by Marc Camanag
Although there is little consensus on whether Bolivia’s recent shift in leadership constitutes a coup, there is a power struggle plaguing the nation. Amidst widespread protests, it is clear that the resignation of former president Evo Morales carried very real consequences for the Latin American nation and its people. But to what extent? The fall of Morales — the country’s first indigenous president — after nearly fourteen years in office sparked violent protests between his native loyalists and defected police forces. While mostly rooted in deep-seated fears of regression, strong opposing ideologies in Bolivia date back to earlier times involving oppressive post-colonial structures.
The current interim president and successor, Jeanine Áñez, is a senator of European descent with a problematic history of anti-indigenous tweets. And since Morales’ resignation, Áñez has only served to further aggravate this ethnic tension. All things considered, Morales’ legacy may be the only tangible piece in the complex puzzle of Bolivia’s future.
Morales’ ascension to power in 2006 was strongly regarded as a victory for indigenous Bolivians, who have long been subjected to hegemonic rule under a small elite of European descent. For many, Morales was a much-needed break from the tradition of the Spanish colonial era that had long divided the population. Under his administration, the stark social divisions of the past were completely disrupted by a rhetoric of populism and racial distinction. Morales’ Bolivia saw a growing number of indigenous representatives within the government, along with a revival of indigenous culture and the establishment of the Wiphala as an official flag. Despite criticism that his discourse was polarizing and sparked disunity, it is apparent that Morales had a major hand in uplifting the long-marginalized indigenous people of his nation.
Economically, the impoverished Bolivia thrived under his presidency, with two million people being lifted out of poverty through the redistribution of natural gas assets and maintenance of a balanced national budget. For a country that has long suffered from instability and poverty, Evo Morales was a beacon of hope — and then things started to change.
Eventually, Morales’ desire to protract his rule manifested in increasingly concerning behaviors. As more and more of his opponents were prosecuted and institutions become packed with pro-Morales figures, Bolivians began to search for a way out. Their victory in a referendum that enacted term limits was short-lived; soon after, the nation’s Constitutional Court ruled that such an imposition would violate Morales’ human rights. Years of dissatisfaction with the president culminated in this year’s presidential election, during which results were halted for an entire day prior to the announcement that Morales’ lead margin was enough to avoid a runoff. Amid mass accusations of fraud by the incumbent president, the Organization of American States confirmed the presence of irregularities and urged for a new election. This revelation only further incensed Bolivians, who took to the streets in late October to protest against Morales.
These demonstrations proved to be the conditions for Morales’ fall, but the death blow came when police commandos in Cochabamba sided with protestors against the president’s re-election. The initially localized mutiny triggered a nationwide defection of security forces — an action that foreshadowed Morales’ demise. Now in the streets themselves, police officers across the nation voiced their disdain for Morales, burning the Wiphala flag and tearing the symbol from their uniforms. After weeks of protest, the military requested that Morales resign from the presidency to restore peace in the country. The demand — coup d’état or not — was successful, and the embattled Morales left Bolivia for Mexico soon after.
Into today, the ex-president’s retreat has not become the solution that the military expected it to be. As Morales’ opponents scaled back from the streets, they were subsequently replaced by his supporters, who fear the loss of political gains made for indigenous communities. Jeanine Áñez — the self-proclaimed interim president — has done little to pacify this new unrest, seemingly condoning the police’s escalating violence against indigenous defenders of Morales and ignoring the rising death toll of these protests. Even with the promise of new presidential elections within ninety days, the opposition senator has faced incredible condemnation, particularly for creating a caretaker cabinet without any indigenous members and having made derogatory tweets against indigenous people — including one that referred to Morales as a “poor Indian”. With the nation in such a fragile state, Áñez must work quickly — before the crisis escalates into a violent and unforgiving civil war.
For now, Evo Morales will likely remain in Mexico, where he has been granted asylum. Despite his desire to return to Bolivia and finish his term, it may be too late to make amends. For many, Morales’ legacy is already set in stone.
Featured image courtesy of Ruperto Miller