Today, December 18, the Bolivian government issued an arrest warrant against Evo Morales, charging him with sedition, terrorism, and financing terrorism, for his efforts to encourage and organize protests within the country after his November 10 ouster from the presidency of Bolivia. Specifically, the charges seem to stem from a single phone call between Morales and Faustino Yucra, the only named co-defendant in the arrest warrant and the initial investigative documents released in November (see below for details). The call was recorded in a cell phone video first revealed by Government Minister Arturo Murillo (photo above, by APG).
The charges represent a dramatic, and extremely one-sided, redefinition of the basic contours of legality in Bolivia, where widespread mass protests frequently use road blockades as pressure tactics and demand the resignation of presidents, and where neither “sedition” nor “terrorism” have regularly been used as means to criminalize such political acts. Insofar as these charges are directed at Morales, three-times elected president and currently the “campaign chief” for his party in as-yet-unscheduled 2020 elections, they represent an attack on the country’s largest political party, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples. As signals of a new legal standard for protest, they represent a dramatic shift in the behavior of prosecutors that could criminalize common forms of protest. (Similar charges have been levied against demonstrators arrested in Sacaba and Senkata after their fellow demonstrators were massacred.) In both cases, the current government is overlooking the similar practices of the movement that challenged Morales for alleged electoral fraud in October and November, demonstrating a double standard that could compromise free and fair elections.
The criminal investigation and the arrest warrant
Moving into the second week after Morales’ ouster, supporters of the president refocused their protests in the form o largely rural road blockades across the country, including in the Santa Cruz valleys at Yapacaní and Tiquipaya. This map from the Bolivian Highway Administration shows the extent of the blockages, which are a common form of protest in the country. (For a sense of just how common and widely accepted blockades are, see my article “The Power of Interruption.”)
When the Bolivian police intervened to break up these blockades, they arrested a number of young people who were confronting them, including Alejandro Yucra, the son of Faustino Yucra Yarwi. On Alejandro’s phone is a video of the elder Faustino in a cellphone conversation with a familiar voice: Evo Morales. (Subsequent forensic reports and call records indicate that Yucra placed calls to Mexico, where Morales was living out his first days in exile.) Police released video of the interrogation of a visibly intimidated Alejandro Yucra explaining that his brother had taken the video of his father on the phone.
Even before they completed the forensic work, the Bolivian authorities, led by Arturo Murillo, released the video—captioned in large letters—to the public. In it, Morales advises Yucra on the logistics of blockades, on dividing union members into different places or shifts, and urges “Hermano, que no entre comida a las ciudades, cerco de verdad”: “Brother, no food should enter the cities, [make a] true encirclement.” Evo also predicts a harsh and combative struggle because of the nature of the new government: “From now forward there will be combat, combat, combat as now we are living in a dictatorship, and that is how dictatorship is. Some people don’t understand dictatorship, [but] now the people will see how life is under dictatorship, with a coup d’etat.” And finally (after proposing a parliamentary maneuver for the legislature to refuse to accept his resignation) he says, “We are going to give a hard battle to the fascists, to the racists, brother,” and repeats the same phrase about mobilizations in El Alto.
As someone who has gathered records of mass protest in Bolivia, and taken testimonies from participants, none of this was remotely shocking for me. As I have written elsewhere, “Coordinated blockades have repeatedly resulted in urban food shortages, which are at once a dramatizing element of the sense of crisis they generate and a challenge in terms of planning logistics and sustaining commitment.” Food ran scarce during the Cochabamba Water War, the September 2000 rural strikes, the 2003 Gas War, the 2010 Potosí regional strike, and numerous other occasions. Blockades are an economic weapon and they work because people want flows of goods, of food, of passengers, and of workers to their jobs to return to normal.
There have been literally hundreds of blockades in Bolivia over the years, and the numbers increased after Evo Morales was elected as his opponents increasingly turned to blockades as a method of pressure.
On November 4 of this year, the Luis Fernando Camacho (leader of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee) asked the crowd at a Santa Cruz cabildo:
Are you in agreement with paralizing all state instutions and the Bolivia’s borders through peaceful means, with the only exception of allowing the airports and medical emergency [vehicles] to circulate?
¿Están de acuerdo con paralizar todas las instituciones estatales y de las fronteras de Bolivia de forma pacífica, con la única salvedad de dejar expeditos los aeropuertos y las emergencias médicas?https://www.eldeber.com.bo/155534_minuto-a-minuto-sigue-en-vivo-el-cabildo-de-la-unidad
In 2002 and 2004 surveys by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Bolivians were asked about their opinion on government responsibility during blockades: “Sometimes there are protests that
provoke difficulties because the streets are closed. In those cases, what should the government do? [“A veces hay protestas que provocan dificultades porque se cierran las calles. En esos casos, ¿qué debe hacer el gobierno?”] Large majorities (76.48% in 2002; 71.89% in 2004) chose “Negotiate with the protesters although this may take days or weeks, affecting the economy of the country” over “Order the police to open the roads.”
Nor honestly, do the exhortations to combat stand out in a country known for fierce defiance in protest, combative encounters between protesters and police, and an oft-repeated willingness to continue a struggle “until the final consequences” even in the face of deadly repression.
In fact, the only that has been shocking about the tape is the degree of outrage expressed and the race to find new terms to condemn the mobilizations that Morales was speaking of.
The Yucra call is the basis of the current arrest warrant
Nonetheless, the government acted quickly to use the Yucra video as the primary basis for an investigation of Evo Morales. It opened a formal investigation numbered FIS: LPZ1914866, and this is the framework that continues up til now. The initial complaint lists two charges: sedition and terrorism.
This investigation has evidently not been particularly fruitful given that no additional co-defendants have been added between the November 20 complaint and the December 18 arrest warrant. Still, Bolivian prosecutors are calling the arrest warrant for Evo Morales and Faustino Yucra the “audio case.”
Implications of the charges
In charging Morales with sedition, the transitional government of Jeanine Añez—installed by a mass uprising, pressure from the military leadership, and disputed parliamentary maneuvers—is making a daring claim that it has an undisputed right to public respect. No unelected president has any right to assume that people won’t organize against their rule.
And every Bolivian president since 1982 (except perhaps Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé, a Supreme Court justice who stuck to his mandate of convening elections) faced movements demanding their resignation. Data from the research group CERES shows that 1,314 protest events expressed rejection of the national government over the 38 years from 1971 to 2008.
Sedition, as legally constituted by Article 123 of the Bolivian Penal Code, is a broadly applicable crime that could easily be applied to either the pre–November 10 anti-electoral fraud movement (especially when it demanded the resignation of Evo Morales, or impeded the work of public officials by closing them peacefully, or burned down electoral tribunals in three cities and city halls in others) or the post–November 10 anti-coup movement (notably, in their objections to the constitutional succession of Jeanine Añez and attacks on police stations). The problem is sedition takes as a given that one established order is necessarily legitimate, and all those who oppose it are criminals. Which is to say that charging sedition criminalizes political opposition. And this requires a shrinking of the open, if chaotic, political arena that has existed in Bolivia for many years.
[more on the terrorism charges tomorrow]