David Choquehuanca & plurinational Bolivia’s grassroots approach to diplomacy

With David Choquehuanca elected as Bolivia’s next vice president, I share here portions of an excised chapter from the manuscript of The Sovereign Street profiling Choquehuanca and the unique, bottom-up diplomacy he led as Foreign Minister from 2006 to 2017.

The New Face of Diplomacy

Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca was the first indigenous person to occupy his office, located on the corner of La Paz’s Plaza Murillo. The room was charged with an elite identity; by tradition the Foreign Minister’s chair had long been reserved for the country’s most illustrious individuals, invariably elite in their self-presentation. He spent two decades supporting grassroots indigenous movements—particularly the campesino confederation CSUTCB—before becoming a bedrock force within the Morales cabinet. His friendship with Morales stretches back to the 1980s; both men were early advocates for “the Political Instrument” that was to become the MAS–IPSP.[1] Only Choquehuanca, Finance Minister Luis Arce, and Vice President García Linera—an island of stability at the core of the cabinet—kept their offices for the first decade of Morales’ presidency.[2] Within the cabinet, Choquehuanca is the leading government voice of pachamamismo, a vision of spiritual transformation centered on the recovery of indigenous identity through a new ethical and ecological paradigm. His pachamamismo is carefully balanced by the industrializing developmentalism of Arce and García Linera, but has free rein within the Foreign Ministry.

Choquehuanca had served as national coordinator for Programa Nina (“fire” in Aymara), providing leadership trainings to the five organizations of the Pact of Unity, and his speeches incorporate a bit of the air of a teacher, regularly introducing words or phrases in Bolivia’s indigenous languages and providing a gloss that illustrates his points. When he was invited by Morales to join his cabinet just days before the inauguration, he had to give up his ticket to the World Social Forum in Caracas and make and shift to the other side of the line dividing movement and state. Fearing “I would be just one more piece of that system,” he pledged to himself to “be there without being there.”[3] Convinced he wouldn’t last in the job, he started off aloof: “The first year I had no desire to know anything,—‘For what?,’ I would say—I rebelled.” Then he threw himself into the work presiding over a very active period in Bolivia’s international diplomacy.[4] His ministry made Bolivia a well-known voice at the United Nations, sent him to present spiritual ideas of Vivir Bien (see box) and Mother Earth in international fora, and kept an open door to the grassroots left.

Choquehuanca describes himself as “in permanent meeting” with grassroots movements, reeling off district-level meetings he attended in a 2009 interview.[5] Esteban Ticona,[6] an anthropologist of Aymara background and radical public intellectual, took leadership in the Diplomatic Academy, offering master’s degrees in international relations to an unprecedentedly diverse corps of future diplomats.[7] Diplomacy, that most elite and creole-identified of Bolivian government professions, was being transformed. Just as in previous generation of revolutionary governments,[8] indigenous and grassroots movements have brought their own agendas into government offices. They coordinated with the Bolivian Foreign Ministry to place the Bolivian state at the forefront of long-running international campaigns on indigenous rights, climate, and water. The novel, but quite visible, role of social movements in Bolivian (and regional) diplomacy came to be known as “diplomacy of the peoples,” a phrase that suggests that people-to-people relations are as important as state-to-state ones, while quietly implying that multiple peoples live within one state.

Led by Choquehuanca, and with frequent prominent appearances by Evo Morales, Bolivian diplomacy backed a visionary agenda at the United Nations. It helped secure the 2007 passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which had languished in committee for twelve years. A series of initiatives introduced the Andean concept of Pachamama, the planet as a living being, into international diplomacy.[9] In so doing, Bolivia’s representatives broke a UN taboo on religious declarations, one deeply rooted in the United Nations’ secular modernizing origins. Bolivian Ambassador to the UN Pablo Solón shepherded UN recognition of the right to water and sanitation through the General Assembly, culminating in a 2010 resolution.[10]

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.