The Coup against Evo Morales

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On November 10, the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, resigned his post and fled to exile in Mexico. Governments in Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Nicaragua promptly denounced the military coup, while the US, the EU, Russia and Brazil recognized the new government led by Senate Vice President Jeanine Anez. Anez promptly banned Morales from returning to the country and running again as president.

Morales had just won a fourth term in office, showing his broad popularity among the indigenous population. His support comes from the success of a mixed public-private economy and the promotion of an export and growth-oriented approach. Despite the relative economic success in Latin America’s poorest country per capita, Morales had violated his earlier promise to serve no more than two terms. He then won his third term in 2014. In 2016, a popular referendum rejected his plea to lift the two-term limit. In 2019, he decided to run another term after the pro-Morales Supreme Court gave him that right. (A 2009 constitutional change allowed Morales to run two more terms, thereby limiting a president to be re-elect once, according to which Morales last term expired in 2019.) The opposition candidate, Carlos Mesa, had received 36% of the vote in the last elections, trailing the 47% of Evo Morales. The opposition immediately cried foul, and organized street protests to demand new elections.

Morales, sensing the anger on the streets, called in OAS (Organization of American States) to carry out a vote recount and publish an assessment on the quality of the elections. The OAS cited “irregularities” in the elections, so Morales blinked and called for new elections. The opposition rightly assumed that they were not going to win new elections, so they intensified the street protests. The police joined the picket line, and the chief of the armed forces, General Williams Kaliman, pressured Morales to resign his post, which he promptly did on November 10 fearing for his life. Although no bullets were fired, the fact that the military, which ruled the country from 1964 to 1982, intervened made his resignation a coup d’etat. These military coups reversing popular sentiment have precedent in countries like Egypt or Thailand.

Why did the opposition want to get rid of Morales? A political sociology take on it is that class and race relations are important factors for Morales’ resignation. Let’s begin the analysis with Morales rise to power. Morales was born into a poor farming household, being an ethnic Aymara, whose home is in the highlands of Bolivia in the west of the country. Demographically, 68% of the Bolivian population is Mestizo, 20% is indigenous (of which the two largest groups are Quechua and Aymara), 5% are white. The other ethnic groups are much smaller. Politically, whites had been the dominant group, controlling the presidency until Evo Morales became the first indigenous leader of the country in 2006. Ethnic resentment may be one factor that sparks opposition against Morales, who proudly displays his ethnic heritage by wearing somewhat traditional clothing and redirecting government spending on behalf of the indigenous people.

More important than ethnic resentment is class resentment. The political power structure consisted of the mining and oil corporate leaders and the soybean farm owners in the east of the country (Santa Cruz province). The next door neighbor, Brazil, was led by a military dictatorship in the 1960s to 1980s and the US generally favored right-wing governments in Latin America to fight Cuban and communist influence. During this time period, the US was aggressively fighting coca producers, which is the elementary ingredient in cocaine, a highly addictive drug, which is illegal in the US. Coca is an important crop in Bolivia, which is used as a source of nutrition, as medicine and for indigenous rituals. The US ramped up the war on drugs in the 1980s and advised the Bolivian government to burn coca fields. The US also supplied foreign aid to pay off coca producers. Evo Morales became the leader of the coca farmers’ union, who fundamentally opposed what they perceived of as US imperialist intervention to undermine the livelihood of Bolivian coca farmers. Government attempts to burn coca fields were opposed by the coca farmers.

In 1989, Morales (who had become the leader of the coca farmers by that time) was beaten up by the police and was nearly killed. He briefly contemplated inciting an armed struggle against the state similar to FARC in Colombia, but decided against it. He could do that because he had discovered the electoral route to power. In 1997, Morales was elected as MP in the national parliament. In 2002, he narrowly lost the presidential elections before winning it outright in 2005. Once in power, Morales rather than prohibiting coca production regulated the industry by setting maximum output rates to ensure that most of the coca would be used for domestic consumption rather than export for cocaine.

Morales also came to power opposing unrestrained neoliberalism, which is essentially about signing off mining and oil drilling rights to foreign (i.e. US and Brazilian) corporations and levying a minimal tax on them. Morales did not push for full nationalization despite the fiery, leftist rhetoric, but he essentially increased the tax rate of these natural resource producers, which increased Bolivian state capacity, which was used to invest in schools, health care, infrastructure and various social services. This spending increase (doubling from 2006 to 2019) was afforded without going into deep debt or devaluing the currency, as the macro-economic indicators have been quite stable during the Morales administration. Under Morales, Bolivia achieved full literacy in the entire population. The poverty rate was reduced from 62% in 2000 to 24% in 2017 (which is defined as persons earning less than $5.50 a day, Macrotrends). Life expectancy continued its rising trend, increasing from age 65 in 2006 to 70 in 2017 (World Bank). Average monthly earnings doubled from $293 in 2006 to $625 in 2016 (CEICData).

The US had warned that it would substantially cut foreign aid to Bolivia if Morales won the presidential elections in 2005. Clearly, the US was much less concerned about preserving democracy or sharing profits with the people than protecting the interests of foreign (including US) corporations unwilling to share the oil and mining profits.

What is remarkable is that Morales granted hefty concessions to the Santa Cruz power structure by renouncing his early pledge to expropriate the soybean farm owners, and instead signed over cheap state credit to them to expand their production. Morales perceived this concession was necessary to stay in power and not be threatened by overthrow (see Intercept 2019). Santa Cruz is the largest Bolivian city to the east of the country harboring the urban middle class and in the countryside province the big farmers. Residents in Santa Cruz consistently opposed Morales, who tends to receive his support in the indigenous-dominated Andean highlands in the west and south of the country.

Morales has also become the victim of his own success. His pro-growth policies have created a new middle class, which did not exist before. This new middle class is increasingly educated and has attended college. At colleges, youngsters tend to get radicalized and begin to doubt the grand pronouncements of government officials. All of a sudden, the perceived lack of investments in higher education become problematic and generate anti-government sentiment. Morales’ pro-growth orientation has also been made possible by intensifying oil, gold and mineral mining, which is opposed by indigenous tribes, who want to preserve the natural environment and their traditional way of life. Environmentalists are another anti-Morales faction (see France24 2019).

Subsequently, the military intervention on behalf of the opposition allowed the Christian-democratic opposition led by Jeanine Anez to seize the presidency. Her first act in power was to replace Morales’ allies with her own. One may accuse her of restoring the old white power structure, although to be fair even Morales cabinet was mostly filled by white and some mestizo professionals, who had been running government departments for centuries. The new ministers include businesspeople from Santa Cruz and no indigenous people. When swearing in her new ministers, they had to do it on the Bible, which is unconventional in a country with a secular constitution. (Morales is also Catholic, but more as a cultural convention than with conviction. His 2009 constitution also removed Catholicism as state religion.) Anez promised to be only a caretaker president and set a new election date, although that step had not been formally announced yet.

Anez party only holds one seat in the Senate (herself, out of 36) and 4 seats in the chamber of deputies (out of 130). If she wants to maintain power, she can only do so by surrendering democracy, as Morales remains widely popular in the highland. Some indigenous and Mestizo people might be unhappy about Morales authoritarian streak, but they were quite content with his developmental and poverty-reducing agenda. If Anez wants to restore oligarchic and neoliberal rule, i.e. sharing as little as possible of the country’s wealth with the masses, renewed street protests, this time from the other side of the political spectrum, will engulf the nation.

Despite his popularity, I think Morales has surrendered his constitutional mandate to rule given that his own constitution set the two-term limit, but if Anez and other parts of the establishment intend to prevent Morales MAS party to run the elections (who hold huge majorities in both chambers of parliament), then Morales’ supporters have a right to protest the government, thus undermining confidence in the government. The subsequent chaos can reverse any economic and social gains that have been made in the past decade. Prudent rule means for the military to avoid future political interventions and allow the democratic process to play out.

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