Two unofficial counts show MAS-IPSP winning dramatic first-round victory in Bolivian election

Shortly after Luis Arce Catacora confidently predicted his own victory, two major polling firms released their counts of today’s election, both of which projected a 20% margin of victory for the Movement Towards Socialism in an historic election. The current projected margin doubles the largest advantage (10%) estimated by any pre-election poll and is far more than needed for Arce to avoid a runoff. Indeed, they project Arce’s party winning a simple majority of all votes, something it has done in three prior national elections and which no other political party has done since the 1960s.

While data are preliminary, interim president Jeanine Áñez has congratulated her political opponents on their apparent victory:

Second-place finisher Carlos Mesa’s campaign retired from public appearances early in the night and he has not commented on the late-night vote estimates online. Technically the election is his to concede, and that might only come once the official results resemble the unofficial ones.

However, there are now coinciding vote analyses by polling organizations CiesMori and Tu Voto Cuenta:

The regional breakdown published by CiesMori shows just how Arce, VP candidate David Choquehuanca, and the MAS-IPSP pulled off this remarkable comeback: they won by regaining back the votes they lost in the west and Chuquisaca between 2014 and 2019. Here’s a preliminary look at the shifts between those three elections.

Comparing the MAS’s showing in 2019 and 2020 against each other and its last majority victory in 2014.

Again, these figures are preliminary. Tu Voto Cuenta’s departmental results are still being posted to Twitter as I write this, and the official count has barely reached 8% of precincts, but Bolivian politics have taken a very dramatic turn tonight.

Moreover, the bet placed by the hard Right in 2019, that claiming the state and using an interim government to target the MAS-IPSP and sometimes also its base for prosecutions and intimidation would cement a post-MAS political future has failed dramatically. Even before tonight’s results, that was already clear for Bolivia’s hard Right as represented by Jeanine Áñez and Luis Camacho. Now it looks to be true for the anti-MAS coalition as a whole.

Beyond the ballot: Where Bolivia’s main political forces stand after a turbulent year

Bolivians go to the polls on Sunday, October 18, in the long-awaiting re-run of the country’s disputed October 2019 general election. Three weeks of opposition protests, alleging that electoral fraud had provided incumbent president Evo Morales the 10% margin required to avoid a run-off, combined with a nationwide police mutiny to prompt his resignation and flight into exile. While unusually violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Morales led to five deaths prior to his overthrow, the next ten days were even bloodier: 33 people died, at least 25 of them at the hands of the police and military.

The displacement of Evo Morales, the longest-serving president in Bolivia’s history and the winner of three prior elections, from power was a dramatic shift. At the time I laid out the political panorama like this:

In this post, I check in on those four political forces with an emphasis on looking beyond their electoral chances. (For a detailed look at the political parties’ standing in the polls, see: Luis Arce (MAS) leads polls heading into Bolivia’s election… but may struggle to prevent a runoff.)

1. The Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP): A troubled plurality

Bolivia’s largest political party, the MAS, remains a formidable political force. While Evo Morales and much of his cabinet is in exile (or holed up in friendly embassies in La Paz), the party designated former finance minister Luis Arce Catacora as its standard bearer for the 2020 elections. Arce and his running David Choquehuanca lead the pack of presidential candidates going into Sunday’s vote, obtaining around the same vote share in current polls and Morales won in 2019.

Arce has focused on economic recovery as his key electoral message, a position already foreshadowed by Evo Morales’ alternative state-of-the-nation address on January 22. Unlike Morales, nominally his “campaign chief,” Arce has shown little enthusiasm for re-litigating the 2019 crisis. Instead he freely reels off lists of economic projects and promises a return to expanding employment. In recent weeks, running mate David Choquehuanca has taken a calculated distance from Morales and his closest advisors, an entorno (“surrounding” cluster of advisors) that he characterizes as separating itself from the MAS-IPSP’s grassroots base.

Internal divisions within the MAS-IPSP showed themselves in December and January in the distancing between a so-called ala oprimida (oppressed wing) of legislators who stayed in the country and the leadership in exile. It was Morales and the exiles who chose Arce over rival Choquehuanca to head the ticket. The most visible member of the ala oprimida, Senate President Eva Copa (MAS/El Alto) was left out of the candidate lists for the 2020 election.

The MAS-IPSP took a major joint action with that base in the July–August protest campaign to demand prompt elections. With over 100 points of blockades and participation from labor unions, this was a broader coalition than took to the streets to protest Morales’ ouster November 2019. But while it showed a continuing relationship between the party and many social movements, it also depended on rural municipal governments and may he a poor gauge of the party’s strength. At least some of the protesters felt sidelined by the MAS’ final negotiating position, though the labor union confederation, the Central Obrera Boliviana, accepted an intermediate truce until elections are held. Union leaders remain concerned about anti-MAS fraud at the polls.

2. Jeanine Áñez, Luis Camacho, and the Right wing: Controlling the national government wasn’t enough to cement lasting power

Ahead of the October 2019 election, I observed the challenge facing Bolivia’s hard Right wing: “Right-wing politics remains a minority tendency within Bolivia.” In three successive elections, the Santa Cruz-based regionalist movement had captained the opposition to Evo Morales, and was defeated each time. Nonetheless, this same movement rallied massively in late 2019, holding cabildos before and after the election, giving many of their votes to Carlos Mesa, and joining the anti-fraud push in the weeks after the election. Behind the scenes, Cruceño civic leader Luis Fernando Camacho maneuvered in search of police and military allies, either sparking or propelling forward a police mutiny and an officers’ rebellion within the military command. Amid the uncertainty, Camacho flew to La Paz and staged a dramatic entry into the presidential palace (Palacio Quemado) with a Bible in hand, enacting a racist fantasy of civilizing the Indian president through Christianity. Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes negotiations maneuvered political unknown Jeanine Áñez into the presidency. Áñez in turn swore in Chapare hotelier Arturo Murillo and retired officer Luis Fernando López as Ministers of Government and Defense, respectively, and elevated López and Camacho’s allies in the military to the high command.

In less than a week, the hardliners had propelled themselves not just to the head of the anti-Morales movement but to the crucial positions of power in the state. Áñez’s party had won a scant 4.24% of the vote, but she assumed the role of transitional president. Had this been her sole intent, as she repeatedly promised that week, the lack of voter support might not have been so consequential. But both she and Camacho had the ambition of transforming their temporary leap into a permanent place in power.

Áñez announced she would run for president on January 24, reversing her November and December promises to never use the presidential office to secure her own election. It came on the heels of a dramatic annual address on January 22. Her candidacy was built on an unexpected alliance with Sol.Bo, the center-left party that governed the city and department of La Paz.

Luis Camacho, with no elected office or place in the Áñez government, had announced his candidacy on November 29, 2019. Camacho played against stereotypes by sealing an alliance with Potosí Civic Committee (Comcipo) President Marco Pumari to serve as his vice presidential candidate on December 31. The political manifesto of their alliance offered only slogans and rejection of the “narcogovernment” of Evo Morales: “We leave aside the recurrent discourse of division between east and west, of the division between city and countryside, of the division between left and right.” “It is necessary for us to unite to construct a new STATE based on the trilogy of God, Fatherland, and People.”

Making a dramatic gesture of offering to “blank out” his own candidacy, Camacho convened a February gathering of the anti-Evo Morales opposition: “We are going to bring ourselves down so that we can all support a single candidacy.” The unity talks went nowhere: no one dropped out of the race. The perpetual inability of the Bolivian right to unify around a candidate haunted the half dozen politicians seeking to take on Luis Arce and the MAS-IPSP.

Meanwhile the street-clashing “youth” arm of Camacho’s civic movement, the Santa Cruz Youth Union (Unión Juvenil Cruceñista)—which Camacho had once headed—built ties with its Cochabamba analogue, the Cochala Youth Resistance (Resistencia Juvenil Cochala). Both groups made periodic appearances in on-the-street political violence as the year wore on, most dramatically during the waining days of the July–August blockades. Ministers in the Áñez government sometimes praised these less-lethal quasi-paramilitary formations, while also insisting that the police and armed forces must now take charge of the streets. In late January, that control took its most tangible form with the stunning deployment of 70,,000 armed soldiers to streets across the country.

However, with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, a national health crisis began to overtake the Áñez government’s ambitions to consolidate the energy of the October protests behind it. Áñez and her cabinet were troubled by a series of scandals surrounding overpayment for badly needed medical supplies, and the epidemic exploded, first in Santa Cruz and later in La Paz. Luis Camacho peaked in the polls in January and Añez in February, neither ever overtaking Carlos Mesa.

Finally heeding her own advice, Áñez withdrew from the race in favor of anti-MAS-IPSP unity in September. Camacho stayed in, following the footsteps of Áñez’s 2019 Democrats alliance as the standard bearer of the eastern autonomist Right. Assuming that his voters don’t desert him to strategically back Mesa, Camacho’s Creemos party is on track for regional strength in Santa Cruz and Beni, but a near shut-out elsewhere. Still, such a fraction could hold sway over a hypothetical president Mesa in need of allies and unwilling to cut a deal with the MAS-IPSP.

The darker possibility is of attempts by the Right to hold power through the security forces, or through a repeat of the 2019 protests in the event of a MAS-IPSP victory. While these paths cannot be ruled out in advance, the broad acceptance of the legitimacy of the electoral authorities by the leading anti-MAS candidate makes these scenarios unlikely. Both Áñez and Camacho tried to use their temporary leadership of the anti-MAS parade to claim national power, but those plans have not been realized.

Formally dressed Luis Arce with an open collar and a Che lapel button

Luis Arce (MAS) leads polls heading into Bolivia’s election… but may struggle to prevent a runoff

After a year of unprecedented turmoil—including reasonable doubts about whether a new election would be indefinitely postponed—Bolivia’s leading political parties are heading into the October 18, 2020, election in much the same configuration as they were one year earlier. Luis Arce Catacora, who served as Evo Morales’ finance minister for twelve of his fourteen years in office, leads the race as the candidate of the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP). He seems on track to win a plurality in the first round of voting, to surpass the 40% threshold of valid votes, but perhaps not to obtain the 10 percentage-point advantage over the second-place finisher necessary to obtain a runoff. And once again, former president Carlos Mesa, and his Citizen Community coalition, represents the only serious threat to the MAS-IPSP. Newcomer Luis Camacho, scion of Santa Cruz’s right-wing elite, seems poised to be the only other candidate to break the 3% minimum for parliamentary representation.

Three major polls by the Tu Voto Cuenta academic–NGO consortium, the Ipsos polling firm, and the Centro Estratégico Latinoamericano de Geopolítica (CELAG) show tightly converging results as can be seen here. (Added Oct 15: CiesMori/UTP and Mercados y Muestras/Página Siete.)

Arce
MAS
Mesa
CC
Camacho
Creemos
Projected
Margin
Tu Voto Cuenta
(15,537 adults, Oct 2–5)
33.6%
42.9% valid
26.8%
34.2%
13.9%
17.8%
7.7%
Ipsos
(2000 adults, Sep 21–Oct 4)
34.0%
42.2% valid
27.9%
34.6%
13.8%
17.1%
7.6%
CELAG
(1700 adults, Sep 21–29)
44.4% valid34.0%15.2%10.4%
CiesMori
(Sep 29–Oct 8)
32.4%
42.2% valid
24.5%
33.1%
10.7%
13.5%
9.1%
Mercados y Muestras
(3000 adults, Sep 20-Oct 8)
27.1%
37.2% valid
27.2%
37.4%
14%
19.2%
-0.2%

A 10% margin is still within reach for Arce and the MAS-IPSP, and any such count would not be subject to the same accusations of his party controlling the electoral apparatus. However, a close count could still arouse both skepticism and protest. Arce remains essentially at the same place in the polls as Evo Morales in October 2019. Then, as now, plenty of former MAS voters have not yet rejoined the party, something which Arce and VP candidate David Choquehuanca’s base-mobilizing strategy seems intent on reversing.

On the other hand, there is still time for anti-Morales forces to coalesce behind Mesa. Indeed, Mesa’s current lead appeal is a call to unify against the MAS:

“Help me stop fraud and corruption. Let’s build a better Bolivia together because my people comes first.”

CELAG and Tu Voto Cuenta surveyed voters on their second-round preferences as well. In CELAG’s poll, Mesa edges out Are 44.6% to 42.4%, while Tu Voto Cuenta found a larger margin of 43.8% to 38.0%. However, both these results show sizable fractions of null and undecided voters who could be swayed during the weeks of campaigning that would precede a second round.

The polls signal the likely failure of several political projects that emerged during last year’s voting. Interim president Jeanine Añez dropped out in September, urging the anti-MAS-IPSP forces to consolidate their votes. The La Paz-centered center-left party Sol.bo, led by mayor Lucho Revilla, has since re-endorsed Mesa, restoring the alliance it spurned to back Áñez. Christian conservative Chi Hyun Chung, a surprisingly strong third-place finisher in the 2019 vote, seems poised to be excluded from the legislature. Former president Jorge Quiroga polls around 1%. Meanwhile, Luis Fernando Camacho’s party is heavily concentrated in Santa Cruz, where it looks set to lead the race, with strong third-place finishes likely only in Beni and Pando. Despite taking Potosí civic leader as his vice presidential candidate, Camacho is polling at just 7% in that highland department, with only marginal support in the rest of the Altiplano.

CELAG reports that 84.7% of voters say they will vote in spite of the ongoing pandemic, with the remainder unsure.

Lead photo: Luis Arce Catacora in April 2019 Creative Commons attribution/noncommercial/share-alike license by Casa de América.

The 1988 Villa Tunari massacre, a dossier

In June 1988, Bolivia’s then-nascent Chapare coca grower’s union movement suffered its greatest single-day loss of life, the Villa Tunari Massacre. The killings came amid their campaign to oppose the passage of Ley 1008, which would eventually criminalize all coca growing in the Cochabamba valley region. The day forged the union and later political career of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s future president, and set Chapare coca growers and the US-backed Bolivian government on a deadly collision course that would claim scores of lives over the twenty-seven years that followed.

Despite the event’s importance, there have been precious few accounts in English. Jo Ann Kawell’s 1989 article in NACLA Report on the Americas is by the far the most complete I’ve found.

Shortly before Bolivia passed a new law aimed at controlling coca production, a crowd of protesters gathered at the drug police post in Villa Tunari, a small town in the coca-growing Chapare region. An hour-long video tape made by a crew from a local television station documented the scene: Hundreds of marchers, dressed in shabby work clothes and carrying no visible arms, not even sticks, approach the post. Nervous police, wearing camouflage uniforms and armed with automatic rifles, block the marchers’ advance. A union leader asks permission for the group to enter and go to the eradication program office located on the site. Shots ring out. One farmer falls dead, another is wounded. Several farmers, including the wounded man, point out the police agent who fired. A police official promises that his men’s arms will not be used again “against campesinos. Only to fight drug traffickers.” But many more shots are heard as the police push the marchers off the grounds and far down the road. It was later reported that at least 12 more people died, some by drowning, as the marchers tried to escape across a river. The farmers later charged that agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had encouraged the police action.

Kawell, Jo Ann. “Under the Flag of Law Enforcement.” NACLA Report on the Americas 22, no. 6 (1989): 25–40. Full text | Paywalled PDF version.

Wikipedia Drawing on documents assembled for Ultimate Consequences, my database on deaths in Bolivian political conflict, Vanderbilt graduate student Nathan Frisch drafted a summary narrative, which I revised into the Wikipedia article and revised again with another Wikipedian’s advice and suggestions. The article begins:

The Villa Tunari Massacre was a 27 June 1988 mass killing committed by UMOPAR (Rural Patrol Mobile Unit) troops in response to a protest by coca-growing peasants (cocaleros) in the town of Villa Tunari in Chapare Province, Bolivia. The cocalero movement had mobilized since late May 1988 in opposition to coca eradication under Law 1008, then on the verge of becoming law.[1] According to video evidence and a joint chuch-labor investigative commission, UMOPAR opened fired on unarmed protesters, at least two of whom were fatally shot, and many of whom fled to their deaths over a steep drop into the San Mateo River. The police violence caused the deaths of 9 to 12 civilian protesters, including three whose bodies were never found, and injured over a hundred.[2][3][4][5] The killings were followed by further state violence in Villa Tunari, Sinahota, Ivirgarzama, and elsewhere in the region, including machine gun fire, beatings, and arrests.

Villa Tunari Massacre on Wikipedia.

Coverage from CEDOIN’s bimonthly newsletter Informe “R”, which includes the full report of the joint (“multisectoral”) Catholic Church–National Congress–COB labor confederation investigative commission.

Bolivian newsclippings from late June 1988:

Anniversary coverage in the government-run daily newspaper Cambio, thirty years after the massacre. Chambi O., Víctor Hugo. “La Masacre de Villa Tunari Tuvo El Sello de La Intromisión de EEUU.” Cambio, June 27, 2018. https://issuu.com/cambio2020/docs/edicion_impresa_27-06-18.

Historias a Quemarropa (“Point Blank Histories”) Documentary on the massacre from state-run Bolivia TV. Primarily consisting of an extended interview with Evo Morales, this segment also includes three-and-a-half minutes of graphic and intense video from the massacre as it took place, likely from the Channel 13 video mentioned by other sources.

Mamani case plaintiffs and legal counsel

US Court revives case against Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, widens accountability for extrajudicial killings

The US Court of Appeals of the Eleventh Circuit in Miami issued a major ruling that brings us closer to justice for the killings during in the 2003 “Gas War” protests. Bolivian President Gonzalo (“Goni”) Sánchez de Lozada and Defense Mininister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín both fled to exile in the United States after the deaths of over 70 protesters failed to quash widespread protests. For the last thirteen years, a legal team including Bolivian human rights lawers, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, and DC-based Akin Gump have pursued the two former officials for civil accountability in the United States.

The plaintiffs, surviving relatives of eight people killed during the 2003 protests, sued the two officials in US civil court under the Torture Victims Protection Act. In March 2018, the case, Mamani et. al v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín became the first time that a former head of state was brought to trial for human rights violations in a United States court. A month later, a jury a United States jury found the defendants liable under the Torture Victims Protection Act and not liable under a wrongful death claim. They entered a judgment of $10 million for the eight deaths. But Judge James I. Cohn set aside the jury’s ruling in May 2018, finding that the jury could not have lawfully reached its conclusion. (Full chronologies from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Harvard Human Rights Program.)

Today, the 11th Circuit Appeals Court dramatically reversed that ruling and issued a dramatic endorsement of the plaintiffs’ long quest for justice. The ruling:

  1. Vacates the judge’s move to set aside the verdict, and imposes a new standard for judgement.
  2. Makes an explicit case that a reasonable jury could have found the defendants liable.
  3. Clarifies a broader standard for defining “extrajudicial killings” under the TVPA—based on the indiscriminate use of force—that can be used going forward.
  4. Opens the door for a new trial on the wrongful death claims by ruling that inadmissible hearsay (from US government cables) was provided to the jury improperly.

The plaintiffs clearly recognize Monday’s ruling as a victory. “This is such wonderful news,” said Sonia Espejo, whose husband Lucio was killed in the 2003 Massacre. “We have fought for so long. We will continue fighting, but for today, I feel happy. I feel calm,” according to their joint press release.

Beyond the renewed possibility that Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín will have to pay (in a material sense) for coordinating the deadliest crackdown on protesters in Bolivia’s democratic era, the ruling offers both a significant increment in the willingness of US courts to hold human rights abuses accountable and direct validation of the loss suffered and grief endured by the families that brought the case.

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Bolivia saw massive forest loss in 2019

Widespread fires in Bolivia, which ravaged over 6.4 million hectares—6% of the country’s surface area—as of November 2019, caused massive damage to primary forests according to multiple research teams that investigate and quantify deforestation. Global Forest Watch, which attempts to quantify primary forest loss—that is, the area of untouched forest destroyed—found that Bolivia lost 290,000 hectares in 2019, nearly doubling its 2018 loss of 154,000 hectares. This brought Bolivia to fourth place among tropical countries for deforestation in 2019. Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project found that deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon increased markedly from 58,000 hectares in 2018 to 135,400 hectares in 2019, though MAAP’s study area excludes Santa Cruz department, where the worst 2019 fires occurred.

These figures are, as expected, well below the overall total area burned by fires in Bolivia, as calculated by Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza–Bolivia, which closely monitors satellite fire data. FAN-Bolivia estimated that 2.0 million of the 6.4 million burned acres were forested. The bulk of this forest loss came in Santa Cruz, where 1.9 million of a record-setting 4.1 million burned acres were forested, by FAN-Bolivia’s calculations. Of course, not all fires destroy all forest cover, not all forests are primary, and not all losses represent the first loss to an area. Global Forest Watch’s estimate of 290,000 hectares only applies forest loss that meets all three criteria. GFW has a much higher estimate for Bolivia’s total forest loss in 2019: 852,000 hectares. Much previously damaged forest, or forest never regarded as primary, burned in 2019.

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Are we in the most widespread protest wave in US history?

As Black Lives Matter protests multiply across the country in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, people are asking how to place the massive public reaction into historical context. Subjectively, the current protests can feel like another element in a long series of protests memorializing Black deaths at the hands of the state and private racist acts—“A decade of watching Black people die”—and simultaneously like “a watershed moment” that “changes everything,” as new and unexpected parts of US and world society are joining in the resistance to racism and police violence. It’s in that context that the first quantitative counts of the George Floyd protests are circulating now.

Writing in the Washington Post, Lara Putnam, Erica Chenoweth, and Jeremy Pressman call the current protest wave “the broadest in U.S. history” and note that, “People have held protests in all 50 states and D.C., including in hundreds of smaller, lesser-known towns and cities that have not been in the spotlight during previous nationwide protests.” Of course, “broad” is the a measure here because, so far, largest is off the table: many protest waves have involved larger overall numbers of participants and certainly there have been many larger single events than the impressive rallies this week, which have reached the tens of thousands in Minneapolis, Houston, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington. And of course, no prior protest wave has had to overcome the challenge of pandemic-induced social distancing.

So the measure has become less about the sheer number of people involved, and more about the number and diversity of the locations we are showing up to protest. So how do we measure that and how can we be sure? Unfortunately, there is no single long-term data set on protest participation, despite the recent hard work of the Crowd Counting Consortium (CCC)—founded by Chenoweth and Pressman—since 2017. Before that time, we have to rely on historical and personal memory, which can often mean we forget the more distant past and discard events that don’t fit well into longer narratives.

The data from the CCC show events in 538 distinct US municipalities so far (and more are on the way). (To calculate this number, I ran a uniqueness filter on city and state from the May and June spreadsheets for George Floyd events.) A tracker from USA Today names 700 localities in the United States. These are very high numbers, but of course they reflect both the increased willingness and ability to rapidly organize protests and improved means for researchers to find them. Zeynep Tufekci makes a compelling call in her book Twitter and Tear Gas to avoid purely numerical comparisons across different decades: “seemingly similar outcomes

“seemingly similar outcomes and benchmarks—for example, a protest march attended by a hundred thousand people—do not necessarily signal the same underlying capacity to those in power when they are organized with the aid of digital technology as they do when they are organized without such supporting tools.

Tufekci, Zeynep. Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017, p. 192.

Instead of measuring outcomes, Tufekci urges us to look at the “onerous labor and deep organizational and logistical capacity to make things happen,” which had to be built before marches could exist in the 1960s, but which now tends to be constructed on site after a movement has gone viral and found one another in the streets. She proposes we should look at narrative capacity—“the ability of the movement to frame its story on its own terms, to spread its world view”; disruptive capacity to “interrupt the regular operations of a system of authority”; and electoral or institutional capacity “to keep politicians from being elected, reelected, or nominated unless they adopt and pursue” desired policies.

It may be too early to tell whether participation in 2020 is truly more widespread than in past events, or to measure the depth of commitment and sophistication of the current movement, but what I want to do here is lay out some other protest waves that we should have in mind when looking for comparisons:

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From “race riots” to multiracial urban rebellions (pt. 1: LA 1992)

1992

In 1991–92, the beaten Black man was Rodney King and the perpetrators were Los Angeles Police Department officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano. The fires began across Los Angeles on the afternoon of their acquittal.

The morning after the LA riots began, a trusted friend at my high school asked if I “beat myself up last night.” (I’m biracial.) Because that was the paradigm for understanding a Black-led uprising in response to police brutality: a race riot. As in Tracy Chapman’s “Across the Lines” (1988):

Little black girl gets assaulted
Ain’t no reason why
Newspaper prints the story
And racist tempers fly
Next day it starts a riot
Knives and guns are drawn
Two black boys get killed
One white boy goes blind

Choose sides
Run for your life
Tonight the riots begin
On the back streets of America
They kill the dream of America

On the streets of South Central LA, but above all at one intersection, Florence and Normandie, the antagonism of the first day did run on race line and target white, Latino, and Asian civilians for violence and humiliation. The beating of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who was dragged from his trailer and beaten until his skull fractured, became the first national symbol of the riot, a chromatic negative of King’s beating made flesh. This brutal scenario had evolved out of a nearby confrontation with police earlier in the afternoon, but took on a momentum of its own.

In fact, “virtually all of the victims [at Florence and Normandie on that first day] were struggling Hispanic and Asian immigrants who spoke little or no English,” (per U.S. News) but the national narrative was set: “black rage, white fear,” as a New York Times headline would read on May 4, 1992. In any case, it was cast as a “race riot” — a term that can encompass and conceal many historical events under a single category: white massacres of post-Civil War freedmen communities (from Memphis 1866 to Tulsa 1921); genuine clashes of white and Black civilians aided by white-dominated police forces (Detroit 1943); and Black uprisings against police violence (notably the Long, Hot Summer of 1967). The framing of “race riot” conceals questions of power, authority, and domination within the guise of ethnic antagonism. The only question left in this frame in that posed by a distraught Rodney King: “Can we all get along?”

And yet, the six days of civil disorder in Los Angeles was many other things.

The anger and fearlessness and outrage were contagious and they spread widely. They targeted not just racial adversaries but first of all the police, and secondly an economic system that excluded many. On the same morning-after page of the New York Times that cast the riots as “racial disorder,” there was the account of a “rainbow of rage”:

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Research paper: 2003 Gas War and 2019 crisis were deadly, exceptional periods in Bolivian democracy

My analysis, “Mass Protest and State Repression in Bolivian Political Culture: Putting the Gas War and the 2019 Crisis in Perspective,” has just been released as part of the HRP Research Working Paper Series by the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School. The paper uses quantitative analysis based on a comprehensive database of deaths in Bolivian political conflict since 1982 and a qualitative examination of the range of protest tactics and political actors’ acceptance of or willingness to repress mass protest.

Overall, Bolivia has a political culture of frequent mass participation in disruptive protest, which is reflected in laws, legal precedents, traditions of tolerance, popular attitudes toward protest and repression, and the words and actions of politicians and other leaders. For nearly a century, many Bolivian government leaders have claimed their legitimacy as representatives of recent outbursts of mass protest, but this history has been interrupted many times by military and authoritarian rulers who cracked down on protest. During the shorter, but current period of electoral democracy (since 1982), politicians of various political stripes have contrasted their values and actions with those of the pre-1982 dictatorships, creating a certain space for protest and an incomplete but nonetheless real aversion to deadly repression of protest.

However, there are now two exceptional moments that burst the bounds on deadly repression: the 2003 Gas War and the 2019 political crisis that saw the overthrow of Evo Morales. The white paper examines each of them in detail. In 2003, President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada moved to criminalize longstanding forms of protest, and orchestrated a military response that directly killed at least 59 civilians. In 2019, three weeks of dueling protests over the October 20 election prompted Morales’ November 10 resignation under pressure from security forces. After Morales’ ouster both military commanders and interim president Jeanine Áñez presided over deadly repression.

Bolivia’s post-Evo crackdown broke limits on state repression

Regarding 2019, my quantitative analysis found:

  • At least 37 people were killed in this conflict, the first death was caused on October 29, and the last so far on November 19. This includes the deaths of two individuals after hostilities had ceased.
  • Four of the deaths were caused by civilian supporters of Evo Morales before he resigned, while one pro-Morales journalist suffered a likely fatal beating.
  • Seven civilians and two police officers died during two days of interim military rule.
  • Finally, twenty-three civilians were killed after the swearing in of President Jeanine Áñez, all but one of them by joint military-police operations in response to protests. The massacres at Sacaba (nine killed on November 15) and Senkata (11 killed on November 19) were the deadliest incidents of state violence since 2003, and of violence of any kind since 2008.
  • Overall, state security forces were responsible for at least 25, and as many as 28 deaths in the aftermath of Evo Morales’ ouster. In ten days, the police and military killed more protesters than they had in the final ten years of Morale’s rule (21), and nearly as many as in his entire administration (33).

These sharp differences in death toll reflect the importance of presidential decisionmaking, policing policy and human rights guarantees in human rights outcomes. The military leadership and President Áñez both decisively reversed the order given by President Carlos Mesa in January 2005 to restrict military involvement in policing protest. Áñez also signed Supreme Decree 4078, which exempted the military from criminal prosecution for actions carried out during the nationwide crackdown.

The 2003 Gas War was an exceptional episode of state repression

The bulk of the white paper presents and extends the results of a report I drafted as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Mamani et al v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín case before the United States Federal Court for the Southern District of Florida. My goal in that report was to examine and contextualize the Bolivian government’s use of repressive force in response to protest during the September–October 2003 mass mobilization, popularly known as the Gas War.

What follows is a summary of the argument:

  1. Bolivia has a highly contentious political culture marked by high levels of participation in protest, high levels of involvement in large grassroots organizations, frequent intervention of these organizations in matters of public policy, and the expectation that governments will negotiate with, rather than criminalize or physically disperse, protesters.
  2. Frequent, disruptive protest is the norm in Bolivia’s political culture. The September–October 2003 protests were largely comprised of common elements within Bolivia’s so-called repertoire of contention.
  3. Bolivian legal traditions authorize the country’s widespread unionization, its variety of civil society organizations, and these organizations’ unusually broad right to engage in disruptive strikes. Informally, policing and prosecutorial practice have usually respected these rights during the democratic period. When they occur, large deployment of force by the police or army may attract public criticism.
  4. The events of September and October 2003, while larger in scale than in prior years, generally involved the use of tactics within the Bolivian repertoire of contention, and were conducted in the expectation of negotiating with the Sánchez de Lozada government. Calls for the president’s resignation were also consistent with longstanding political traditions.
  5. The police and military response to the September and October 2003 protests is a quantitative outlier, far outside the general approach of Bolivian democratic governments in its lethality. This is true even though other democratically elected presidents have faced more frequent and more intense protests.
  6. In the current democratic era, other Bolivian presidents have responded to large-scale and highly disruptive protests by exercising greater restraint, avoiding or limiting bloodshed. The impulse to do so is an important part of Bolivia’s post-dictatorship democratic political culture.

The Evo Morales years saw far less direct state violence

Evo Morales, who was elected by a 54% majority in December 2005 in the wake of the political upheaval reflected in the 2003 Gas War, went on to become the longest-serving president in Bolivia’s history, serving for nearly 14 years. Ultimately, 138 people would die in social movement-related events during the Morales years, a close runner-up to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s fourteen-month death toll of 139. However, in nearly all other respects, the Morales years were quantitatively very different from Sánchez de Lozada, and more in line with the 1982–1999 period of limited violence in Bolivian political life. Under Morales (as well as under Carlos Mesa), state security forces killed less often and were responsible for a smaller share of deaths than even during the relatively calm 1982–2000 years. In no single incident did security forces under Evo Morales kill more than four civilians.

Partisan political conflict among civilians resulted in twenty-six deaths during the Morales years, many more than in prior decades. Responsibility for these deaths was evenly split between Morales’ supporters and opponents. The increased frequency of such violence set the stage for the seven civilian-on-civilian killings during the 2019 crisis. During the crisis, the Morales government exercised restraint over the security forces and publicly announced its refusal to confront mutinying police. After Morales’ overthrow, a different and more deadly situation would rapidly emerge.

Expanded Inter-American expert group to investigate human rights violations during Bolivia’s 2019 crisis

The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts for Bolivia, a five-person team of human rights experts named by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), has been formally cleared to begin the work of investigating all human rights violations during Bolivia’s 2019 political crisis (prior coverage|Wikipedia) and expects to start work in the country on October 2, 2020. The Group was authorized by agreement between the Commission and the Bolivian government on December 2 of last year, following a dramatic visit by IACHR members to the country in the wake of the Sacaba and Senkata massacres. While the IACHR quickly appointed four members of the Group back in January, its work has yet to start and the interim government Jeanine Áñez has raised objections to both its membership and methods.

On April 28, however, the IACHR and the Foreign Ministry announced their agreement to a full investigation of last year’s often-violent events. The IACHR describes the Group as

[my English translation:] an international investigation mechanism on the acts of violence that occurred in the country … with guarantees of autonomy and independence, to secure the right to the truth and to duly identify those responsible for human rights violations.

un mecanismo de investigación internacional sobre los hechos de violencia ocurridos en el país, específicamente un Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes (GIEI), con garantías de autonomía e independencia, para asegurar el derecho a la verdad e identificar debidamente a los responsables de violaciones de los derechos humanos.

http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/prensa/comunicados/2020/091.asp

The agreement between the Bolivian state and the IACHR guarantees the Group the right to conduct an elaborate investigation with full access to the files and records of the government. Its designated powers are reminiscent of a truth commission:

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