empty chamber with the acquiescence of police and military officers.
Two months later, the Trump White House issued a special presidential determination declaring that financial support for the Áñez regime was “vital to the national interests of the United States.” This paved the way for Washington to help organize fresh elections through USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, which currently runs political change programs in sixteen “fragile states,” including Colombia, Libya, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, Armenia, and Ukraine.
The return of USAID to Bolivia — the agency was expelled in 2013 for what the ousted leftist president called “using charity as a fig leaf to subjugate, dominate” — was made possible thanks to a deal struck between the White House’s top national security aide for Latin America, Mauricio Claver-Carone, and Áñez’s government minister, Arturo Murillo. Murillo, a far-right provocateur, who in 2017 proposed that women who want abortions should “kill themselves,” has recently boasted that Claver-Carone “opened many doors for us,” adding indiscreetly that “I was at the CIA.”
According to Bolivia’s law governing irregular changes in government, new elections should have taken place within ninety days, by February 12, 2020. But agreement between the parties was difficult to reach in the wake of Áñez’s Decree 4078, exempting the police and military from human rights charges, which was followed shortly by what Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) calls “Black November”: massacres of twenty-two anti-coup demonstrators in Sacaba, Cochabamba, near Morales’s coca-growing stronghold, and Senkata, La Paz, in the capital’s working-class sister city of El Alto. Having survived through bloodshed, which was punctuated by police tear gas attacks on the subsequent funeral march, all parties finally agreed to fresh elections, which were set for May 3, 2020.
Meanwhile, the Áñez government fostered corruption and ruled with an iron fist, taking dozens of political prisoners without serious judicial processes (according to the IHRC study, the favorite charges against anti-coup organizers are “vague crimes like sedition or terrorism”).
For example, the de facto regime refuses to grant political asylum to seven high-level officials of the former government, who for nine months have remained holed up in the Mexican Embassy in La Paz, where they are separated from their families as they await guarantees of safe passage into exile. Worse yet, in late January the regime detained (on charges of sedition) Patricia Hermosa, a lawyer for Morales, when she tried to register the ousted president as a congressional candidate. Pregnant when she was detained, Patricia lost her unborn child in prison.
Then COVID-19 arrived, as one resident of El Alto put it, “like manna from heaven for these fascists.” Amid legitimate public health concerns, and initially with the tepid acquiescence of the country’s MAS-majority parliament — a holdover from 2014 — elections were postponed to August, then September. Symbolizing the country’s intensifying impasse, the legislative assembly has thus far refused to ratify the unelected executive’s most recent postponement until October 18.
With each postponement of elections in Bolivia, the country’s political and social situation deteriorates. Furious at seeing their democracy destroyed and its reestablishment repeatedly deferred, last week the country’s largest social movements called for a general strike and nationwide roadblocks.
The movements calling for a return to democracy include the so-called Unity Pact, which helped bring Evo Morales’s MAS to power fourteen years ago, in addition to trade union organizations such as the national workers federation (COB, Bolivian Workers Central), the peasant workers federation (CSUTCB, Unified Syndical Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia), and powerful neighborhood associations of working-class districts throughout the country (FEJUVEs, Federation of Neighborhood Councils). “We have already suffered two massacres,” one organizer told me morosely, adding with a touch of hope that her country seems to be entering “a period of struggle … a very profound moment of inflection.”
The demonstrators’ success, and the fate of Bolivian democracy, depends on two powerful actors with a spotty commitment to human rights: the Bolivian military and the Trump administration. Support for the regime from the army, which boasts a still-smoldering anti-imperialist tradition, could waver, as evidenced by the Áñez regime’s near exclusive dependence on the national police for its putsch, installation, and survival.
For its part, the Trump administration has clearly tended in Áñez’s favor, but there are signs that Congress is beginning to push back. On July 7, seven US senators wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, demanding that Washington’s financial support for the transitional government be conditioned on respect for human rights and prompt elections, the only two legal obligations Áñez has under the Bolivian constitution.
With Añez (and her chief booster, President Trump) using the global pandemic as an excuse to postpone a near-certain electoral loss, the future of the hemisphere hinges on Congress’s willingness to stand for democracy at home and abroad.