Tick-tock coverage of the overthrow of Evo Morales: An evolving list

Without a doubt, the post-electoral protests against President Evo Morales, his sudden resignation under pressure from both protesters and the military, and the unexpected succession of Jeanine Áñez (previously, second vice president of the Senate) are the most significant events of Bolivian political life in 2019. The hinge point of these events was the dramatic week stretching from November 8 to 15, during which the police and military joined protesters as central actors; significant transactions occurred behind closed doors; acts of violence and arson targeted politicians on all sides; uncertainty surrounded presidential succession; and finally, a remobilized military killed a shocking number of people in four dramatic days.

I want to offer here some detailed accounts of what happened during that pivotal week and lay out the crucial questions as to whether, when, and how the overthrow of Morales was planned.

Why did an inexperienced junior senator with no mandate get empowered to lead a disastrous coup, unleashing the deadliest month in 15 years in Bolivian politics? How did a military “suggestion” claiming to head off bloodshed so rapidly lead to operations against civilians that cost many more lives than had been lost in the previous three years (let alone the three weeks of protest since the election)? In short, to what extent was a unified planning process (what we might call a coup plot) at the heart of this political transition?

Put differently, do we understand Evo Morales’ overthrow, Jeanine Áñez’s succession, and the military shakeup that followed the result of:

  • The foresight and planning of a small circle of actors. Did someone in the civic movement set her up? Work out a deal with those in the military who craved a crackdown? There are real signs of premeditation, coordination, and alliances among political forces and people within the military who might have a crackdown as a goal.
  • A convergence of fearful choices that led to a disastrous transition. Did the military leadership believe a quick transition would de-escalate an increasingly deadly confrontation on November 10? Did multiple actors think confirming someone, any civilian at all, was preferable to prolonging interim military rule and nightly violence on November 12? The real consequences of fear, urgency, distrust, violence, and reactions to violence that led people to act without considering the worst-case scenario that could emerge.

Since plotting is necessarily a closed-door activity, we couldn’t fully know the answers to these questions on November 10 or 15. But since these are matters of public concern and the principal actors are talking to journalists, we are getting more and more details (all possibly filtered through self-justifications and political ambitions) about what exactly happened when. What follows is an evolving list of sources for those of us trying to understand what happened in detail.

November 7–9: Negotiating a Civic-Military alliance

During the week before the overthrow, anti-Morales protesters reached out the police and military for an alliance, and a police mutiny began on November 7 in Cochabamba and rapidly spread to other cities. On November 8, the Morales government publicly disavowed the use of the military to either attack the protest movement or quell the police mutiny. Defense Minister Javier Zavaleta declared that “Evo Morales and our government have given a strict order to the Armed Forces that under no circumstances … will there be any operation in the streets of any city,” while Government Minister said that deploying the military was totally ruled out. Armed Forces commander Williams Kaliman’s November 9 declaration that the Armed Forces would respect the constitution, maintain cohesion, and never confront the Bolivian people followed this overall line.

During these days, José Luis Camacho Parada, former head of the CEPB business federation and the father of Santa Cruz civic movement leader Luis Fernando Camacho, acted as a negotiator between that movement and the military. He contacted Fernando López Julio, a former officer who would become Áñez’s Defense Minister, to broker an agreement to keep the military out of the conflict, and it would appear, to consolidate a growing group of hardliners to back a post-Evo era.

Revealing the talks, Luis Fernando Camacho said López “got close with the military. For that reason, the person who when to speak with them and coordinate everything was Fernando López, the present Defense Minister And that is why he is the minister, to carry through with these commitments” (video). López himself has confirmed his role and stated that during the Morales presidency, the Ministers of Defense—all of them civilians—“never understood the Armed Forces, nor comprehended their needs.” He presents himself as “someone from their domain, and who will understand their needs and return to them their dignity” (Correo del Sur).

November 9–10: Morales’ exit and a cascade of resignations

November 11: Kaliman overruled by the generals

The night of November 10 saw chaotic property destruction by outraged Morales supporters in El Alto and La Paz. The police were increasingly overwhelmed by crowds whose principal target was police stations, many of which they burned and looted entirely. Two police were fatally wounded in these confrontations, one when his motorcycle crashed while attempting to evade marchers. Meanwhile, the military command resisted getting involved and Armed Forces commander and the head of the Air Force remained in contact with resigned president Evo Morales and Defense Minister Javier Zavaleta.

On the evening November 11, a faction of the military leadership pressured Armed Forces commander Williams Kaliman to send troops out. The generals who did so had become aware of “a rising (mutiny) among Army colonels which would seek to arrest the generals, take command, and put troops out in the street,” Página Siete reports. Apparently, even as Kaliman read the announcement of the deployment, the generals who threatened him were fearing their arrest for insubordination.

This initial wave of militarization led to between four and six deaths of protesters and bystanders. The Áñez government has since talked of prosecuting Kaliman for failure to fulfill his duties for not militarizing the country earlier.

November 11–12: Choosing Jeanine Añez

A complex series of negotiations on presidential succession were brokered by the Catholic Church, the European Union, and others. Former president Tuto Quiroga emerged as the strategist behind the succession of Jeanine Áñez, previously the second vice president of the Senate. This position is not included in the brief section of the 2009 Constitution concerning the line of succession, but justification was found in a 2001 ruling on succession. Senate President Adriana Salvatierra and Chamber of Deputies President Víctor Borda had resigned their leadership posts on November 10.

In behind-the-scenes negotiations, Adriana Salvatierra represented the MAS-IPSP. According to Quiroga and four other parties involved (The New York Times reported), she exchanged permission for Evo Morales and his entourage to exit the country for a relatively uncontested succession. However, Salvatierra may have had personal interests at stake, namely the legal situation of her father who Hugo Salvatierra who is risking prosecution for a possibly corrupt tractor transaction during his time as Rural Development Minister early in the Morales government. Incoming Senate president Eva Copa revealed to the press that:

In her own voice in a meeting of our party delegation, she [Salvatierra] stated that she renounced the presidency, for she ought to have been the transitional president, because the only thing that she has is her father and mother, and that she could not assume the position because they might reactivate the tractors case against her father. That is the decision that she took, and that left us crippled and we have had to take responsible and mature decisions as partisans.

Eva Copa, quoted in Página Siete, December 13, 2019.
Áñez takes power before a nearly empty chamber

The New York Times reports that the succession agreement was worked out on November 11, but Salvatierra’s assent seemingly did not come on behalf of the larger MAS-IPSP delegation in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. They did not attend sessions on the afternoon of November 12 meant to swear in Áñez as president. Instead of convening the Assembly to consider Morales’ resignation letter, Áñez invoked the former president’s “abandoning” his post by fleeing the country as the mechanism of succession. Through two successive parliamentary maneuvers, Añez first declared herself president of the Senate then took office as president on the basis of the unavailability of the president and vice president. MAS-IPSP legislators reasonably expected to be able to consider the resignation letters in their first session, and to elect a different senator to replace Salvatierra. There are conflicting accounts about whether they boycotted the session or stayed away out of fear for their own safety.

On the night of November 13, Jeanine Áñez presided over the elevation of a new set of officers to the military High Command, replacing the entire leadership. Handing over his office, outgoing commander Kaliman drew attention to “respect for [human] life” during his term and said, “The direction has been marked out; we leave you armed forces that are cohesive, disciplined, respected and admired by all Bolivians; an armed forces linked to the Bolivian Constitution. Only follow the trail of our work, improve what we have done with more effort, it is your turn to be the protagonists of our institution.” Was this a formality, or a warning of the danges of putting troops back into the streets to engage in crowd control?

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