Illustration: Crystal Yung 

by Mike Hermida & Tim Kitz

The election of Luis Arce on October 18 is the latest chapter of drawn out tensions in Bolivia, where the spectre of suspected foreign intervention hangs over recent democratic convulsions. The current turmoil centers around the 2019 ouster of President Evo Morales by the military, which some commentators have called a coup.

Morales’ rise and fall has a lot to do with foreign interests in mining and resource extraction in Bolivia, something that goes back before Bolivia was even a country.  

A Micro-History of Mining in Bolivia

The region now known as Bolivia has been famous for its mining sector since the colonial era. During the 19th century, Spanish colonizers focused their efforts on silver extraction. By the early 20th century, the silver mines had mostly been depleted, and the businessmen turned to resources such as tin, petroleum, and lithium.

Historically, profiting off of natural resources has led to infringements on Indigenous rights, like when the government forced Indigneous persons to sell their land for silver extraction in the late 1800s.

Since the 1960s, Bolivia has been flip-flopping between democratic and authoritarian governments. Many of these regimes used neo-liberal policies to privatize formerly public mining companies and encourage foreign investment. This was facilitated by US foreign aid, which served as positive reinforcement that encouraged trade with the US.

Today foreign investors have their eyes on Bolivia for its high levels of lithium. Lithium is in high demand — demand that will only continue to grow — because it is used to make batteries for computers, cell phones, and electric cars.

Morales was ultimately a moderate, who wanted to weave together a “plurinational” coalition to unify Bolivia, where trade and resource development could be reconciled with Indigenous rights, unionism, and uplift for the masses.

The Rise of Evo Morales

Amid fiscal deficit and a decline in natural resources, coca grower and union leader Evo Morales ran for president in 2005. Morales is Aymara, an Andean Indigenous nation long targeted by state violence and the War on Drugs, on account of their traditional growth and use of the coca leaf. (Coca leaf can be safely consumed as a chew or tea — and it has a long history of use for medicinal, nutritional, and spiritual uses in Aymara and Andean culture. But it is also the raw material used to manufacture cocaine.)

Morales campaigned on promises of land reform and nationalizing resources. The next year, he became the country’s first Indigenous president — something long-overdue for the country with the most Indigenous People in South America.

Morales’ party, the Movimiento al socialismo (MAS) followed through on many of its promises, including nationalizing the lithium sector. Under Morales, “the government came to form dominant roles in Bolivia’s extractive industries,” as Peter H. Smith and James N. Green put it in their book Modern Latin America. And, thanks to a boom in the economic cycle, the Morales government was able to radically decrease poverty levels and fund social justice programs. 

MAS also brought aspects of Indigenous culture into the halls of power, when they had previously only been denigrated. After MAS’ first major election success in 2002, an Indigenous delegate observed that Congress “smells of coca and wears a poncho and sandals,” according to Donna Lee Van Cott’s book From Movements to Parties in Latin America. This helped to spur on a revaluation of Indigenous culture in Bolivian society — a change which manifests itself many ways, like the reclamation of traditional dress by a younger generation.

Evo Morales, Former Bolivian President Credit: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores del Perú/Wikimedia Commons

Morales’ Challenges & Successes

Morales was ultimately a moderate, who wanted to weave together a “plurinational” coalition to unify Bolivia, where trade and resource development could be reconciled with Indigenous rights, unionism, and uplift for the masses.

“Morales has insisted that he does not want to put off foreign investors, that he wants ‘socios, no patrones’ (partners, not bosses),” as N. Salazar Sutil explained in a 2010 article in Popular Communication. “Morales has spoken of a truce between the communitarian indigenista project and global financial capitalism in order to develop a hybrid system which Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera has dubbed ‘Andean-Amazonian capitalism’.”

Yet the cracks in this project were starting to show by 2009. This was the year Morales held a vote in the Legislative Assembly to change the Bolivian constitution. The new document mandated land reform and set aside seats in Congress for Indigenous politicians.

However, writing in a Guardian article that year, Matthew Taylor pointed to the lack of support from wealthy elites, particularly in Bolivia’s conservative eastern lowlands, “a semi-tropical stronghold of European descendants,” where “there was widespread opposition to the constitution.” 

Morales’ critics “argued that the focus on Indigenous communitarism ignored the freewheeling capitalism that drives the eastern plains’ huge cattle ranches and powerful soy industry,” Taylor wrote. “There were bloody clashes between pro and anti-government supporters, including miners armed with dynamite and peasants with machetes, during the drafting of the charter. Several people died, hundreds were injured and Bolivia was left dangerously polarised.”

Morales persisted, however — with considerable success. By 2014, poverty under the MAS government had declined by 25% and extreme poverty by 43%, while the real minimum wage had soared 87.7%,  according to a report from US-based think-tank the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Defying the neoliberal economic consensus, Bolivia managed to nationalize its oil and gas industries, increase social spending, and dramatically decrease poverty and increase the minimum wage — while achieving unprecedented economic growth and the highest rate of foreign investment in South America.

Morales’ achievements were not simply economic. In 2011-2012, MAS began to enshrine rights for nature in Bolivian law. “The State and any individual or collective person must respect, protect and guarantee the rights of Mother Earth for the well-being of current and future generations,” asserted the 2011 Law of the Rights of Mother Earth.

However, over the years, some Indigenous people turned against the government as it failed to phase out its dependency on natural resource extraction. Morales also lost some support among his base when he loosened restrictions on land-clearing fires in the Amazon and insisted on building a road through a protected park that is a biodiversity hotspot and home to 14,000 mostly Indigenous people. 

Accusations of corruption also began to dog the MAS government. Then in 2018, Morales built a new presidential residence that NPR characterized as a “luxurious skyscraper,” which also alienated some of those who once backed him. This seemed a far cry from 2006, when the newly-elected president made waves around the world by meeting kings and presidents in a humble wool sweater and tennis shoes.

Meanwhile, Morales ran for a third term in 2014 — and won — despite his own constitution placing a two-term limit. Then, having narrowly lost a referendum to amend the constitution’s term limits, MAS convinced the constitutional court to abolish them in 2019. 

All this cleared the path for Morales to run for a fourth term against former president Carlos Mesa — while also setting the stage for serious backlash…

The elections of 2019

Morales was hoping to win the October 2019 election with at least a 10 point lead. Otherwise, he would have to face a runoff against Mesa alone. The incumbent feared those who voted for a third party would rally around Mesa in the case of a runoff.

After voting day, officials began counting the ballots. Morales appeared to be winning with a narrow margin. But after an unexplained 24 hour halt in the counting, the MAS candidate had gained the 10 point lead he needed. 

This made many already-sceptical citizens think fraud was afoot and triggered new protests. 

This was aggravated by an Organization of American States (OAS) report that found evidence of ballot manipulation and recommended elections be held anew. 

Not all outsiders agreed; the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) conducted a dissenting statistical review of the election. This report said the OAS’ conclusions were “contradicted by the data” and that there was “no evidence that irregularities or fraud affected the official result that gave [Morales] a first-round victory.”

Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland was among the chorus of international actors who backed the OAS in calling for a new election. “Canada welcomes the call for new elections in Bolivia by the OAS Electoral Observer Mission to the country,” a Global Affairs Canada press release stated. “The results of the OAS mission audit demonstrate serious failings in the conduct and accounting of the Oct. 20, 2019, vote. It is clear that the will of the Bolivian people and the democratic process were not respected.”

Jeanine Añez, Interim President of Bolivia Credit: Wikimedia

The (Divine?) Ascent of Jeanine Áñez

As protests and violence escalated — and right-wing politicians called for Trump to intervene — the Bolivian military called for Morales to step down. With that accomplished, it backed right-wing civilian Jeanine Áñez, who declared herself interim president. Áñez had been serving as the second vice president of Bolivian senate, which set her up as the highest-ranking official after the resignation of Morales and other top MAS officials.

Áñez, a Christian fundamentalist, seems to have seen her unlikely and tumultuous ascension into the presidential office as divinely appointed. She brandished a massive bible as she entered the presidential palace, AP News reported, declaring “The Bible has returned to the palace.” Shortly after, in a speech from the palace’s balcony, she waved a smaller, pink bible and declared “Our strength is God … Power is God,” according to The Conversation

Many ordinary Bolivians comfortably weave Catholicism together with Indigenous spiritual practices. Yet upperclass evangelicals like Áñez and conservative Catholics often see syncretic Indigenous spirituality as “pagan pollution,” professor Kenneth Roberts told AP. Áñez herself called the Aymara people’s New Year celebration “satanic” in a 2013 tweet she has since deleted, as AFP Fact Check reported.

Once in office, Áñez appealed to white voters by making racist comments about Indigenous cultures and issuing an arrest warrant for Morales. Amid violence and arson in his sister’s house, Morales fled to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Some commentators, including Morales himself, say that the coup was an attempt by the United States — which enjoys close ties with the OAS — to control the South American country’s lithium supply.

Luis Arce, President-elect of Bolivia Credit: UNCTAD/Wikimedia

The Present — MAS Returns with a New Leader

Regardless of the reason for Áñez interim presidency, elections were held yet again in October of this year. The election had been postponed several times, allegedly because of COVID, and the date was only set after months of protests and road blockades from pro-MAS groups. 

Áñez decided not to run after it became clear she had no real chance of winning, but Mesa ran again — this time facing Morales’s former Economy Minister, Luis Arce. On Oct. 18, Arce declared a victory for MAS and became the president elect with 55 per cent of the votes, enough to avoid a runoff. Mesa only received 28 per cent.

The Inter-American Union of Electoral Organizations (UNIORE) said it found no signs of election fraud.

Arce campaigned on many issues Morales has rallied around in the past, but he gives MAS a more technocratic, economics-focussed face, as opposed to the populist and Indigenous presentation of Morales. Arce is not the sort of politician who writes a chatty autobiography but a sober tome like 2015’s The Bolivian Economic Social Communitarian Productive Model. During the election, he promised to create jobs by exploiting lithium mines and other natural resources, but he also told Reuters “We will have to have austerity measures.”

Arce has also taken steps to distance himself from Morales, saying Morales “will not have any role in our government,” even if he remains the president of MAS. Arce also signalled a willingness to reestablish diplomatic relationships with the US, “If they want to reestablish a relationship with us, the only thing we ask for is that we are respected as equals.”

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