If democracy is restored in Bolivia, thank protesters and not the U.S. or the OAS

A man with a face mask reading "Bolivia will not shut up" attends a rally demanding the resignation of interim President Jeanine Áñez on Aug. 14 in El Alto, on the outskirts of La Paz. (David Mercado/Reuters)
A man with a face mask reading "Bolivia will not shut up" attends a rally demanding the resignation of interim President Jeanine Áñez on Aug. 14 in El Alto, on the outskirts of La Paz. (David Mercado/Reuters)

Last month President Trump mused about postponing the presidential election, unleashing a wave of outrage over what would be an assault on democracy by an unpopular president.

But in Bolivia, the unelected and unpopular Jeanine Áñez has actually postponed the election. Twice.

After being installed as interim president following the November 2019 coup against Evo Morales, the far-right Christian conservative waited months to fulfill what should have been her main duty: scheduling new elections. Áñez then postponed elections from May until September, and subsequently pushed them back again until October. In so doing, Áñez has fulfilled the worst predictions of her detractors, and made a mockery of the claim, advanced by the Trump administration, the Organization of American States and others, that her ascension to office would help “restore” Bolivian democracy.

In her nine months in office, Áñez has done the opposite, consolidating a brutal right-wing dictatorship that has murdered dozens of civilian protesters; tortured, injured and jailed scores more; muzzled the press; and systematically repressed political opponents. These abuses are documented in scathing recent reports from Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic, Amnesty International and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Áñez’s official reason for postponing the election is her concern with the health risks of holding an election during a pandemic. Yet there are reasons to think Añez’s primary concern is not the novel cornonavirus, but the political fallout from her disastrous handling of it.

The New York Times estimates that Bolivia has experienced 20,000 deaths above normal since June, making its per capita death toll “among the worst in the world”. A particularly vivid example of the Áñez administration’s corruption and incompetence is the May arrest of her now-ex health minister for allegedly using money from international donors to buy hospital ventilators at twice the real cost; some were even damaged beyond repair.

Her response to the virus is politically relevant only because of her controversial decision to run in the election, months after she promised she would not. Polls indicate that Áñez has no shot of winning. She trails badly behind Carlos Mesa, who occupies the center-right of the Bolivian political spectrum, and the front-runner, Luis Arce, the candidate and president of Movement to Socialism (MAS) and Morales’s minister of the economy. Arce’s lead is such that many predict he will win an outright majority in the first round.

That is, if he is allowed to run. In cahoots with agro-industrial elites, Áñez has pushed Bolivia’s electoral authorities to ban Arce’s candidacy.

There is also, of course, the question of whether the election will even take place. If Áñez has her way, the election could be postponed again and again. But there is a formidable obstacle standing in Añez’s way: Bolivia’s powerful popular movements.

In the wake of the fierce repression doled out in November, popular mobilization slowed. There was little pushback against Añez’s postponement of the vote from May to September. The most recent postponement, however, elicited a wave of street blockades that brought Bolivia to a standstill for the first half of this month. These protests were led by the Bolivian Workers’ Central, which called an indefinite strike that was supported in cities and towns across the country. All of Bolivia’s major social organizations supported the mobilization, including the Federation of Neighborhood Councils (Fejuve), which brought an estimated half million out into the streets of El Alto, Bolivia’s second-largest city. This pushed Áñez to give protesters sufficient guarantees concerning the election that on Aug. 14 leaders called for a halt to mobilization, while making clear that any deviation from the conditions would lead to a renewal of street action. If Trump decides to indulge his authoritarian inclinations by refusing to respect the popular will, this is a lesson that citizens and activists in the United States should pay close attention to.

Bolivians are not out of the woods. Just after reaching the agreement with protest leaders, the Áñez administration is again targeting these same leaders. And the justice ministry recently filed a criminal complaint alleging that Morales committed statutory rape against an underage young woman while he was president. Critics of the government have pushed back against this charge, arguing that the alleged victim’s confession was coerced and that documents used to accuse Morales are forged. Whether and how all this will affect the election remains to be seen.

Bolivia’s future is decidedly uncertain. Yet a few things are clear. Añez appears willing to do anything to stay in power. And the OAS and U.S. government remain firmly in Añez’s camp, despite study after study showing that the OAS charge that Evo Morales committed fraud in the 2019 election is without a statistical basis. This means that Bolivia’s popular movements are the best, and only real, hope for restoring democracy.

A man with a face mask reading "Bolivia will not shut up" attends a rally demanding the resignation of interim President Jeanine Áñez on Aug. 14 in El Alto, on the outskirts of La Paz. (David Mercado/Reuters)

Gabriel Hetland is an assistant professor of Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies and sociology at University at Albany, SUNY.

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