March 7 marked the first local elections in Bolivia since the coup of 2019 that ousted former president Evo Morales. After a fresh surge of popular mobilization finally compelled Jeanine Áñez’s “interim” regime to hold national elections last October, the Bolivian people voted in a landslide to return to government the same political party — the progressive Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) — that had been driven from power by the coup the previous year.
Since the election of Luis Arce Catacora, MAS has weathered repeated coup plots, but President Arce has held firm. Indeed, the arrest of Áñez and a number of her former ministers and ex-commanders over the weekend — a story causing much scandal in the international press — indicates that justice might finally be seen for those families of the dozens massacred, and many hundreds injured, during the violent ousting of Morales from the presidency.
In local elections, MAS has again had a strong showing, and seems to have swept the country in the vote for governors, regional assemblies, mayors, and city council people. The significant exception is the cities with wealthy enclaves, which identify as mestizo. Final results should be known once rural votes from far-flung hamlets are counted. (The electoral observer mission of Parlasur opposes the quick count of votes because it “generates confusion.”)
As Bolivian journalist Ollie Vargas has noted, “there is not a single organization that is challenging MAS at the national level. MAS is Bolivia’s only political party with a physical presence in every municipality, in every region, and every culture within the country.” In the cities, the lay of the land is quite different, and it is here that the right-wing head of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) in Bolivia, Salvador Romero, has had a major influence.
It is thanks to decisions made by him — allowing ultra-right, corrupt candidates to run for office, despite the clear legal impediment to their candidacies — that the TSE has helped secure the right-wing capture of cities like La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, and Potosí. El Alto and probably the regional capital of Pando have been won by woman candidates who had once been members of MAS.
Salvador Romero has a long and dubious history on the Right. According to the Honduran historian and PhD student of history at Yale, and immigrants’ rights organizer Cristian Padilla, Romero was a key player in the coup d’état in Honduras in 2009, maintaining deep connections to the Honduran elite, as well as with the US foreign policy establishment.
The Honduran coup took place on the day of a democratic referendum on constitutional reform. The military seized progressive president Manuel (Mel) Zelaya, taking him first to a US airbase and then into exile, thus launching Honduras into its most tragic decade since the republic was founded, and from which it has yet to emerge.
Salvador Romero worked in Honduras from 2011 to 2014 to legitimize the coup regime and the ensuing elections, paid on the books by a US-created agency, the so-called National Democratic Institute (NDI). Although Romero is head of the elections process unfolding amidst high tension in Bolivia, he left Bolivia and went to Honduras this week, where he is an electoral observer of their primary elections.
Prior to his directorship of the NDI in Honduras, Salvador Romero had nurtured his relationship “with the US Agency for International Development or US AID in Bolivia.” According to documents made available to WikiLeaks, Romero worked closely with US ambassador Philip Goldberg, who was expelled by former president Evo Morales in 2008 following the revelation of the ambassador’s intimate association with right-wing elites that were planning to secede from Bolivia.
Romero’s role as the head of the electoral tribunal has been instrumental for the outcome in the major cities, and three of Romero’s decisions in particular have changed the course of the elections. First was Romero’s decision to allow the right-wing candidate for mayor of La Paz, Luis Larrea, to remain in the race, even after he had broken election rules that forbid media appearances in the days leading up to an election.
A doctor and media personality, Larrea has been a key player in a medical strike called by private physicians, in opposition to the government’s new legislation to regulate fees for private practitioners as well as medicines. For figures like Larrea, the idea of health care as a public good — a policy championed by MAS — is heavily contested as a limit on their income. Private doctors lived high off the hog during the eleven months of the coup regime and presided over one of the worst-managed COVID-19 crises on Earth.
Adding salt to the wound, the leaders of the private physicians’ association had agreed to the MAS government’s new law regulating prices for health care, but then broke their word and went out on strike. It was the exact moment when mass vaccinations were just beginning and elections were around the corner.
According to an investigation by the national human rights defenders’ office, some 80 percent of hospitals and clinics refused to join the strike. The public was not impressed by the striking doctors’ arguments either. But for reasons that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal is not required to divulge, the original sanction against Larrea’s candidacy was subsequently reversed.
In another opaque decision, a former military officer who has just won the mayorship of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes Villa, was also removed from the race only to be reinstated by Romero at the last minute. That Reyes Villa was allowed to run is astonishing: he does not live in Cochabamba, he is himself in trouble with the justice system, and prior to his recent return to the country during the coup regime, he has not resided in Bolivia for ten years. One of these infringements alone should have been enough to disqualify Reyes Villa from the race.
As a young man, Reyes Villa served in the military during the height of the South American dictatorships, and trained at the US “School of the Americas” whose torture manuals are public knowledge and whose graduates committed many of the region’s crimes against humanity. Early in the era of Evo Morales, he emerged as a national leader of the secessionist movement that sought to divide the country, with guidance from the same US ambassador who tore apart Yugoslavia, Philip Goldberg.
More recently, Reyes Villa was mayor of Cochabamba in the 1990s, and fled from Bolivia under investigation for a slew of corruption charges. He formed paramilitary shock groups to attack peaceful marches of the Indigenous. He would not have returned from his US exile had Jeanine Áñez not welcomed him back as a hero of the Right. Both Reyes Villa and Luis Fernando Camacho, the winner of the governorship of the agro-industrial powerhouse of Santa Cruz, dream of seceding from Bolivia to create a politically fascist republic in the country’s lowlands.
The winner of the La Paz mayoral race, Iván Arias, should also have been excluded from running thanks to various corruption charges against him, most notably as the minister of public works, a role to which he was appointed by Áñez. He was a prominent member of the coup government from the very beginning.
Iván Arias tried everything short of physical assault to injure his main competitor for the mayorship of La Paz, MAS candidate and early frontrunner César Dockweiler. (Dockweiler’s company constructed the network of cable cars that linked La Paz and El Alto during Morales’s era.) Arias ran a persecutory campaign against Dockweiler, falsely accusing him of corruption, sedition, and terrorism. It was such smears that destroyed Dockweiler’s early lead in the polls.
Through these actions, Salvador Romero has all but handed over these populous cities to mayors who view MAS as their sworn enemy, and who in their careers so far, have created and celebrated paramilitary machines. Only time will tell what they will do next.