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When the military intervenes to depose a democratically elected leader, it’s a coup. Let’s get that out of the way. Even if that leader’s mandate has never been accepted by segments of the population, even if the leader goes on to alienate some original supporters, even if there are large public protests against the leader, even if the leader is able to continue to run for office due to a controversial Supreme Court decision, military intervention in domestic democratic politics is a coup.
The initial reaction of many mainstream US newspapers seemed to assume that because Morales was unpopular with a large and vocal minority of Bolivian society, the military’s intervention in his election was not a coup, but a victory for democracy. For instance, the initial New York Times headline observed that “Bolivian Leader Evo Morales Steps Down,” and spoke of “unrelenting protests by an infuriated population that accused him of undermining democracy to extend his rule” before mentioning anything about military involvement or Morales’ own condemnation of a coup. (The Times, whose response was if anything more demure and restrained than other mainstream US media outlets, has a dismal history of euphemizing and even celebrating coups against Latin American leaders who were critical of the United States.)
Many of the media accounts celebrating Morales’ ouster point not only to large-scale protests against the President, but also to more serious allegations of irregularities in October’s presidential elections.
Here the facts are disputed. After a review of the first round of voting, the Organization of American States (OAS) electoral mission announced that it could not verify that the election had been free of fraud, expressing concern “at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results [from the quick count] revealed after the closing of the polls.”
Defenders of Morales point to the fact that the OAS offered no evidence of fraud, and that the rapid increase in votes for Morales over the course of several days simply reflects the familiar fact that most of Morales’ support is in the rural areas whose ballots consistently take longer to tabulate. Critics also point out that the OAS, which is heavily dependent on the United States for its funding, is not a neutral arbiter but a reliable representative of US interests, which were extremely hostile to Morales.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a US based think tank, conducted a statistical analysis of the election results and tally sheets and found “no evidence that irregularities or fraud affected the official result,” and that “Morales’s first-round victory was not just possible, but probable.”
In any case, when the OAS commission presented its audit, Morales immediately offered to hold new elections under a reformed electoral body.
But by this point, anti-Morales protests had increased in size, intensity and violence. Later that afternoon, the head of the Bolivian military, General Williams Kaliman, demanded Morales’ resignation. Morales complied — and subsequently sought asylum in Mexico.
Much of the left has responded with anger. In a widely circulated statement, Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad announced that “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.”
I share the sense of urgency underlying these statements, as well as the insistence on naming the military intervention as a coup.
The problem with the way Chomsky and Prashad’s statement is phrased, however, is that it casts the Bolivian crisis as a clash between the people and the imperialists. These statements risk romanticizing Bolivia as a manichean world of pure good and evil, without any real politics or internal divisions of its own. Ironically, this romanticized premise is shared by those who point to deep political divisions and contestation over Morales’ presidency in order to deny that a coup took place.
The anti-indigenous racism and far-right, oligarchic background of some of the political leadership of the coup, such as Luis Fernando Camacho and self-declared Interim President Jeanine Añez Chavez, is glaring and undeniable. At the same time, it is clearly false to claim that protests against Morales consist exclusively of imperialists and oligarchs. In addition to segments of the upper and middle classes in the eastern provinces who clearly never accepted the legitimacy of an indigenous president, Morales also alienated important sections of his own base, by pursuing extractive projects on indigenous lands, by weakening social movements within the MAS party, and by covering his administration’s retreat from some of its more ambitious social commitments with symbolism and slogans. To overlook not only the deep class, racial and ethnic and regional conflict within Bolivia, but also the divisions among Morales’ own original base of support, driven by the limitations of his political project and failure to institutionalize his movement, substitutes a morality play for politics.
But perhaps the most contested aspect of his presidency has been the process by which Morales ran for a 4th term. Morales served one term under the constitution that was in place when he initially ran for office. After adopting a new constitution in 2009, he called for new, early elections under the new constitution. In 2016, after reaching the two-term limit under the 2009 constitution (his second term under that constitution but his third term all in all), he proposed a referendum that would amend the constitution to allow him to serve an additional term, his fourth in total. After losing that referendum by 51% of the vote, Bolivia’s highest constitutional court ruled that term limits in general violate human rights, clearing the way for Morales to run again.
As an example of judicial independence and integrity, this ruling perhaps deserves to be ranked among some of the hemisphere’s most widely criticized examples of politicized judiciaries intervening in domestic elections in recent decades. These instances of political justice deserve to be condemned, and should spur movements for judicial reform in their respective countries. But the adherence to legality, however spurious the reasoning underlying that legality, matters. The Bolivian Plurinational Constitutional Court 2017 ruling no more justifies the Bolivian military removing Morales from power than Bush v. Gore would have justified military intervention in US politics.
In a recent essay, Jeffrey Isaac stresses that while the Bolivian crisis has “coup-like features” that “surely sound… like a coup,” such a designation would fail “to see the unfolding Bolivian crisis in all of its complexity, to acknowledge that the opposition to Morales is pluralistic and includes many democrats…” According to him, calling what happened in Bolivia a “coup” risks misunderstanding what Isaac calls “an uprising in the face of a real crisis of legitimacy.” But Isaac never explains how protest, or pluralistic opposition, or a crisis of legitimacy obviate the fact of military intervention. As Greg Grandin points out, “[t[here has never been a coup in Latin America where the president being overthrown wasn’t considered “problematic”’ and [t]here has never been a coup in Latin America that didn’t have some degree of popular support.”
Ironically, Isaac and Chomsky, despite their disagreement about whether a coup occurred in Boliva, both seems to share a faulty premise: that coup d’etats cannot happen to fallible and contested political leaders in the ordinary give and take of conflictual politics.
It is urgent that we are able to acknowledge the contradictions and even tragedies of Morales’ administration. At the same time, we should take an absolutely clear stand against military involvement in democratic politics, and demand above all that the US government refrain from interference in Bolivian democratic politics.
Morales’ presidency marked a major advance for democracy in Bolivia. Still, for all its historical significance and inarguable material achievements, his administration developed in contradictory ways, that eventually provoked widespread popular opposition.
However, when the military intervenes to depose a democratically elected leader, it’s a coup; and coups invariably are a defeat for democracy — not a victory.
Ian Zuckerman teaches politics at Regis University. He is writing a book about emergency powers.