Since Evo Morales fled to Mexico and Jeanine Áñez took her place as the interim president of Bolivia in early November, events in the country have largely fallen out of the mainstream news cycle. The contentious events of November, and the tension leading up to the election on May 3, should not be overlooked.
But what really led up to Morales’ ouster? What has happened since? Very few articles go into detail about why the election was contentious and how Áñez came to be the interim president, so this article will serve as a detailed description of the events from October 2019 to the time of writing, and provide context to Bolivia’s political situation.
Who is Evo Morales?
Juan Evo Morales Ayma, born in 1959, was inaugurated as the first indigenous president of Bolivia in 2006. He is a part of the Movement for Socialism (MAS), Bolivia’s left-wing party.
Morales is Aymara, an indigenous group across Bolivia, Chile, and Peru that has been repressed by the wealthy, generally European, elites in these countries. His election to Congress in 1997 and the presidency in 2006 was, for many, a turning point in Bolivian history for both indigenous Bolivians and the working class.
His campaign for the 2006 presidency centered around lifting up lower-income families, returning colonized land to indigenous peoples, and reclaiming Bolivian industry from multinational corporations. He won as part of what’s referred to as Latin America’s “pink tide” when in the mid-00s multiple leftist leaders won presidencies in the region, including Lula de Silva (Brazil) and Hugo Chávez (Venezuela). The pink tide was a response to Latin American experiences in the latter half of the twentieth century, when nearly every country in Latin America suffered under a US-backed dictator, the gap between the rich and the poor continued to widen, and industry was sold off to US corporations.
As a result, the anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal, populist nature of Morales and his peers in the pink tide appealed to many Latin Americans. In 2006, he won 53.7% of the vote, then 64.2% and 61.3% when he campaigned for his second and third terms respectively.
During his presidency, Morales enacted dramatic reforms that almost completely reshaped Bolivian society.
As an Aymara himself and the first indigenous president, Morales strengthened indigenous rights in Bolivia. His administration drafted a new constitution in 2009, which declared Bolivia a plurinational state and allowed autonomy, nationality, and land to the 36 Original Peoples groups of Bolivia. In total, he redistributed 35 million hectares of land to indigenous groups.
His national land reform policy helped bring the nation out of extreme poverty. When he took office in 2006, the Bolivian poverty rate was 59.9%. By 2017, the poverty rate was almost halved at 34.6%. Just between 2006 and 2009, Morales’s administration redistributed 23 million hectares from the wealthy elites to the working class. Additionally, he oversaw a 300% increase in the minimum wage, from 440 bolivars per month to 2,060.
One of his largest successes is probably the “Yes I Can” program, begun soon after he took office in 2006. This program provided educational services to rural and underserved areas across Bolivia, in order to reduce the country’s high illiteracy rate. Between 2001 and 2014, the illiteracy rate reduced from 13.28% to 3.8%—low enough by UNESCO standards that Bolivia is now categorized as a fully literate nation.
He also vastly improved the infrastructure of his country. New hospitals, schools, and roads appeared in areas of the country that were previously remote and disconnected. 4,500 of Bolivia’s 16,000 educational establishments and 3,000 new public health centers have been constructed during Morales’s time in office.
Needless to say, these projects were expensive. However, Morales has taken relatively few international loans. In fact, he funded these programs internally through the nationalization of Bolivia’s key industries. Bolivia’s gas, oil, telecommunications, electricity, mining, and water industries were all taken under the public sector, bringing in immense profits for the government that were funneled directly into infrastructure, education, healthcare, and welfare. Before Morales, foreign corporations retained up to 85% of the profits they made from Bolivian raw materials, compared to 10-20% after the nationalizations. This resulted in an increased revenue of $31.5 billion over ten years, compared to the decade preceding Morales’s presidency which saw only a revenue of $2.5 billion, this made Bolivia one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America.
Morales’s policies created backlash, not from his own people, but from the United States. According to files released on WikiLeaks, the US ambassador warned Morales that international funding from organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund depended on his “good behavior.” This good behavior meant refraining from nationalizing resources that served as major sources of profit for American multinational corporations, especially petroleum, as Bolivia holds some of the world’s largest petroleum deposits.
Despite his success, the first indigenous president has not been without fault. In 2011, Morales faced intense controversy over his plan to build a highway through a national park and indigenous territory. Despite protests from indigenous people and environmental activists, Morales didn’t back down on the project until the situation escalated to police violence against demonstrators in La Paz.
Additionally, accusations of corruption have grown around him for the past few years. One of his former romantic partners held an influential post in a Chinese construction firm, which garnered criticism when the firm received millions of dollars in state contracts. He responded by welcoming an investigation, claiming his administration had “nothing to hide.”
Widespread outrage followed him from 2016 to his ousting over a larger issue, however. In Feb. 2016, Morales expressed his desire to run for another term in office, which at the time was unconstitutional. He decided to put the decision up to a referendum on whether to change the still-new constitution to allow him to run in the 2019 elections. With 51% of people voting not to allow him another term, it looked as though he would have to step down. By December, he made it clear he would ignore the referendum when the MAS nominated him as their 2019 presidential candidate.
It was completely unexpected that he would soon be replaced with the far-right leader Jeanine Áñez.
Who is Jeanine Áñez?
Jeanine Áñez Chávez, born in 1967, is a lawyer and former TV host who now serves as the interim president of Bolivia. She is a part of Bolivia’s far-right Democratic Unity Party, and little is known about her life before she entered politics a decade ago.
She has faced intense criticism in the past for her now-archived racist tweets, stating in one that she “dream[s] of a Bolivia free of satanic indigenous rites,” a clearly nationalist talking point in a country whose history is marred by anti-indigenous colonialism.
With the context of the thoughts she expressed in her tweets, the backlash against her swearing in as interim president on an ornate Bible is additionally threatening. Indigenous people in Bolivia and across the world have been persecuted in the name of Christianity for centuries; a Christian supremacist president is cause for concern, especially in Bolivia.
What is the Organization of American States (OAS)?
The OAS was founded by the United States in 1948, with the purpose of combating communism in the Western hemisphere. Around 60% of its funding coming from the United States, as such, it is not an impartial international organization and should not be treated as one.
With the slogan “more rights for more people,” the OAS’s current stated goal is to enforce international law throughout the Western hemisphere, and “to promote and consolidate representative democracy, with due respect for the principle of nonintervention,” according to their website.
However, the OAS has a history of getting involved in democratic elections in Latin America, corrupt or not. When the elected government of Haiti was overthrown in 2004 by US interests, the OAS reversed their stance on the legitimacy of the election. Their first reversal of an election occurred in Haiti in 2011, ostensibly setting a precedent for more direct involvement in the democratic processes of various states by the OAS. The Center for Economic and Policy Research found the justification for their reversal of the election to be unfounded and likely in the interests of Washington.
In an archived version of the 2018 Congressional Budget Justification for the State Department, funding of the OAS is justified because the organization “promotes U.S. political and economic interests in the Western Hemisphere by countering the influence of anti-U.S. countries.”
As mentioned above, Morales’s government faced conflict with the US government throughout his term. With leaked documents describing USAID, which funds the OAS, funding opposition groups of Morales and encouraging anti-MAS violence, it could be inferred that Morales’s Bolivia would have been considered “anti-US.” The OAS is not an impartial moderator in Latin America.
Now that context has been provided, what actually happened in the October elections? First, it must be emphasized that Bolivian elections are much different than elections in the United States.
In Bolivia, when someone casts their vote, the ballot is collected and their vote is put into a tally sheet, which is then signed off on by six jurors who all individually counted the tally and agreed on its accuracy. Nonbinding results are sent to the Servicio de Registro Cívico (SERECÍ) so that the media can report on preliminary results. The physical tally sheets are then sent to the Departmental Electoral Tribunal (TED) so the official count can be conducted. At the request of the OAS, this election included a “quick-count” conducted by the Tribuno Supremo Electoral (TSE), which would report the nonbinding results of SERECÍ. As the nonbinding results are meant to project a victor, the TSE agreed with the OAS to stop the quick-count after approximately 80% of the tally sheets were reported.
To achieve an unchallenged victory, a candidate needs more than 50% of the vote or 40% with a ten point lead on the second-place candidate. Otherwise, for example if a race was 42/34, a runoff election between just the two candidates is held. The OAS sent an Electoral Observation Mission consisting of 92 observers in nine departments across Bolivia with the stated goal of ensuring the veracity of the election.
On Oct. 20, voters went to the polls, with nine candidates on the ballot, of whom two were truly competitive: Evo Morales of the Movement for Socialism and Carlos Mesa of the centrist Comunidad Ciudadana party. As people began casting their ballots, both the public quick count and the slower binding count were progressing. On the evening of Oct. 20, the TSE ended the quick count with 83.85% of votes, 45.71% for Morales and 37.84% for Mesa. Notably, this lead would not have given Morales the election, as he didn’t have the required ten-point lead to avoid a runoff election.
However, as noted by the CEPR analysis of the election, the sources of the early votes came from largely urban areas, where Morales’s support base was weaker. On Oct. 25, when the official count’s results were announced, the results were 47.08% for Morales and 36.51% for Mesa, giving Morales a close 10.5% lead and the election.
The credibility of these results was called into question a few days before, when the electoral observation mission of the OAS issued a statement condemning the “inexplicable” nature of the quick-count ending after only 85% of the vote was counted, despite the TSE and the OAS previously agreeing on this stopping point. At the request of the OAS, the quick count was resumed 23 hours after it stopped, on Oct. 21. As the quick count progressed further, Morales began to take the lead, as with the official count.
Despite the apparent consistency of the results of both the quick count and the binding results, as recently confirmed by MIT statisticians, the OAS insisted the election was fraudulent. Multiple American news sources, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and NBC, ran with this, reporting on the apparent fraud without further statements on either the possible bias of the OAS or the lack of abnormalities in the election process.
On Feb. 27, the Washington Post published an article admitting the lack of evidence of fraud in the Oct. 20 election.
As public anger over the OAS’s public declaration of election tampering grew, Morales conceded and agreed to a reelection with more oversight and no stoppage of the quick count. It should be restated here that the legally binding vote count never stopped for any period of time, and so would have been very difficult to tamper with. Despite Morales’s agreement to a repeat election, the military called for him to step down. He did so on Sunday, Nov. 10.
At the time Morales was asked by the military to resign, violence against MAS supporters had increased. Many MAS Senators soon resigned as right-wing protests reached their doorstep. Reportedly, several MAS ministers’ houses were burned down by right-wing protestors.
The Bolivian constitution states that in the case of a power vacuum where there is no President or Vice President, the power will first transfer to the Senate President, then the President of the Chamber of Deputies, then the Vice President of the Senate. This process is different to America in that the power transfers to an “interim president” whose purpose is solely to call an election for a true president within 90 days of their appointment. Additionally, the interim president must be sworn in by the legislative branch to officially receive the title.
Jeanine Áñez was Vice President of the Senate when she was sworn in in front of an empty chamber on Tuesday, Nov. 12, two days after Morales and his Vice President resigned and received asylum in Mexico. Both the Senate President and the President of the Chamber of Deputies were MAS members who had fled due to fear of violence. Much of the rest of the legislative branch had boycotted Áñez’s swearing-in in protest of her racist history and promotion of anti-MAS violence. Áñez’s party only received four percent of the vote in the Oct. 20 election, tampering or not.
Áñez was sworn in on a Bible, stating that “the Bible has returned to the government palace.” In the context of her Christian supremacy, this statement threatened many indigenous and non-Christian peoples throughout Bolivia.
Áñez swiftly consolidated power, first filling her cabinet with primarily white business elites interested in reprivatizing the nationalized industries Morales famously used to fund education and health programs. After her military began firing on protestors, soldiers responsible for these deaths were given impunity. The weekend after Áñez took power, 8 protestors were killed. Her appointed ministers threatened to arrest opposition journalists, protests, and even lawmakers for “sedition.” In late January, this evolved into MAS members being issued with arrest warrants after announcing their candidacy for president in opposition of Áñez in the next election.
The deadline for Áñez to host a new election was Feb. 12. After intense pressure, she set the election date as May 3. Intimidation and violence against MAS party members as a result of Áñez’s far-right regime has increased, but support of MAS candidates has also seen growth.
Luis Arce Catacora has been named the MAS candidate for president, after Morales was barred from running. Less than a day after Catacora announced his candidacy, he was issued an arrest warrant and charged with corruption and sedition.
Fears of voter intimidation have led some, such as journalist Ollie Vargas, to express concern about the credibility of the upcoming election. Furthermore, the election is being monitored and influenced by not only the OAS but USAID, both with long histories of actions against the MAS.
It is unclear where the upcoming elections will go, but one thing is certain: Áñez and her US backers will not give up easily, but neither will the Bolivian people.