What caused the crisis in Bolivia, or rather ignited a social explosion, was the opposition’s displeasure with the election returns after the presidential ballot on October 20, 2019 . At first, the gap between the two candidates implied that they were heading for a run-off election, but all of a sudden the vote count was discontinued and it was announced that the then incumbent president, Evo Morales, had won by a landslide, something that automatically cancelled the second round of voting. The opposition, led by the loser in the election, Carlos Mesa, and based on the findings of OAS monitors, declared that the election had been rigged and that they refuse to accept the outcome.
It must be mentioned that the latent, if growing, discontent in the broad strata of Bolivian society was due to the fact that Evo Morales, who had ruled the country for 14 years at a stretch, gained nomination for another term in violation of the Constitution and despite the negative outcome of an earlier referendum on his reelection.
Nevertheless, the Bolivian opposition hoped that the voting would be in their favor and did not interfere with preparations for the elections, which were held in a calm atmosphere.
But the announced result, the abrupt suspension of the vote count, allegedly caused by a blackout, and numerous violations induced the opposition to organize anti-government protests under the banner of the struggle against the monopolization of power by Morales and his Movement for Socialism party, something that had long outraged both the right and the left in Bolivia.
Interestingly, the protests have taken place in a country that has witnessed considerable positive shifts in the economy and the social sphere over the last 14 years. The GDP growth averaged 5% per annum (surging from 9.5% in 2005 to 41.4% in 2018). Considerable support was provided to producers in the countryside; school students, pregnant women, women with children under two years of age, and persons without an official pension aged over 60 years received social allowances. During the 14-year Morales rule, the poverty level dropped from 38% to 15% and that of indigence, from 60% to 34%. These indices explain the fact that the main motive force behind the protests was the urban middle strata, who had failed to benefit in any perceptible way from these positive shifts in a country that remains the poorest Latin American nation after Haiti.
Moreover, discontent was brewing in the business community that had particularly strong links with foreign money bags and was dismayed by Morales and the Movement for Socialism abandoning the neoliberal course.
Those are the objective reasons for the protests, which were specially organized by the opposition rather than spontaneous. According to some reports, Carlos Mesa paid 500 bolivars to each participant in the protests. Where he got the money is still anyone’s guess but he is certain to be on the US bandwagon. In any case, the events in Bolivia were a New Year present for the US administration that dreamt of deposing the unwanted president, who kept alive the few remaining sparks of the “left turn” in Latin America.
The first Indian president in history, Evo Morales pursued a policy that favored the poorest, primarily Indian, strata, who responded by giving him their unqualified support. But he failed to win over the business community, or establish dialogue with the opposition parties, or, what is particularly important, enlist support from the military that traditionally played a key role in the internal policy of a country notorious for the greatest number of military coups in Latin America.
The Bolivian military sided with the opposition from the very start and it was they who insistently “advised” Evo Morales to resign and leave the country.
Each country has conditions and specifics of its own and so we would be best to focus on what makes the events in Bolivia similar to or different from those in, say, Ecuador and Chile.
The common feature is that in all three countries these events happened in October 2019. Most likely, this is a coincidence. Another similarity is the latent discontent building up in all the three countries, where the populations were dissatisfied with their socioeconomic status. It must be said, however, that these grievances can emerge in both underdeveloped and advanced countries, such as those in Europe and most notably France. And if we go back to the Latin American three, Chile can in no way be equated with the more economically backward Bolivia and Ecuador.
As far as the detonator of the social explosion is concerned, in Chile and Ecuador, it was a reaction to official economic strictures (a metro fare hike in Chile; cancellation of fuel subsidies and austerity in Ecuador), whereas Bolivia flared up in protest against political steps aimed at monopolizing power. The demands differed accordingly – economic in Ecuador and Chile and political (resignation of Evo Morales) in Bolivia.
While in Bolivia the protests were organized by the opposition, they flared up spontaneously in Chile and Ecuador, where social media rather than political parties were the organizing element. The same can be said for external interference. While objectively the United States had a stake in the departure of Evo Morales, it was in no way interested in the toppling of the right-wing regimes in Chile and Ecuador. Among other things, this is confirmed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s October 29 statement to the effect that the United States supports Ecuadoran President Lenin Moreno’s democratic methods and reforms.
What are the scenarios for further developments?
While in Chile and Ecuador the protests have been subsiding after the authorities accepted the protesters’ demands and cancelled their decisions (and Chile even announced the intention to adopt a new constitution that would mean a clean break with the past and Pinochet), the deposition of Evo Morales has not led to stability. The protests that his supporters staged in the country’s second most important city of Cochabamba have put Bolivia on the verge of a civil war. Evo Morales’ statements that he wants to return to the country and continue his rule are whipping up the mood of protest.
In a new environment, the army is siding with the interim ruler, Janine Agnes Chavez, and is involved in the anti-protest operation in Cochabamba. The new authorities have given the military a free hand to use any method, including firearms, against the protesters, something they do with a vengeance.
However, reprisals against the former president’s supporters will not save the country from a political crisis. As of today, the situation across the nation is highly uncertain. Cochabamba is in flames, with dozens killed or injured. People in the cities are experiencing food shortages. The situation may easily spiral out of control. Paradoxically, it is the army’s tough and repressive policy that could keep the country from a civil war.
According to experts, if a new presidential election goes ahead, as announced, Janine Agnes Chavez has no chance of winning, and the main battle might again be waged between Carlos Mesa and Evo Morales.
The developments in Bolivia are so volatile that each day may bring new surprises.