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Bolivia: interim government here to stay?

Policies dismantled, ministries purged, oppenents persecuted.

ByBIF

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This article was published by Bolivia Information Forum as BIF Bulletin No.47, 20 January 2020.

Weblinks to BIF Bulletins are also available through the BIF Twitter account here: https://twitter.com/Boliviainfo

Banner image: Cartoon by Al Azar (Alejandro Salazar)


In spite of its interim status, the government of self-proclaimed president Jeanine Añez gives the impression that it intends to be here to stay, seeking to dismantle all that came before it and revealing dictatorial traits.  On 16 January, it ordered the patrolling of streets in major cities, especially La Paz and El Alto, by joint police and army contingents, accompanied by armoured vehicles. Though Añez has said that this was to forestall any moves by MAS supporters on 22 January, the date when a new president was to have been sworn in, the move is unprecedented in times of democracy.  At a time when the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal had just decided to extend the tenure of the members of the Legislative Assembly, the interim president and other decentralised authorities, this would seem excessive.  Also, in the build-up to national elections on 3 May, this kind of attitude hardly seems conducive to guaranteeing fair and free elections.

A return to obscurantism and repression

CIDH (IACHR) denouces massacres and humgn rights violations. Bolivian government annoyance. Video: Al Jazeera December 2019.
  • The human cost of the overturn of the Morales government, particularly after the Añez government mobilised the army in November, was very high. In Senkata in El Alto alone, eleven people were killed and some 60 wounded, mainly shot; in Huayllani, Sacaba (Cochabamba) there were nine people killed and some 115 wounded, again mainly shot.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in its report on the situation considered that there had been grave violations of human rights, including signs of extrajudicial execution. This violence was characterised by what it called “polarisation, hostility and hatred in social relations, based on discrimination, intolerance and racism”.  So, far no investigation has been carried out, the army denies any role in the deaths, and some human rights organisations are notably silent on the matter.
  • The involvement of the police and the army in the process leading up to the coup has been described in more detail elsewhere, but the mutiny of sections of the police force, and their role — together with that of the armed forces — in forcing President Morales to stand down appears key to his decision to do so; up till midday on 10 November, Morales insisted in not ordering the army to move against the people, and he resigned five hours later after they went public. Fernando Camacho, until recently president of the Santa Cruz civic committee, has since pointed to the role that his father played (along with current Defence Minister Fernando López) in ensuring the army and police would not move against them in attempting to secure Morales’ resignation.
  • The self-proclamation of Jeanine Añez as president, two days after Morales’ resignation, was justified by the supposed fraud carried out in the elections on 20 October.  The Organization of American States, after a long delay, presented its final report, but in no way did it show the “monumental fraud” claimed by the former presidential candidate Carlos Mesa.  Various experts and institutions have questioned the OAS report and, more importantly, its role in the ouster of Morales.
  • A decision to oust president Morales, whatever the cost, appears to have been taken by opposition groups well in advance of the 20 October elections. But many of those who claimed they wanted a ‘return to democracy’ are now less than happy with the results. The seizure of power by groups on the far right has led to a new period of obscurantism and repression.
Camacho admits that his father did a deal with the police and the army. Video: RT en Español, 29 Dec 2019

Foreign policy

Far from acting in a simply administrative ‘interim’ capacity, the Añez administration has sought to reverse fundamental lines in Bolivia’s foreign policy, quarrelling with former allies and seeking the closest possible relationship with Washington.

  • There was a serious diplomatic incident at the Mexican embassy residence in La Paz.  A visit by the Spanish chargé d’affaires and consul, accompanied by four members of their security, was seen by the government as an attempt to extract former minister of the presidency, Juan Ramón Quintana.  Nine former officials are currently holed up in the residence, including six ministers: Quintana, Javier Zavaleta (Defence), Héctor Arce (Justice), César Navarro (Mining), Wilma Alanoca (Cultures), and Hugo Moldiz (Interior). They have all been denied guarantees of safe conduct that are usual in asylum cases. The government expelled Spanish and Mexican diplomats, and then Spain returned the compliment. The European Union expressed concern regarding what it saw as the “unfriendly” behaviour received.  Interior Minister Arturo Murillo saw the incident as a left-wing plot. He even asked the prosecutor general to check out the involvement of Pablo Iglesias, the new Spanish vice-president.
  • The government has not been remiss in re-establishing links with the United States. This would appear to entail the delivery of aid to the Bolivian government, which President Donald Trump has called “vital to the national interests of the United States”. Whilst conversations are ongoing between representatives about the practical side of such arrangements, on 15 January Añez met with Trump’s special envoy, Mauricio Claver-Carone, who expressed the White House’s full support for her presidency. Aid was to go initially to the Plurinational Electoral Tribunal to help rebuild the departmental tribunals’ buildings destroyed by anti-Morales forces in the days following the October elections. On another point, US government officials have asked the Argentine foreign minister to guarantee that Morales does not take advantage of his refugee status in Argentina to make political pronouncements.
  • Carrying on with its radical changes in foreign relations, the Añez government, having broken with the ALBA countries — Venezuela and Cuba in particular — has joined the conservative Lima Group. Bolivia did not attend the meeting of the Latin American and Caribbean Community of States (CELAC) in Mexico, at which President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took on the group’s presidency.
Drones being used to monitor the Mexican Embassy in Bolivia. Video: Milenio TV, Mexico, 29 December 2019

Attempts to silence freedom of speech and opinion

The new government remains highly sensitive to expressions of opposition. It has sought to create a climate of consent based, in part, on closing down spaces of criticism and silencing specific sources of media opposition.

  • In comparison with freedom of opinion under the Morales presidency, today the media is largely muzzled.  This works in various ways.  Specific media outlets, such as Telesur, have been removed from the cable and satellite TV networks. The president of the board of the ATB TV channel has been arrested. A number of dissenting journalists face the threat of arrest for sedition. As a result, several news programmes have closed down completely, and TV channels project mainly the government’s version of events, and/or simply the banal. A network of 53 community radio stations was forced to suspend their news service. Several, particularly those linked to campesina organisations, have faced physical aggression and/or have been forced to close down.
  • The case of the suspension of the newspaper La Razón’s publication of cartoons by Alejandro Salazar ‘Al Azar’ typifies the current situation. Salazar has produced cartoons, critical of government activity, for many years. As a result of his cartoons highlighting what he sees as the Añez government’s fascist leanings and its practice of blaming recent conflicts on ‘narco-terrorist’ groups, he received death threats. Instead of Salazar’s cartoon’s, the editor of La Razón now publishes an empty box.
  • Whilst many Whats App groups have closed down, partly as a question of security of their members, other groups have emerged. New political actors have been shown to have set up false Twitter accounts: IACHR has pointed to the setting up of some 68,000 accounts in support of Fernando Camacho and the Añez government.
“Artist and friend of La Razon Alejandro Salazar has told management that given the persecution to which he has been subjected in the last few weeks … he cannot continued to produce his creative work for our editorial pages and has had to withdraw while he waits for a more tolerant and less aggressive climate to prevail.” Image from page of A26, La Razon

Quashing dissent

  • The government has blamed the conflict of November on what it calls ‘narcoterrorists’, thus seeking to create a narrative to explain violent opposition. It seized on the fact that an individual involved in a violent dispute last October in Montero, Santa Cruz, was previously a member of the Colombian FARC to portray all opposition as part of a wider terrorist plot, involving foreigners. Such attempts to manipulate public opinion have largely failed to convince.
  • The judicial system is being used to silence dissent. The government apparently is investigating 592 people from the previous administration. They face being sent to jail without any due process. The recent harsh treatment of former Interior Minister Carlos Romero, accused of responsibility in a case that he himself had denounced, is designed to intimidate him and others, especially in the light of the coming elections.
  • Other cases of intimidation abound. They include the ombudsman in Cochabamba, who was investigating the deaths in Sacaba. Schoolchildren and university students, sons and daughters of previous authorities, have been subjected to organised bullying. Roving gangs are employed, in particular against activities of the MAS. The national meeting of the MAS to decide on its candidate in the coming elections had to be moved to Huanuni from Oruro, where the facilities they were going to use were closed down by the so-called Juventud Orureña.  In Cochabamba, a group known as Resistencia Juvenil Cochala acts as a kind of paramilitary, for example, forcibly moving women wearing traditional dress out of the square in middle class district Cala Cala on 17 January.
  • MAS deputies and senators have been trying to pass a law to ensure that investigations take place into the deaths in El Alto and Cochabamba. The government has sought to thwart this. The military denies responsibility.

Turning round the economy

After two months in government, signs are increasingly clear regarding the thrust that economic policy will follow, in many cases marking a break with the policy that has maintained macroeconomic stability and kept Bolivia ahead of other countries in the region in terms of growth.  Business organisations have, in the main, welcomed the change in policy direction.

  • Reports in December and January show the lowering of deposits in national currency, probably due in part to political uncertainties during October and November. Banks, on the other hand, reported strong results, at least in the year to November.
  • For the first time in 14 years the government asked the Bolivian Central Bank for a loan to cover current expenditure; international reserves meanwhile have hit their lowest level in several years, US$6.46 billion, or 16% of GDP.
  • The government has lowered its expectations for growth for 2019 to 3.1% from the 4.24% previously expected. It also expects growth for 2020 to be lower, at 3%.
  • The possibility of easing the tax burden of oil and gas companies is being looked into so as to encourage foreign investment. Rent from oil and gas sales has been one of the mainstays of the economy and social policies over recent years.
  • Ways to encourage exports are being discussed, although some producers’ associations and chambers of commerce have drawn attention to the need to look at internal demand first.  China has already moved ahead as Bolivia’s main partner in the sale of beef.
  • Employers are looking to take part in salary negotiations this year (which has not been the case for many years), suggesting no increase in the minimum wage, and small (if any) increases in salaries in line with the low inflation level for 2019 of 1.47%.

Social policies

Among the first moves by the new government, in spite of its interim nature, was one to introduce mass redundancies and lay-offs.  In most ministries and public firms, not only have top officials been removed, but also large numbers of other staff. In the case of one of the health funds (cajas de salud), staff with supposedly secure employment contracts have been laid off. Apparently around 80% of the diplomatic corps has been made redundant. Such ‘white massacres’ as they are known do nothing to boost institutional development.  

Lengthy and politically motivated doctors’ strikes have ended. As such, it was reasonable to suppose that normality would return in the area of health. However, there have been long queues in some of the main hospitals in La Paz, and hospital administrators complain that they have not been paid sums budgeted and owed to them. It remains to be seen whether this will prove to be a slippery slope to underfunding or even closure of the universal health service provision (Sistema Unico de Salud, SUS) implemented last year by the MAS government. 

A further problem has arisen because of the speedy dismissal of the corps of Cuban doctors who often worked in less accessible regions where Bolivian doctors were reluctant to go; a call has gone out for doctors to be employed nationwide, but it is unlikely that such posts will be taken up readily by Bolivian doctors. The government has announced the reduction in the price of electricity.  However, those who use most electricity and therefore pay the highest bills will be those to benefit most, especially industrial concerns.  

New elections, new electoral authorities, timetable, candidates

The main responsibility of the Añez government was to organise a new round of national elections and to name a new electoral tribunal.  Añez nominated Salvador Romero as the person she is entitled to appoint to the seven-strong tribunal. Romero had run the electoral court in the early years of the MAS government and is generally highly respected. The Legislative Assembly then arranged elections for the remaining six. The process followed was similar to that in previous years, with the candidates initially selected on merit, but finally chosen by the Assembly. It is possible that this time, there was more negotiation between the different parties involved. 

Three women and three men join Romero in the new tribunal. Romero was elected to lead the body. Among its first responsibilities was to set the date of general elections (3 May) and lay down the timetable for these elections. Candidates will have to register by 2-3 February, only two weeks away.  Carlos Mesa, Fernando Camacho, Jorge (Tuto) Quiroga, Chi Hyun Chung and Félix Patzi have all declared their intentions to stand. Others, such as Branko Marinkovic, ex-president of the Santa Cruz civic committee who returned recently from self-imposed exile in Brazil, may also stand.  He had been accused of involvement in supposed terrorist activities in 2008/09. The field is therefore wide open.

Currently there is no indication of one candidate standing against the MAS. Camacho, who resigned as president of the Santa Cruz civic committee is due to stand with Marco Pumari, president of the Potosí civic committee (COMCIPO). They appear to have resolved problems arising from Camacho releasing an audio recording of Pumari demanding US$250,000 and control over the customs offices in Potosí and Oruro as the price for him being Camacho’s vice-presidential running mate.  

With Morales in Argentina, the MAS organised meetings at the departmental level to come up with names of presidential and vice-presidential candidates.  National representatives met in Huanuni, Oruro, on 11 January to decide whom they would recommend at a meeting on 19 January in Argentina.  At that Huanuni meeting, former foreign minister David Choquehuanca and young leader of coca producers in the Chapare Andrónico Rodríguez were put forward as candidates.

In the meeting on 19 January, Evo Morales and the MAS formally adopted former finance minister Luis Arce, as presidential candidate, and David Choquehuanca as vice-president. Luis Arce has been the main architect of Bolivia’s successful economic policy and David Choquehuanca, Aymara, active in discussion of ideological issues underpinning MAS thinking (vivir bien, etc.).   Responding to a request by the president of the Senate, Eva Copa, the Constitutional Tribunal (TCP) approved the extension of mandates for members of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, Añez herself, along with members of departmental assemblies, departmental and municipal authorities.  On 22 January a new government should have been sworn in, but the timetable for new elections meant that national elections could not be held by this date, nor subnational ones by their due date of April 2020.  Depending on the result of the elections, a new president will be sworn in in June or July (depending whether there is a run-off vote, or not).

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