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The coup against Evo Morales was premeditated

Latin America
Bolivia
Former Bolivian President Evo Morales gestures during an interview with Reuters, in Mexico City, Mexico November 15, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

On 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 destabilization following contested elections. 

In a press conference, both leaders said they were stepping down in order to prevent further violence.  Their constitutional mandates were to run until 22 January, 2020.  We believe this coup has been in the making for some time, and here we seek to offer a blow-by-blow account of its antecedents.

The country is now plunged into great uncertainty. The death toll continues to rise after violent clashes between security forces and Morales supporters, eight of whom were killed when soldiers opened fire in Sacaba. Since the elections at least 19 people have died.

Under Bolivia’s constitution, next in line would have been the leader of the Senate, followed by the leader of the Chamber of Deputies, but both resigned. Deputy leader of the Senate, Jeanine Áñez, from the opposition Democratic Union, announced she was willing to act as interim president and call new elections within 90 days.

The military high command, which demanded Morales’ resignation, could try to fill the power vacuum.

What will happen next is hard to predict.  The opposition is divided between Carlos Mesa, who was Morales’ main challenger in the elections, and Luis Fernando Camacho, leader of the business-elite founded Civic Committee in Santa Cruz. An outspoken conservative radical, Camacho has pushed Mesa into increasingly extreme positions. 

While still president, Morales sought to restrain his supporters in their response to the opposition campaign.  But it was unlikely that they would take it lying down.  On the evening of 10 November, there were already signs of anger on the streets of La Paz and El Alto, and roadblocks continued in the Altiplano. 

The country is now living through a period of legal and political limbo. 

Early steps for a coup

The scene had been set weeks before. Carlos Mesa had declared ‘victory’ within half an hour of announcing the 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. 

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 by November 13.

The primary immediate victims of the violence were indigenous people, attacked both verbally and physically… the indigenous MAS mayoress of Vinto was dragged through the streets without shoes, her hair cut and covered in red paint

Preparing the ground

Just 24 hours after the elections, the count was interrupted in six departmental electoral tribunals.  Several of these departments were firebombed.  In both Potosí and Chuquisaca, the electoral courts had to move outside the departmental capitals to carry on with the official count.  MAS, the Movement for Socialism (Morales’ party) campaign premises were attacked.

Mobilization then 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 per cent needed to avoid a second round.  Draped in Bolivian flags to demonstrate their ‘patriotism’, protesters organized small street corner roadblocks, 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. Camacho, the leader of the Santa Cruz committee 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 primary immediate victims of the violence were indigenous people, attacked both verbally and physically. In Cochabamba, a 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 indigenous 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 (a right-wing youth group), 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 people 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 organization 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).

Opposition leaders had, over several months, repeatedly alleged that there would be fraud, mentally preparing their supporters for such an outcome

De-stabilization

On 4 November, in Santa Cruz, Camacho, on a stage flanked by a statue of the Virgin Mary and surrounded by uniformed guards, called for a radicalization of the protests, a 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. And on 6 November, a spokesperson for Carlos Mesa said they did not accept the electoral results and that they would ask for a new election.

The next day 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.  The following day, 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.

Opposition civic committees in Santa Cruz, Potosí and Sucre began sending groups to La Paz, but they found resistance as campesinos set up roadblocks 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, urban neighbourhood committees, co-operative miners and others came out in support of the government, taking a stance against the blockades and the call to take over public institutions.

Police mutiny

On 8 November, parts of the police garrison in Cochabamba mutinied, followed by others in Sucre.  At 9 pm, Defence Minister Javier Zavaleta said the government had no intention of using the military to confront the police.  He denied that the government had any intention of using lethal weapons against the civilian population. 

At 1 am 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.

By the afternoon, Morales was 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 mobilization by social organizations.  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 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.

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

Pro-government campesinos from Aroma province in the Altiplano set up roadblocks 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 (the 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 organization 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.

WhatsApp and social media, but also some TV and radio channels, were used to whip up hatred.

On 10 November, the 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.

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 organizations.

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 pm, 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.


This article has been republished, and lightly edited, with permission from the Bolivia Information Forum.

 

 

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