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Bolivia – Morales forced to resign

...in what amounts to a coup following disputed elections.

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Bolivia Information Forum (UK) has provided the detailed account, below, of the events of the last several weeks, leading up to the surprise resignations of the President and Vice President. While LAB believes this to be a careful and conscientious account, produced as events unfold, many questions remain and there will undoubtedly be other elements to add and differing views on the causes and prognosis in the days ahead.

The people of Bolivia face great danger and uncertainty, with the real possibility of wide-scale violence and repression. The considerable social progress they have achieved in recent years is acutely endangered.

Video above this article from EuroNews.


11 November 2019

On Sunday 10 November, President Evo Morales and Vice-president Alvaro García Linera tendered their resignation following three weeks of violence perpetrated by an opposition campaign of destabilisation following contested elections. In a press conference, both leaders said they were stepping down in order to prevent further violence. Their constitutional mandates run until 22 January 2020.

We believe this coup has been in the making for some time, and here we seek to offer our readers a blow-by-blow account of its antecedents. The country is now plunged into great uncertainty. A constitutional outcome has been placed in doubt by the resignation of the leaders of both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.  In the case of a president and vice-president resigning, it is they who should succeed subject to a vote in the legislature. The military high command, which demanded Morales’ resignation on 10 November, could try to fill this power vacuum, though civic leaders are active in pursuing their own agenda. What will happen over the next few days is hard to predict.  The opposition has divided between Carlos Mesa, who was Morales’ main challenger in the elections, and Luis Fernando Camacho, leader of the civic committee in Santa Cruz.  An outspoken conservative radical, Camacho has pushed Mesa into increasingly extreme positions.  Were he to become president at this stage, Mesa would lack constitutional legitimacy.  When a spokesman for CC, his political grouping, was asked whether he too, like Morales, would give way, there was no clear answer.While still president, Morales sought to restrain his supporters in their response to the opposition campaign.  But it seems unlikely that they will take it lying down.  On the evening of 10 November, there were signs of anger on the streets of La Paz and El Alto, and road blocks continued in the Altiplano.  Meanwhile several ministers and senior government officials have suffered intimidation and worse.The country is living through a period of legal and political limbo.  Early steps: setting the scene

  • Carlos Mesa declared ‘victory’ within half an hour of announcement of preliminary results of the 20 October elections, saying that he would enter a run-off election with Evo Morales.  Minutes later, Oscar Ortiz, fourth placed in the tally of votes, announced that he would give Mesa his support.  There appears to have been a pre-election agreement within the opposition that Mesa would come out saying he was going to a run-off election or else declare fraud by 10 pm that evening.
  • Interruption of the preliminary results system led to calls of electoral fraud in the making.  Opposition leaders had, over several months, repeatedly alleged that there would be fraud, mentally preparing their supporters for such an outcome.  Antonio Costas, one of the members of the national electoral court, resigned over the suspension of preliminary result announcements, though he stated that the results had not been affected.
  • The Organization of American States (OAS) declared its concern about the suspension and, in meetings called to discuss developments, issued a recommendation that there should be a run-off election come what may, regardless of the fact that the official count was still under way.  It was agreed that the OAS would take part in a binding electoral audit. The results of this were due between Tuesday 12 to Wednesday 13 November.

Preparing the ground, step 2

  • On 21 October, 24 hours after the elections, and over the following couple of days, the count was interrupted in six departmental electoral tribunals.  Several of these were gutted by fire/burnt to the ground.  In both Potosí and Chuquisaca, the electoral courts had to move outside the departmental capitals to carry on with the official count.  MAS campaign premises were attacked.
  • Mobilisation started in several key cities in opposition to the election results as they were published.  The final result showed Morales to have slightly more than the 10% needed to avoid a second round.  Draped in Bolivian flags to demonstrate their ‘patriotism’, protesters organised small street corner road blocks, involving relatively few people but of nuisance value.  Civic committees in Santa Cruz and Potosí brought these cities and parts of the city of Cochabamba to a halt.
  • In a show of apparent unity, opposition leaders posed for a joint photo on 24 October.  During the campaign they had failed to unite around a single candidate.
  • Civic committees of Santa Cruz and Potosí in particular staged mass street rallies (cabildos).  Camacho, the leader of the Santa Cruz committee (Comité Pro Santa Cruz) emerged as a national leader in adopting a more radical discourse, side-lining Mesa and others of the electoral opposition.  Camacho’s radical line encouraged violence.
  • The main immediate victims of the violence were indigenous people, attacked both verbally and physically, an indication of ongoing racial and social discrimination.  In Cochabamba, a very large peaceful march of women campesinas (from the Bartolina Sisa Confederation) was broken up by ‘motoqueros’, gangs riding on motor bikes, armed with sticks and baseballs bats.  On 6 November, the MAS mayoress of Vinto was dragged through the streets without shoes, her hair cut and covered in red paint.
  •  Militants of the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, acting as shock troops, attacked perceived dissenters, particularly in Santa Cruz’s impoverished Plan 3000 district, but also in Montero, to the north of Santa Cruz, where two of their number were killed.  Similarly, helmeted groups armed with sticks, fireworks and other explosives and carrying makeshift shields, began to arrive in La Paz.  Their levels of prior organisation decry spontaneous action.  Elsewhere a 20-year old was killed in Cochabamba when firing a home-made mortar.  His family said that he had left home a week beforehand to receive ´training’ (for which he had received payment).

Consolidating the grounds for the coup, destabilisation

  • On 3 November (Sunday), political debate centred on the need for dialogue and a political solution to the crisis.  On 6 November, a spokesperson for Mesas’ CC grouping said that it did not accept the electoral results and that CC would ask for a new election with Morales a candidate, notwithstanding the civic committees’ demand for Morales to stand aside.
  • On 4 November, in Santa Cruz, Camacho, on a stage flanked by a statue of the Virgin and a couple of uniformed guards, called for a radicalisation of the protests, take-over of state institutions, and an appeal to the police to ‘join the people’ saying they would pay them the same rates as members of the armed forces.  Camacho promised to take a letter to Evo Morales for him to sign resigning the presidency. 
  • 5 November, Camacho flew to La Paz with his letter, but MAS supporters at El Alto airport would not allow him to leave the VIP lounge.  Mesa at this point announced that Morales should resign.  He also called for the resignation of members of the electoral court, talking, not for the first time, of a “monumental fraud”.
  • Demonstrators increasingly donned plastic helmets and masks, carrying shields and sticks.  Each evening, trying to keep the two sides apart, police fired tear gas in the main streets of La Paz.  On 6 November, there were attacks on the buildings occupied by the Labour Ministry, the Ministry of Finance and COMIBOL. 
  • Street sellers, public transport workers and others marched to demand free transit through blockades so as to get to work.  Prices of basic foodstuffs began to rise, even though access to markets was still possible.
  • On 6 November, Camacho returned to La Paz.  Mesa, former president Jorge ‘Tuto’ Quiroga and others, accompanied by a police guard, managed to get him out of the airport.  Meanwhile, ordinary people found their lives disrupted by street blockades.

Chronology of events

  • Civic committees in Santa Cruz, Potosí and Sucre began sending groups to La Paz, but they found resistance as campesinos set up road blocks on different routes converging on the city.  Street battles erupted between different sides in several cities, with the police attempting to keep them apart.  Different social movements, including campesinos, indigenous groupings (such as the Guaraníes and some ayllus in Potosí), urban neighbourhood committees, miners (gold producing cooperatives) and others came out in support of the government, taking a stance against the blockades and the call to take over public institutions.
  • On 8 November, parts of the police garrison in Cochabamba mutinied, followed by others in Sucre.  In La Paz and Santa Cruz the police worked normally, though in several places the police authorities began to confine their troops to barracks (i.e. playing no further role in keeping the peace).
  • Mesa again demanded the resignation of the electoral court, the setting up of a new tribunal under suitable ‘worthies’ and a new election.
  • At 9 p.m. on 8 November, Defence Minister Javier Zavaleta said the government had no intention of using the military to confront the police.  This is what happened in February 2003, when there was a running battle in the Plaza Murillo between the two.  He denied that the government had any intention of using lethal weapons against the civilian population.  At 1 a.m. on 9 November, Interior Minister Carlos Romero spoke to the police, declaring that he would attend to institutional problems (such as poor remuneration) but that these should not be mixed up with political issues.  Later that day, the UTOP (the anti-riot police) in La Paz mutinied.
  • Road blocks set up by campesinos in the Altiplano began to have an effect.  In Vila Vila, on the road between Oruro and La Paz, they stopped a convoy of buses transporting members of civic committees travelling from Potosí and Sucre to La Paz.
  • On the afternoon of Saturday 9 November, Morales warned of a coup under way.  He called on the four parties which had won representation in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly to meet to discuss ways forward, leaving the agenda open.  He also talked of the paramount importance of protecting the population and of maintaining mobilisation by social organisations.  Mesa came out later saying that he disagreed with this proposal, and demanded Morales’ resignation.
  • General Williams Kaliman, head of the Armed Forces, then made a public statement that the military was united in defence of the constitution and that they would never confront the people.  He demanded that solutions had to be found to Bolivia’s problems.
  • Amid strong rumours that the Armed Forces would carry out a formal coup on the evening of 9 November, the head of the government communications network (Patria Nueva) denounced that a coup was indeed under way.  The state television channel was intervened and later closed down.
  • Pro-government campesinos from Aroma province in the Altiplano set up road blocks in Ayo Ayo on the road between La Paz and Oruro.  Meanwhile in El Alto, people began to shut off the motorway down to La Paz, demanding that Camacho and Waldo Albarracín, the rector of the La Paz UMSA university and member of the Committee for Defence of Democracy, leave town.
  • In the evening of 9 November, police from the UTOP barracks, near the Plaza Murillo (main square in La Paz), marched in demand of terms of employment equal to those of the military.
  • In the Chapare, the coca-growing area in Cochabamba, a very large demonstration was held, with a view to moving en masse to La Paz in support of the Morales government.  Likewise, in El Alto, a large rally was held, demanding that Camacho, Albarracín and Pumari (president of the Potosí civic committee) leave La Paz, and calling for the organisation of defence committees.
  • In Oruro, the houses of Governor Víctor Hugo Vásquez and Morales’ sister were set alight.   In El Alto, the Hipermaxi store (apparently part-owned by Camacho) was attacked.  With no police to stop such actions, the opportunity was there for a free-for-all.
  • What’s App and social media, but also some TV and radio channels, were used to whip up hatred.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

  • Early on, OAS general secretary Luis Almagro, in spite of not having the full results of the audit, announced some initial findings. These showed that Evo Morales had won the elections, but perhaps not with the 10 percentage points needed to win outright in the first round.  He pointed to some irregularities in the electoral process.
  • At 7.30 a.m. Morales, having met with members of social movements who accompanied him at the press conference, talked of the risk of grave confrontation in the country and the responsibility he bore to maintain the peace.  He agreed to the renewal of the members of the electoral court (with the Plurinational Legislative Assembly deciding how this should be done) and for fresh elections.  He called for calm and respect of people, property and social organisations.
  • Faced with intimidation and threats especially in Potosí, Víctor Borda, head of the house of deputies resigned.  His brother had been taken hostage in Potosí.  The former mayor of Potosí, René Joaquino, resigned as a national deputy, as did David Ramos, deputy and former mineworkers’ leader.  César Navarro, minister of mines, also resigned following threats to his family and his house in Potosí being set alight.  The governor of Potosí and the mayor, along with the mayor of Sucre, also resigned their posts.  Subsequently, the government ministers of cultures, sport, communications announced their resignations, alongside the vice ministers of foreign relations and education.  Adriana Salvatierra, head of the Senate, also resigned.
  • In the afternoon, General Kaliman called on Morales to resign.
  • At about 4 p.m. Morales and García Linera left La Paz by plane for the Chapare. From there they sent a televised message announcing their resignations to avoid further bloodshed.

Opposition supporters took to the streets of La Paz, some peacefully, others to take over the houses of people such as the Minister of the Presidency, Juan Ramón Quintana, and buildings such as the Venezuelan embassy.  The police continued confined to barracks, turning a blind eye to their responsibility to protect life and property.

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