21 02 2020

Bolivia: when a coup is a coup. Full stop.

A military person putting the presidential scarf on senator Jeanine Añez A military person putting the presidential scarf on senator Jeanine Añez
In October 2019 the Bolivian President Evo Morales was forced out of office. Popular mobilisations against the outcome of the presidential elections (claimed to be fraudulent) with road blocks, burning of ballot boxes, storming and looting of government offices and homes of leading Government figures, culminated in the Military Chief, William Kaliman, suggesting that the President step down, making it clear they were not going to defend him. So Evo resigned and went into exile in Mexico. This is what we normally call a coup. But the international media - right and 'left' - celebrated it as a victory for democracy - with a few honorary exceptions. But a coup is a coup, and that has been confirmed by what has happened since. Now Bolivia and its fragile political stability is in grave peril.

At a secrete meeting the Police and the Army promised the leader of the mobilisations, the extreme right-wing politician and Christian fundamentalist Fernando Camacho, not to intervene to protect the Government. According to Fernando Camacho, the meeting was organised by his father, José Luis Camacho, former president of the Confederation of Private Enterprise, the main organisation for the private sector in Bolivia, and one of the traditional power brokers in Bolivia before Evo assumed the presidency in 2006. Present at the meeting was also Fernando López, now Defence Minister. You can see Fernando Camacho bragging about the meeting here. The self-appointed interim president Jeanine Yañez has the feeblest of political mandates, as the right wing party which she represents in the Senate (PODEMOS-Beni) had received only 4% of the popular vote.

Evo's resignation triggered a series of other resignations: the vice-president, many of the ministers, the presidents of the Congress and the Senate, and many went in exile as well, as they and their families were harassed and threatened. Evo's own house was looted and vandalised and his sister's house was burned down. There were many repulsing events, the kidnapping and denigration of a female mayor was but one of them.

Burning of the Provincial Electoral Office in Santa Cruz

The self-appointed interim Government has since, as it could be expected, acted as everything but an transitory Government, which supposedly should just avoid a power vacuum and organise new elections. It is acting as if it had a popular mandate. It is prosecuting officials from the Government it has overthrown, changing leading staff in all Government institutions, changing completely the foreign policy (cutting ties with Cuba and expelling all Cuban doctors, recognizing Juan Guaidó, the self-appointed "president" of Venezuela, while inviting the US to send an ambassador), changing the economic policy (among others lifting restrictions on the exports of agricultural products from Santa Cruz), and so on. Jeanine Añez seems to have got a taste for power, as she is now running for the presidency in the upcoming, new elections in May, causing outrage among her former allies.

As to Fernando Camacho, he is also running for president, together with Marco Antonio Pumari, President of the Potosí Civic Committee. The two fell out earlier this year, as an audio circulated on the internet, where Marco asked Fernando for 250,000 USD and control of customs as a condition for being his running mate. The video was supposedly circulated by Fernando himself. This is Bolivian politics when it is worst.

Evo's party, MAS, has now selected the well respected former Finance Minister, Luis Arce, as presidential candidate, with former Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca as his running mate. As the first polls are showing that MAS is leading the vote both for the presidency and for the Parliament, panic is spreading among the former opposition (now in government).

Demonstrator against the interim Government with Whipala

When Luis Arce returned to Bolivia from his exile in Argentina in January this year, the interim Government stopped short of arresting him, but as he left the aircraft he was presented with a summons to appear in court the same day, where he stands accused of not having taken appropriate action to avoid corruption in the Indigenous Development Fund (FDI). The interim Government has stated that Evo is free to return to Bolivia, but that he will be arrested if he arrives. The Interior Minister has said that he will make sure Evo will stay in jail for the rest of his life. Evo is candidate for the Senate for MAS in Cochabamba, where he was sure to be elected, had it not been because the Electoral Council has just inhibited him from running, with the argument that he is not present in the country. In itself a very interesting argument. How fearful they are of the popularity of that man! Another victory for democracy?

These are challenging times for Bolivia, a country I as part of my work have had the privilege to follow closely during the last 20 years. The election of Evo as president in 2006 implied radical changes in the country, mostly for the better. Spectacular progress for indigenous people, substantial reduction of poverty, reduction of the inequality, relative political stability and high economic growth, creating a new urban middle class (an important part of which now for different reasons feels alienated from MAS).

That 14 years of Government by Evo and MAS has infuriated the well-off classes in Bolivia is no surprise, despite that they have actually profited from the spectacular economic progress. So they of course see no coup. Neither does the Catholic Church. President Trump hailed the coup as 'a significant moment for democracy in the Western Hemisphere'. 'The Economist' tells us that there was no coup, rather 'The armed forces spoke up for democracy and the constitution against an attempt at dictatorship'. No real surprises here either. Among the decent people denouncing the coup for what it is, were the Mexican President 'AMLO', the Argentinian President Alberto Fernández, the UK labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the English journalist Glenn Greenwald. Apart from that the silence from the European left been deafening, with PODEMOS (Spain) and Die Linke (Germany) as decent exceptions.

More of a surprise was it that the US Human Rights Watch, an NGO closely linked to the US Government, with former staff frequently occupying leading Government positions, also reached the conclusion that this was a coup. And that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, also closely linked to the US Establishment, denounced the human rights violations by the Interim Government.

However, what is really surprising is that the coup has been hailed as a victory for democracy by a host of NGOs, among these the Danish NGO Oxfam/Ibis. Some feminist groups even claim that they were pivotal in ousting Evo. The MAS Government is criticised for continuing basing the economy on the extraction of natural resources ('extractivismo') with no respect for the environment, for causing the forest fires in the Bolivian part of Amazonia, for hegemonising the popular movements, for being male-dominated ('machista'), for postulating Evo for a third term as president (against the constitution) and finally for committing fraud to win the elections in October 2019.

There is much to criticise the MAS government for, but electoral fraud is not the most obvious issue. The report by the electoral observers from the Organisation of American States (OAS), which fuelled the mobilisations against Evo and contributed substantially to his ousting, focusses its critique on the parallel quick counting system called TREP. But this is largely irrelevant as the TREP is not legally binding. The official (slow) count is. The OAS team's main remaining argument is that 'the first-round victory of Evo Morales was statistically improbable and the result of a massive and inexplicable increase in the number of votes for MAS in the final 5% of the votes counted'. This only shows how little the OAS team knows about Bolivia, as it is well-known that the support for Evo and MAS is very high in the remote areas of the highlands (often close to 100%), results that come in latest. This has always been so, and is well described in an analysis by CEPR. In December 2019, an international group of economists and statisticians backed the CEPR analysis in an open letter and stated that 'The OAS has to answer for its role in the Bolivian coup'. I fully agree. This does not mean that there were no irregularities during the elections. Of course there were, but they were sporadic and would not have changed the overall result. The conclusion is that Evo has been very naive. He trusted OAS. He shouldn't have done that. And he trusted the chief of the armed forces. He shouldn't have done that either. Reminds us of how the late Chilean President Salvador Allende naïvely trusted general Pinochet. That caused his tragic death.

How will the May election turn out? The conditions are not in place for a fair electoral process, as the Interim Government is intimidating MAS and its candidates, and most of the media are ferociously anti-MAS. The inhibiting of Evo as candidate for senator is a bad omen. If the interim Government and its allies overstep, for example inhibiting more crucial MAS candidates, the risk is that the election (and the outcome) will not be seen as legitimate by a large part of the population, possibly a majority. This would mean more political instability and a serious risk of the country returning to its past as a chaotic and ungovernable society. As it looks now, MAS is sure to pass to the second round (if they don't win outright in first round). If that trend holds, there is a serious risk of new intents to obstruct the participation of MAS in the election. We can only hope for Bolivia that this is not going to happen.

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Thorbjorn Waagstein

Thorbjørn Waagstein, Economist, PhD, since 1999 working as international Development Consultant in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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