This Special Bulletin from Bolivia Information Forum Special Bulletin was issued on 17 November 2019
A right-wing government has taken office in La Paz representing the most conservative forces in Bolivian society. The new cabinet hails, in large measure, from Santa Cruz and the east of the country. They include people close to the radical civic committee leader, Luis Fernando Camacho. The candidate closest to Bolivia’s new rulers, Oscar Ortiz, came fourth in the October elections with barely 4% of the vote.
The new government has promised swift new elections but has so far failed to name a date.
The seizure of power has re-opened old divides in Bolivian society. There have been violent clashes with supporters of the MAS which accuse the new government of perpetrating a coup that ignored established constitutional procedures for succession. The government is using the armed forces to quell conflict with force. The legitimacy of the new government is thus in question.
Video: Telesur TV 16 November 2019
The international community, headed by the United Nations, has expressed fears of ongoing political and social strife. Fair, free and peaceful elections will be hard to organise in the current polarised climate.
The new government is intent on reversing many of the policies that Morales pursued, opening the economy to big business and pursuing a decidedly neoliberal agenda. It also seeks to reverse the previous government’s foreign policy objectives, in particular in forging a rapprochement with the Trump administration in Washington.
Key events after Morales’ resignation
Sunday 10 November. Events leading to Evo Morales’ decision to resign as president included Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), giving a summary of the main points of a report that has yet to be released publicly. He claimed irregularities in the electoral process in Bolivia. The armed forces, which had declared ‘we will not repress people taking part in demonstrations’ and the police – already mutinying – called on Morales to stand aside. Information is emerging to the effect that there were efforts to buy off his personal guards and the pilot of the presidential plane.
Key ministerial and administration figures were subjected to intimidation and violence, such as the burning of their houses and threats to family members. Official press channels (such as TV Channel 7 and the Patria Nueva network) were subjected to pressure either to close down completely or reduce their content to the banal.
The take-over was replete with symbolic gestures designed to denigrate the Morales government. Luis Fernando Camacho, president of the Santa Cruz civic committee (Comité Pro Santa Cruz), entered the traditional Palacio Quemado with the Bible and Bolivian flag ( tricolor) in each hand. Jeanine Añez, also Bible in hand, used this building to make pronouncements rather than the new presidential building, the ‘Casa del Pueblo’. One of the issues that roused serious protest, especially in El Alto and the Altiplano, was the lack of respect shown for the wiphala, the indigenous flag of Bolivia which, under Morales, came to represent indigenous inclusion.
Monday 11 November. Following Morales’ resignation, the police – still self-confined to barracks – were slow to act to prevent protests and acts of vandalism. At this point, they sought backing from the army. The military ended up patrolling the streets of La Paz, sharing a joint plan of operations with the police. There were thus two days with no government.
Tuesday 12 November. A senator from the Beni, Jeanine Añez, self-proclaimed herself president of the Senate and then, in a joint session of the two houses of the Legisative Assembly (PLA), president of the country. Both sessions were inquorate.
Wednesday 13 November. Añez named the first members of her cabinet, and appointed a new leadership for the armed forces, and then the police, replacing those named by Morales.
Claims to legitimacy, the nature of the succession
Following the resignations of Senate President Adriana Salvatierra and the first vice president Rubén Medinaceli (both from the MAS), Jeanine Añez, hitherto the second vice president of the Senate, held an inquorate session of the Senate, without the presence of MAS senators (the majority) in which she declared herself the new Senate president. In a subsequent joint session of the two houses of the PLA, also inquorate, she named herself president of the Plurinational State of Bolivia (Tuesday 12 November).
According to the 2009 constitution, if the president and vice president resign, the head of the Senate succeeds, and if s/he cannot, then the head of the house of Deputies fills the post. Añez’s claim on the post is questionable because Susana Rivero, the first vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies (from the MAS), was passed over.
The next day (13 November), members of the majority MAS party were prevented from reaching the PLA building, partly because of difficulties due to road blocks but also attempts by the police to stop them. In the Chamber of Deputies, the MAS deputies named a new president, Sergio Choque, and later a new president in the Senate, Eva Copa, both from the MAS and with the support of social movements. In the case of Copa’s appointment, senators from other groups than the MAS took part in the session.
Luis Fernando Camacho and Marco Pumari, leaders of the Santa Cruz and Potosí civic committees respectively, were present on the balcony of the Palacio Quemado, along with Añez, as she took over the presidency, underlining their role in the take-over of power. Other opposition leaders were absent.
New ministers, hitherto relatively unknown figures, include Jerjes Justiniano (son of a Santa Cruz socialist) as minister of the presidency; Arturo Murillo, minister of the interior; and Karen Longaric, minister of foreign relations. Justiniano, advisor to Luis Fernando Camacho, suggests the close links with the Comité Pro Santa Cruz. Añez also swore in a new armed forces commander, Carlos Orellana, and head of the police, Rodolfo Montero.
Murillo, for several years a hard-line deputy from the Demócratas (the conservative party of Santa Cruz Governor Rubén Costas) set the tone for the new administration by saying that he would ‘hunt down’ the former minister of the presidency, Juan Ramón Quintana ‘like an animal’. Roxana Lizárraga, the new communications minister, threatened to sanction journalists involved in what she called ‘seditious activities’. Her stance met with heavy criticism from the Inter-American Press Association (SIP), the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) and the Bolivian Press Association (ANPB). Argentine journalists reporting on the streets of La Paz were subsequently expelled from the country.
Economic policy: the business agenda
It may be early days to know where this interim government will seek to go on economic policy, but it is clear that it wishes to do away with the policies pursued by the MAS administrations.
The man appointed by Añez as her economy minister is José Luis Parada. He was previously the finance minister in the regional government of Santa Cruz where he was an outspoken critic of the Morales administration’s economic policies.
Within hours of taking office, he announced that he would seek a new deal with foreign investors. ‘For 14 years we have seen obstacles (‘trabas’) imposed to private investment. We are going to set the basis for an opening of the national economy in order to attract investment”. And perhaps pointedly with respect to what the outcome might be from promised elections ‘that the next government should continue with this’. He also promised to liberalise exports, getting rid of existing controls, and to examine public enterprises closely with a view to their possible sale to private investors.
There seems little doubt, therefore, that he will seek to reverse some of the policies pursued by former finance minister Luis Arce since (with a brief interruption owing to ill health) 2006. These have been highly successful in increasing rates of growth, boosting income to the state, and using these resources to tackle poverty and inequality. Over recent years, Bolivia has led Latin American countries in terms of growth, in spite of the economic difficulties afflicting key trade partners.
Parada comes from a business background in Santa Cruz, having previously worked in the textile and sugar industries. Perhaps not to cause more worries than have already rocked Bolivia’s stability in recent weeks, he has ruled out an immediate devaluation of the boliviano or any increase in taxation. He has also promised to maintain the system of public allowances to schoolchildren, people over the age of 60, and expectant mothers/young mothers.
His appointment has been welcomed in business circles, as has the Añez take-over. In a press conference, Luis Barbery, president of the private business confederation (CEPB), made clear his support for Añez and her ministers. Echoing the new minister, he looked for the government to give ‘positive signs of making the country attractive for investment, respecting juridical security’. The CEPB has been a persistent critic of the Morales government’s economic policies, especially when the latter sought to improve wage levels for private sector workers.
Barbery’s words fly in the face of strong foreign investment in recent years in hydrocarbons and the lithium industry, amongst others. Morales pursued policies that were business-friendly, especially with respect to agribusiness in Santa Cruz. Indeed, he was criticised by many on the left for having too cosy a relationship with big business.
Given the degree of violence and political instability in Bolivia in the last month, it would be surprising if foreign investors would be rushing to take advantage of the facilities being offered by the new government. The National Chamber of Industries (CNI) reckons that the disturbances may have cost its members as much as US$1.1 billion.
Foreign policy: reversal
The new foreign minister, Karen Longaric, one of the bitterest critics of the Morales government, spoke in her inauguration speech that Bolivia was under attack from ‘international delinquents’.
Reflecting the same desire to return Bolivia to conservative policies, the new government was swift to announce it was cutting links with Cuba and Venezuela (and other ALBA allies). It announced the repatriation of some 725 Cuban health workers who have been providing free assistance in many of the most deprived parts of the country. The new government has said it will leave the ALBA alliance and the UNASUR agreement. It has also said that it will be retiring staff appointed in many embassies abroad appointed by the MAS government. This will interrupt the conduct of foreign relations unless the interim government can get the PLA swiftly to approve nominations of new ambassadors.
The new government has sought to blame foreign ‘subversives’ for Bolivia’s troubles, including the Colombian FARC guerrillas. This fits in tidily with the attempt to mend fences with the United States. Doors will also be opened to allow ‘political exiles’ to return to Bolivia.
The Morales government was a bitter critic of Washington ever since it expelled the US ambassador in 2008 for allegedly fomenting political unrest when Santa Cruz, spearheaded by the Comité Pro Santa Cruz, came close to threatening secession. The United States was previously closely involved in pursuit of the violent ‘zero coca’ policy pursued by the Banzer administration in the late 1990s. Without naming the United States directly, Morales implied complicity with attempts to destabilise his government in the wake of the 20 October elections. President Donald Trump was quick to express his fulsome support to the new government in La Paz (as indeed did the UK government) in spite of the illegalities involved in its formation and the risks to political stability.
With respect to Chile, the new government has hinted it intends to look for a rapprochement, a policy unlikely to find much favour in Bolivia.
The Añez government has already crossed swords with Mexico for offering diplomatic asylum to both Morales and former vice-president Alvaro García Linera and allowing Morales to make political statements. The Mexican government has retorted by justifying its offer of humanitarian assistance and insisting on Morales’ right to free speech.
President-elect Arturo Fernández of Argentina, like Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, has called Morales’ ouster a “coup”. He too has offered Morales diplomatic asylum once he becomes president next month.
The government is coming under huge international pressure, not least from the EU, to speed up a transition to a new elected administration. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has dispatched Jean Arnault as an intermediary between the new government and the MAS in the hope that a negotiated transition can be arranged. Russian President Putin warned of Bolivia being on the brink of chaos.
Conflict and repression
There have been daily protests in El Alto and La Paz since Añez’s assumption of the presidency. Protestors have demanded respect for the wiphala and human rights. They reject Añez as president. Some of the marches have been huge. They have been met with tear gas from the police.
The new government has adopted a confrontational stance with regard to public protest. Whereas in its last weeks the Morales government put the police in the middle, trying to contain violence between opposition and MAS supporters and keep the two sides apart, the Añez government has brought in the military directly to contain demonstrations. This has led to an important increase in the numbers killed and wounded. On 15 November alone, in Sacaba, Cochabamba, 9 people coming from the Chapare (coca producers) plus locals were killed by military gunfire, more than the number in the three previous weeks. The approval by the government of a decree, to absolve members of the military in the case of penal responsibility (i.e. in killing people), is a worrying precedent, which has already been questioned by the IACHR.
Several cities are currently under ‘siege’ by campesinos : La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, Oruro, Potosí and Sucre. News regarding what is happening on the ground in different localities is increasingly hard to come by, but road blocks have been erected on many inter-provincial routes, interrupting transport. The result is that there are shortages of petrol, gas for cooking, meat, vegetables and fruit in the main cities, particularly in La Paz.
There have been attempts to initiate dialogue between government authorities and different social sectors. But unless military repression is swiftly curtailed, it is unlikely that any lasting agreements can be reached. The prospect of being able to hold elections under current circumstances is remote.