In Depth

Bolivia: a return to democracy - or a coup?

Ousted president Evo Morales claims that ‘dark forces have destroyed democracy’

Bolivia is facing a constitutional crisis that has divided public opinion following the resignation of president Evo Morales earlier this month.

In a televised address on 10 November, Morales said he was stepping down for “the good of the country” after his disputed re-election last month, but added that “dark forces” had destroyed Bolivian democracy. He then fled the country, tweeting that police had an “illegal” warrant for his arrest.

Some commentators have described the situation as a military coup, while others, including US President Donald Trump, have said that the ousting of Morales “preserves democracy” in the face of a corrupt regime.

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What is going on in Bolivia?

Morales’s problems go back as far as 2016, when he lost a referendum that would have made running for a fourth term as president possible. After losing the referendum, Morales turned to Bolivia’s constitutional court, which was stacked with his supporters. It voted that term limits violated his human rights.

In the ensuing election on 20 October, Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, claimed victory over his rival Carlos Mesa by just over the 10% margin required.

But, after polling booths shut, the vote count halted inexplicably for nearly 24 hours, triggering the start of street protests.

After an audit by the Washington-based election monitor the Organisation of American States (OAS) found “clear manipulation” of the voting system, the protests intensified. OAS then said that the discrepancies meant that it could not verify the result.

BuzzFeed News reports that police in the capital, La Paz, joined anti-government protesters and several institutions, including the head of the armed forces, in suggesting that Morales step down. Amid the turmoil, Morales fled to Mexico.

Who says it was a coup?

On 13 November, Morales made a public announcement from Mexico City in which he expressed interest in returning to Bolivia, describing the events of the previous week as a US-backed coup d’etat.

During the press conference, Morales “encouraged the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle to continue and rejected self-declared interim President Jeanine Anez,” The Intercept says. Anez, a right-wing Christian who has courted controversy for anti-indigenous comments in the past, declared herself president shortly after Morales fled the country.

Left-wing allies of Morales have jumped to his defence and echoed his sentiments that what has taken place is a coup. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro and Argentinian president-elect Alberto Fernandez used the word “coup” when describing the saga, as did the governments of Mexico, Russia and Uruguay.

Quartz reports that 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”.

To many, the evidence is clear-cut. Writing in The Guardian, Gabriel Hetland, assistant professor of Latin American, Caribbean and Latino studies and sociology at the University at Albany, says that the “facts leave little doubt that what happened in Bolivia this weekend was a military coup, the first such event in Latin America since the 2009 military coup against the Honduran president Manuel Zelaya”.

So are they correct?

As The Economist says, “there are few more emotive words in Latin America than ‘coup’, and for good reason.

“From 1930 to the 1970s, the region suffered the frequent overthrow of civilian governments in often bloody military putsches,” the news magazine says, adding that victims were “usually of the left”.

Quartz reports that 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”.

But a third historian 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”.

This alleged electoral fraud has been the main focal point when debating whether or not a coup took place. Brazil’s government, led by right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro, said it would back a democratic transition in neighbouring Bolivia and dismissed leftists’ arguments that a coup had occurred, The Guardian reports.

“The massive electoral fraud attempt delegitimised Evo Morales, who had the right attitude and resigned in the face of popular outcry. Brazil will support a democratic and constitutional transition,” the Brazilian foreign minister Ernesto Araujo said.

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”. Washington and the UK government have both recognised Anez’s claim to the presidency.

BuzzFeed suggests that the White House deciding to praise Morales’s resignation as a step forward for democracy in the region indicates that “opinions about his escape from Bolivia often have little to do with the facts on the ground, where neither he nor his opposition are the one-dimensional heroes or villains they are regularly portrayed as abroad”.

The involvement of the military in removing Morales from power has also been referenced extensively by those describing the events as a coup. However, as The New York Times says, anti-Morales forces have “pointed to violence by Mr. Morales’s supporters or abuses of power by Mr. Morales as proof that any military role was necessary and so does not constitute a coup”.

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