What Really Happened in Bolivia?

Events in the country remain exceptionally fluid following the ouster of President Evo Morales, who has been given political asylum in Mexico. Nonetheless, three preliminary conclusions can already be drawn.

Jorge G. Castañeda

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MEXICO CITY – Events in Bolivia remain exceptionally fluid following the ouster of President Evo Morales. There may or may not be free and fair elections within 90 days. Morales, who has been given political asylum in Mexico, may run again for president or seek to return to power by other means.

The Latin American left may recover from the fall of an icon, or continue to lose ground.

Morales’s policies, good and bad, will be overturned by a rightward swing in Bolivia, not unlike the recent anti-incumbency backlash elsewhere in Latin America, or they will outlast him.

Nonetheless, three preliminary conclusions can already be drawn. The first involves the regional implications of Morales’s downfall, regardless of the details of its consummation. After Latin America’s so-called pink tide – roughly from 2000 to 2015 – many of the left’s emblematic leaders were voted out of power, or resorted to various authoritarian stratagems in order to remain in control. Once the commodity boom ended, and when corruption scandals erupted in several countries, many leftist leaders or parties were unceremoniously evicted.

This occurred in Brazil, of course, as well as in Argentina, El Salvador, and Chile. In Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia itself, the left hung on to power through increasingly repressive and anti-democratic procedures. With the exception of Mexico, where Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the presidential election in 2018, the left has been on the wane across the region.

President Mauricio Macri’s defeat last month by the Peronist candidate Alberto Fernández in Argentina restored hope to the left’s supporters throughout the region. Similarly, the massive, though often violent, demonstrations in Chile since October, frequently seen as anti-neoliberal protests and as a clamor for a “different path,” gave reason for leftists to believe that the pendulum had swung back.

In this context, Morales’s political demise clearly counts as a defeat. He had lasted longer than any of the region’s other leftist leaders. His indigenous roots in one of the region’s poorest countries, together with his charismatic – or grandstanding – anti-imperialism and flamboyance, made him a rock star in much of the world.

The fact that the economy grew impressively, and that his opponents were often racist, also helped. This is now over, despite his best efforts, aided by his Mexican hosts and their Cuban and Venezuelan allies, to maintain his social-media presence in Bolivia and the international press.

Morales and his backers have sought to portray his fall from power as a classic military coup d’état, analogous to those that overthrew Guatemalan President Juan Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 or Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. In each case, the military steps in, with American support or acquiescence, captures the presidential palace and most of the president’s aides, shuts down the legislature, represses left-wing activists or leaders, and remains in power for years to come.

Having been overthrown, the democratically elected president who wished to continue to govern with a democratic mandate either commits suicide or goes into exile.

None of this is what occurred in Bolivia in October and November. Morales violated the constitution by running for a fourth term. The two Organization of American States Electoral Observation Missions that he himself had invited, and whose terms he had accepted, then refused to certify the outcome. The Bolivian military arrested no one.

True, Morales resigned when the military told him to, and after he had agreed to protesters’ demands for a new vote. But the existing constitutional provisions were subsequently followed.

The Constitutional Court, which allowed Morales to run, deemed the presidential succession legal; timely elections have been promised; and the military have not taken power. Indeed, the high command under Morales, who “suggested” he resign, has been replaced.

The broader, more abstract question is this: If electoral mechanisms no longer suffice to replace a president who is bent on remaining in power, when does an attempt to remove him or her through other means become legitimate? Would a coup to overthrow Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, or Raúl Castro in Cuba be acceptable?

What about dictators like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Argentina’s Jorge Videla in the 1970s and 1980s? Why is it acceptable when millions in the streets demand their leaders’ resignation, but not when the military join them verbally, and without the use of force?

When dictators assume power through electoral means, and then hold onto it through other methods, eliciting demands for their departure by students, unions, women, and indigenous peoples – like in Ecuador, just weeks ago – matters are no longer as clear-cut as they seemed decades ago.

Morales’s fall was brought about by a complex combination of factors, only one of which was the military’s call for him to step aside. Transforming him into a modern-day Allende who survived because he fled may be good propaganda for the radical left in Mexico, New York, and Bolivia, but it does not correspond to realities on the ground.

This leads us to the third conclusion. If the new Bolivian government sticks to the timetable foreseen by the constitution and schedules elections within 90 days, this will foreclose the discussion about coups and non-coups.

If Morales’s party, the Movimiento al Socialismo, fields a candidate other than Morales, it will lend full legitimacy to the process. Morales will almost certainly not be allowed to run, both for having attempted to steal the previous vote, and in view of the existing prohibition on running for a fourth term.

If the center-right opposition wins, it will undoubtedly attempt to overturn many of Morales’s policies and decisions. It is worth noting, however, that Carlos Mesa, who would have contested the run-off vote against Morales if the latter had not proclaimed himself the winner in the first round, is no extreme right-winger.

In fact, he was Morales’s representative at The Hague in Bolivia’s suit against Chile before the International Court of Justice. But that is what elections and rotation in power are for: to change course when the electorate so decides.

Morales will continue seeking to use his Mexican asylum and official sympathy for his cause to return to power. He may even succeed. But that would not address the country’s underlying dilemma. During 200 years of independence, Bolivians, like so many others in Latin America, have failed to transfer power peacefully and democratically over a sustained period of time.

Mandates to govern were interrupted by coups, revolutions, insurrections, or accidents – or leaders remained in power indefinitely. Having Morales pass from the scene for good, while transferring power peacefully and democratically from one president to another for the foreseeable future, would be a major accomplishment.


Jorge G. Castañeda, former Foreign Minister of Mexico, is Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University.

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