This past Sunday, Bolivian President Evo Morales was forced to resign his position, in the face of an intensifying domestic polarization and civil violence, centered on the contested results of his October re-election, for the fourth time, to the Presidency.

It is clear that one important dimension of this polarization was the defection of important elements of the police and the armed forces. The New York Times reported that “Bolivian Military Asks Morales to Resign to Ensure Stability,” quoting General Williams Kaliman, the chief military commander: “”After analyzing the internal conflict situation, we ask the President of the State to renounce his presidential mandate, allowing for peace to be restored and the maintenance of stability for the good of Bolivia.”

This surely sounds like a coup. Morales and his supporters describe it as a coup, as do a great many supporters across the world and many of the governments in the region, including Mexico. The Times reported yesterday that:

Former President Evo Morales on Monday encouraged resistance to efforts to form a transitional government leading to fresh elections in Bolivia after his resignation prompted violent protests by many of his supporters. “You never abandoned me and I will never abandon you,” Mr. Morales wrote on Twitter from an unknown location only hours after he was forced to step down. “The world and patriotic Bolivians will repudiate this coup.”

Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad agree with Morales, and they have drafted a petition denouncing the coup that centers on this claim:

The coup is driven by the Bolivian oligarchy, who are angered by the fourth election loss by their parties to the Movement for Socialism. The oligarchy is fully supported by the United States government, which has long been eager to remove Morales and his movement from power. . . We stand against the coup, and with the Bolivian people. We hope that they will be able to withstand what is thrown against them in the days to come.

This interpretation of events as a simple overthrow of a Man of the People by a reactionary military is melodramatic, even heroic. But is it accurate? I don’t think so.

There can be no doubt that the Bolivian military helped to force Morales from power. There can be no doubt that Morales was also pressured by some terrible violence perpetrated by anti-government protestors, and that his deposing is likely to fuel a cycle of violence that appears to be spinning out of control. There can also be no doubt that the U.S. has not simply welcomed this development, but worked behind the scenes to help bring it about. As Mark Weisbrot put it in the Nation, “The Trump Administration is Undercutting Democracy in Bolivia.” Morales’ overthrow has obvious coup-like features. At the same time, as a just-published piece in the New York Times points out, “The Bolivian Crisis Shows the Blurry Line Between Coup and Uprising.” It would be a huge mistake to ignore this “blurry line,” and to treat as a simple overthrow what was in fact an uprising in the face of a real crisis of legitimacy.

Morales was clearly forced from power. A “common man” of indigenous background, and a populist whose government delivered real benefits to the poor, he was very popular among his supporters. But he was also a polarizing figure who had many opponents, and while he claimed the mantle of “the people,” he was no democrat, and his overthrow was neither a disruption of an otherwise orderly legal process nor an assault on “the Bolivian people” in toto.

And any reasonable judgment of the current situation should take very seriously the ways his regime has been hostile to human rights, and especially the way he has circumvented Constitutional limits on his presidency. As the New Republic’s Jacquelyn Kovarik put it over a year ago in “Fighting for Democracy: A Lesson From Bolivia”: “Evo Morales has done remarkable things for his country. But now, he is rejecting term limits — and Bolivians are taking to the streets to stand up for the rule of law.” At a deeper level, questions must be raised about whether the egalitarian, populist, and “plurinational” discourse of Morales’ “social revolution” has ever accorded sufficient attention to the forms of civil liberty and rights of contestation essential to the democratic accountability of any political party or leader, whatever their origins or the sincerity of their commitment to “the people.”

The North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) has long been an important source of serious independent analysis on the left. At their “Rebel Currents” page, one can find a series of pieces published over the past few years about the gaps that have opened up between Morales and the social movements that helped catapult him to power. The most recent of these pieces was published on October 19 of this year — within days of the now-contested election. Bearing the title “Will Evo Morales Survive Bolivia’s Fires,” the piece offers this as background to the election:

Morales’s bid for reelection — defying the Bolivian Constitution and the results of a February 21, 2016 popular referendum, which he narrowly lost — has deeply divided the electorate. In a controversial 2017 ruling, the country’s highest court upheld Morales’s “human right” to run again — and voters’ right to reelect him — suspending constitutional term limits indefinitely. The opposition to Morales initially coalesced around the 21F Movement, consisting of disillusioned former MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party loyalists, disaffected middle-class voters, and conservative elite sectors that were against Morales from the start. Unable to either halt his candidacy or unite behind a single challenger, this disparate alliance appeared to be running out of steam — until recently.

The piece offers an extensive and deep analysis of the wildfires caused by agribusiness development, the government’s failure to properly deal with the fires in both logistical and political terms, and the links between this crisis and the growing illegitimacy of the government even among some of the indigenous groups that initially supported Morales. It also repeatedly references the criticism of the government articulated by Pablo Solon, identified as “an environmental activist and former UN ambassador for the Morales government.”

Solon, it turns out, is a supporter of the post-election protests, and he offered this observation about the Morales government in a Washington Post story published on October 29: “They’re instigating fear by having their supporters come out and clash with protesters while they also bet that the strength of the movement will wear out in the coming weeks. . . But for now the government is not being remotely able to control the chaos. The biggest challenge for Evo is that the magnitude of this protest movement is simply unprecedented.”

Solon was indeed a very important figure in the movement that brought Morales to power who served in a number of important diplomatic posts in the early years of the Morales government. He is a major activist of indigenous rights and environmental sustainability, an outspoken proponent of “rights of nature,” and he has been featured repeatedly at Democracy Now! He is, in short, a dedicated man of the left who long ago broke with Morales because of the latter’s anti-democratic ways (he explains this in a long interview, published 28 October, 2019 in International Viewpoints, a Trotskyist journal).

Solon is not an oligarch or a CIA stooge or even a neoliberal. And anyone who considers themselves to be a democrat on the left ought to care about what he says. On October 24, he published an open “Letter to the Alternative Globalization Movement on the situation in Bolivia.” I urge people to read it in full. Solon begins by addressing Morales’s denunciations of an imminent “coup”:

With deep regret, as I was part of the government between 2006 and 2011, I must disagree completely with Evo Morales statement. It is certainly true that Bolivia is in a state of extreme polarization and social unrest. The buildings of various departmental electoral courts have been set on fire and there are massive mobilizations throughout the country. What is the source for the social unrest that could lead to even worse scenes of violence? Is it possible that Bolivia is living through the fifth stage of a ‘soft coup’ against President Morales promoted by imperialism and Carlos Mesa [the main opposition candidate] as has been suggested by a former government Minister? The underlying reason why hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets, though, is the failure of Evo Morales to respect a referendum held on 21 February 2016 [which proposed a constitutional amendment to allow another term of office].

Solon carefully outlines the process whereby Morales circumvented the Constitution to ensure his continuation in power, and then used his governmental power to influence the current elections (“public employees were forced to attend the governing party rallies, Evo offered public works in exchange for votes, all the means of the state were used to support the government campaigns. . .”).

Solon does not side with Carlos Mesa, Morales’ chief electoral opponent, nor does he deny that the election involved complex issues of class, race, and political power. But he does call into question the government’s handling of the contested vote count, and even more its own effort to escalate the controversy to its own advantage:

Carlos Mesa is a journalist who was the vice president under the neoliberal government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. If Evo had not forced his candidacy and his reelection, Mesa would have just been another candidate or may not have even stood. Instead the population opposed to Evo concentrated their votes in favour of Mesa. Evo created his nemesis and polarized society around the issue of reelection. Alvaro Garcia Linera has raised tension saying this is a fight between q’aras (whites) against indigenous peoples. Without doubt Evo has stronger support in rural areas and Mesa more support in cities, but both forces are made up of mestizo and indigenous faces. It is very dangerous to encourage a confrontation based on racial framing.

This conflict, which has lasted several years, favours sectors of the right. And the US embassy is certainly making its own plans related to it. But the underlying cause of the conflict does not lie with them. Nothing of this kind would have happened if Evo had not refused to recognize the referendum which said NO to his reelection, and if he hadn’t forced an election based on the argument that his human right to be elected was more important than the constitution and the will of the people.

Solon’s open letter offers a very sophisticated political analysis of the forces in play in the current crisis. Solon does not paint the opposition to Morales with a single brush stroke, and just as clearly does not associate the deposing of Morales with the institution of democracy in Bolivia—an enormous challenge that he clearly locates in the country’s future. But he makes very clear that Morales, as the long-serving and authoritarian President of Bolivia, bears primary responsibility for the crisis that engulfed him, and that his government, through its actions, forfeited its democratic legitimacy among large segments of the population and among some of its own original supporters.

Pablo Solon’s perspective deserves no special privilege, and there are surely a range of other perspectives about how the Bolivian crisis unfolded in recent months, who is most responsible, and what possibilities for a better resolution of the crisis were foreclosed by decisions and events.

But Solon’s perspective deserves to be heard, and seriously considered, by anyone who cares about democracy in Bolivia or anywhere else, because of who he is, but also simply because of the truth of what he says. Evo Morales is neither the first nor the last leader, of the left or the right, to believe his own hype, and imagine himself to bear a special and indissoluble bond with “the people.” And this is neither the first nor the last time that some on the left will be tempted to believe it too, and to thus almost reflexively react to opposition to Morales as a form of “reaction” and as an assault upon “the people.” Such mysticism may have genuine appeal. But it is a very bad way to promote democratic values

To point this out is not to extol the actions of the Bolivian military, or to treat Morales’ overthrow as a simple triumph of democracy. It is simply, but crucially, to see the unfolding Bolivian crisis in all of its complexity, to acknowledge that the opposition to Morales is pluralistic and includes many democrats, and that the future of democracy in Bolivia is a future beyond Morales. Hopefully both his supporters and his opponents can see this, and can work together to resolve the current crisis, to conduct new democratic elections, and to restore a sense of legitimacy to the political system as a whole.

One thought on “Legitimacy and Democracy in Bolivia

  1. Some useful context is missing for a sincere discussion of democracy and the recent coup in Bolivia:

    1. This venerated constitution that Morales is accused of violating is only ten years old, established during his first term in office. The one before it was established by a fascist military dictatorship in the 1960s—the same one that murdered Che Guevara with the help of the CIA and an actual Nazi war criminal, Klaus Barbie, the butcher of Lyon. There have been 17 constitutions in Bolivia: they are not long-standing, venerated documents like the U.S. constitution, which is obscenely fetishized in the United States, in any case.

    2. Bolivia’s version of a supreme court already nullified the term limits established in this new document, as part of their legitimate democratic mandate, whether or not one agrees with the decision. Thus, Morales could not be said to be in violation of anything.

    3. The hyperlinked HRW report suggesting Morales is “hostile to human rights” is absolutely absurd: the first point of objection blames him for the crimes of the former military dictatorship. The following sections on “judicial independence,” “due process and prison conditions,” “human rights defenders,” “freedom of expression,” etc. could have been written even more forcefully against any U.S. president in history, including (especially) every liberal’s favorite democrat, Barack Obama. Excessive pre-trial detention? Check out Riker’s Island. Does anyone think any of this will be remotely better under Carlos Mesa, or any other Bolivian politician? Of course not. If one is going to casually call Evo Morales an “authoritarian,” it behooves one to marshal better evidence than this. In fact, the surest sign that a president is not an authoritarian is that the military, the far right wing, and the capitalist elites are all unified in opposition to him. Consider Allende and Mossadegh, both called authoritarians before their ouster by real authoritarians.

    4. Or how about FDR? If a four-term president is an unconscionable abuse of power, surely the leader of the New Deal was the greatest threat to American democracy in the 20th century. This was indeed a line of propaganda advanced by the U.S. fascistic capitalists at the time, who also tried to oust FDR in a fascist coup, in the infamous Business Plot of 1933—these are the exact historical models for the forces behind Carlos Mesa. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.

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