Last weekend, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales stepped down at the “suggestion” of his country’s army, amid mass protests over allegations that the longstanding socialist leader rigged an election.
The world immediately became as divided as Bolivia itself over how to describe the events.
The Mexican and Russian governments followed Morales’ lead and decried it as a “coup.” They were joined by left-wing luminaries like US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, and, slightly more hesitantly, senator Bernie Sanders.
Meanwhile, US president Donald Trump said the departure of Morales “preserves democracy and paves the way for the Bolivian people to have their voices heard.” The conservative governments in Washington and London both recognized opposition senator Jeanine Añez as de facto interim president.
With all the top elected officials from Morales’ party having resigned, Añez—formerly second vice-president of the Senate—declared herself the Senate’s leader and therefore constitutionally next in line as president. Morales called her ascent “the most cunning and nefarious coup in history.”
The reality is rather more nuanced than both sides claim. To understand it, you have to step back a bit.
Morales was elected in a landslide in December 2005, becoming the first indigenous president of a country where serfdom wasn’t abolished until 1945 and indigenous people were banned from entering the square outside the presidential palace until 1952. He cut Bolivia’s poverty rate nearly in half, slashed inequality, and created an indigenous middle class for the first time in Bolivia’s history. All the while, the country’s GDP nearly quadrupled.
Despite the economic and humanitarian gains, critics say Morales became increasingly unbothered by democratic norms toward the end of his time in office. In a 2016 referendum, a slim majority of Bolivians voted against amending the constitution to let him run for a fourth term. He ignored the result and turned to the courts. His party claimed that electoral term limits were a human rights violation. In 2017, the Constitutional Court—which opponents say is packed with Morales supporters—struck down those limits. The move deepened the already stark divisions between his supporters in predominantly indigenous rural areas and his mainly metropolitan critics.
In the first round of last month’s presidential election, early results seemed to show Morales had failed to win a 10% lead over his opponents, meaning he would face a stiff challenge in a run-off against opposition candidate Carlos Mesa, a former president. Election officials then, without explanation, stopped issuing information on the count for 24 hours. The evening after the election they announced, incredibly, that Morales had won without the need for a run-off.
Accusations of fraud and voter manipulation erupted, sparking enormous protests, which at various points devolved into violence. Morales insisted he had won legitimately until the Organization of American States announced it had found “clear manipulation” of the electoral process and called for the results to be annulled.
Morales barely lasted the day. The police had turned against him shortly beforehand, with many officers joining the protests. Morales finally caved to pressure on Nov. 10 and said he would hold a new election. It did little to quell the unrest, and Bolivia’s top general stepped in, saying he should resign to restore “peace and stability.” The country’s main federation of unions, a crucial bastion of support, also withdrew their support for him.
The next evening, he was on a plane to Mexico, whose socialist government had offered him asylum.
Experts are as divided as everyone else on the question.
Two academics quizzed by Spanish newspaper El Pais this week said the departure of a president at the military’s behest is the definition of a coup. A third argued that it can’t be a coup if the president has no legitimacy, having allegedly rigged an election and bent the constitution to his will. A fourth, Margarita López Maya of the Central University of Venezuela, said there are elements both of a coup and of a popular insurrection, and likened it to the Venezuelan military overthrowing a dictator in 1958 in order to hold democratic elections.
“I’m not sure it matters if it was a coup—I think it matters what people’s perceptions were. Whether it was or wasn’t a coup, the fact that reactions are so polarized is bad,” said John Polga-Hecimovich, a political scientist at the US Naval Academy who focuses on democratic stability in Latin America. “That throws into question not just the justification for what happened but the legitimacy of any new government—and Bolivia has long had violent protests.”
De facto leader Añez—a virtual unknown until this week—has netted an early win: the same Constitutional Court that abolished term limits for Morales has declared her the legitimate acting president.
Little that the conservative lawmaker has done so far indicates that her promise of seeking a “national consensus” is a serious one. Police yesterday used tear gas to break up a peaceful pro-Morales protest and then blocked about a dozen senators who support him from entering the Senate, according to the New York Times. Morales’ new constitution had put Christianity on the same level as indigenous religions, but Añez brandished an enormous bible while declaring herself president, saying “the bible has returned to the government palace.” In 2013, she called indigenous religious rituals “satanic,” in a now-deleted tweet.
Her main job is to see the country through to elections, which constitutionally have to be held before the end of January. The biggest question facing the country now is whether she can work to appoint a body to oversee the elections that has the support of Morales’ MAS party, the opposition, and also various civic groups, said Filipe Carvalho, who follows Bolivia for Eurasia Group, a political consultancy. “They need to bring about an electoral process that is both democratic, as in it appeals to everyone but is also credible to everyone, which is very difficult to do in such a heterogenous country,” he said. “These are going to be very delicate negotiations.”
Morales told journalists in Mexico City he is willing to step aside to help the country, but also said he is willing to return to “pacify” Bolivia “if my people ask me to.”