The Bolivian government of interim president Jeanine Áñez has decreed a sweeping “total quarantine” for 14 days to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and halt a small, but significant outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. (Prior coverage of COVID-19 in Bolivia|Wikipedia) There are just 19 cases confirmed in Bolivia, with known community transmission in urban Oruro and the municipality of Porongo, both of which were already under local quarantine measures. Nonetheless, municipal and departmental authorities, legislators, and presidential candidates had all called for a total quarantine in the past few days. The fourteen-day emergency restrictions immediately prompted electoral authorities to postpone the highly anticipated general election, previously scheduled for May 3.
The quarantine measures mandate Bolivians to stay in their homes except for trips for work, groceries, and medical care; shorten the working and shopping day; and suspend public transport. It enters into force at 12am on Sunday, March 22, just hours after being announced. Bolivians are encouraged to provision themselves today, but markets will remain open for the mornings under the quarantine.
After Áñez decreed the national quarantine, Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) suspends electoral preparations for 14 days, calls on all parties to agree on a new date for general elections, previously set for May 3. In recent days, six political parties supported postponing elections, but the largest, but Evo Morales’ MAS-IPSP opposed any delay. Both calculation are in part political, since the MAS-IPSP is leading in the polls and the Bolivian political Right has failed to consolidate around a single candidate.
The Tribunal had little choice but to propose some delay since the proposed quarantine will interfere with pre-election preparations, even if it ends on schedule on April 5. The Tribunal’s statement s very clear in seeking consent from the legislative branch, led by a MAS-IPSP majority for a new election date. It also points out the central and troubling challenge: “to resist the threat of the pandemic and to also organize a clean and transparent electoral process, which will reflect precisely the will of the citizenry and will permit the formation of a legitimate government.”
It remains to be seen whether Áñez decision was necessary or precipitous, and whether the quarantine will further militarization and political divisions within the country or allow Bolivians to supplant them. The fractures opened up during the 2019 political crisis remain gaping, as does the absence of an elected government. There are clearly signs of both a cross-party willingness to cooperate against the coronavirus, as evidenced by recent agreements in El Alto and the Chapare, as well as clear signs of political opportunism. As with the rest of the world, much also depends on whether or not the coronavirus spreads out of control over the next two weeks.
Top image: President Jeanine Áñez at the repurposed anti-imperialist military school, rapidly converted as a COVID-19 isolation site. From @JeanineAnez on Twitter.
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 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).
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.
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.
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?
Recent events—the appearance of indigenous people in voluntary isolation (“uncontacted peoples”) in an oil concession block in the Bolivian Amazon—have thrust the Bolivia’s 2013 Law for the Protection of Highly Vulnerable Indigenous Peoples (Ley de protección a Naciones y Pueblos Indígenas Originarios en situación de alta vulnerabilidad; Ley 450) back into the spotlight. Despite some initial movement in 2014, the Bolivian government has not issued the regulations for Law 450, a required step in its implementation, and “the government institution created by that law and responsible for instituting such measures, the Dirección General de Protección a Naciones y Pueblos Indígena Originarios (DIGEPIO), does not exist.”
Law for the Protection of Highly Vulnerable Indigenous Peoples
In November , Bolivia’s legislature passed the Law for the Protection of Highly Vulnerable Indigenous Peoples. This extends special protection to isolated indigenous peoples, as well as others who face severe threats to their health, territory or capacity to protect their culture. There are seven indigenous cultures that are believed to include people living in isolation, unconnected to the broader society. According to a recent report by the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs, as many as 21 indigenous peoples could be termed as being at high risk from ethnocide. While a handful of large indigenous groups make up half of Bolivia’s population, these small groups represent less than 0.3%.
The term “voluntary isolation” describes groups of indigenous peoples who have either never had contact with those outside their culture or who actively refuse any such contact, sometimes by force. In the case of the Araona, the Esse Ejja, the Yuki, the Pacahuara, the Ayoreo and the Yuracaré, only a limited number of families have chosen to live in isolation. As in many countries, most Bolivians who fit this description have had highly traumatic encounters with outsiders, including experiences of enslavement, kidnapping of their children, massacres, and devastating epidemics from diseases previously unknown to them. There were unwanted incursions by missionary expeditions up to the 1980s and more recently by those seeking to exploit raw materials. In 2008 loggers murdered at least two Pacahuaras.
The right to live in voluntary isolation is recognised by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (incorporated into Bolivian law in 2007). The Inter-American Court on Human Rights has ordered Peru and Ecuador to take precautionary measures to safeguard the areas where uncontacted groups live from outside threats. The Toromona people in the Madidi National Park have been protected since 15 August 2006. In 2011, a summit convened by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) urged the government to create similar zones for the Ayoreo, Pacahuara, and T’simane people. Most of these zones are threatened not just by the activities of outside individuals but by exploration activities in oil and gas concessions that overlap with their territories.
The law creates a new government agency [Dirección General de Protección a Naciones y Pueblos Indígena Originarios-DIGEPIO] charged with protecting indigenous peoples whose “physical and cultural survival is extremely threatened.” Its main task is to develop and implement protection strategies, including exclusion zones, emergency health services and disease monitoring, environmental restoration, and cultural revitalization initiatives. Under the terms of the law, those exploiting natural resources are expected to follow these rules.
Six indigenous deputies in Bolivia’s Plurinational Legislative Assembly stepped forward today to form an Indigenous Bloc (bancada indígena) within the parliament. The bloc consists of Deputies Justino Leaños (Potosí, alternate), Blanca Cartagena (La Paz, alternate), Teresa Nominé (Santa Cruz, alternate), Pedro Nuni (Beni), Bienvenido Zacu (Guarayo people, Santa Cruz), and Cristina Valeroso (Guaraní people, Tarija, alternate). [Update, 19 Jan: La Razónreports that Julio Cortez (Pando) and Bertha Ramallo (Pando, alternate), special indigenous constituency deputies who had affiliated with the right-wing Progress for Bolivia Plan-National Convergence bloc have also affiliated. Initial reports have some discrepancies: La Razón does not include Leaños, while Los Tiempos omits Teresa Nomine. A final count may require a couple days. Página Sieteadds Sonia Justiniano (Beni, alternate) and confirms all nine listed here: 3 voting members and six alternates.] The move, endorsed by the National Commission of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), followed a series of announcements since the late September raid on the national indigenous march in defense of TIPNIS.
All members in today’s announcement except Justino Leaños represent special indigenous constituencies and were chosen by community procedures rather than elected to represent the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party. Pedro Nuny, who will lead the bloc, emphasized this allegiance yesterday: “Nos debemos a la CIDOB, por ellos estamos en la Asamblea Plurinacional y si nos ordena votar en contra del gobierno, lo haremos, haremos todo lo que esté a nuestro alcance para proteger nuestros derechos, en especial el territorio indígena” “Our obligation is to CIDOB, it si on their behalf that we are in the Plurinational Assembly and if they order us to vote against the government, we will do that, we will do everything within in our reach to protect our rights, and especially indigenous territory.” (Opinión, 17 January)
Nonetheless, their separation from the MAS has been the most controversial aspect of the move. Indeed, at today’s press conference, the degree of separation to be expected depended on the leader speaking. The following are the disparate statements made:
Adolfo Chávez, President of CIDOB: “Tendrán una responsabilidad de asumir una bancada indígena al interior del seno del Movimiento al Socialismo que significa que no tienen la obligación de abandonar el curul tal como lo habían señalado muchos diputados del oficialismo, ya es una decisión que el diputado Pedro Nuni sea quien asuma la jefatura de bancada de los indígenas.” “They will have the responsibility of becoming an indigenous bloc inside the heart of the Movement towards Socialism, meaning that they are not obliged to abandon their seats as many governing party deputies have signalled. It has already been decided that Deputy Pedro Nuni will assume the leadership of the indigenous bloc.” (Los Tiempos)
“Nuestros hermanos diputados asumen esta gran responsabilidad para hacer cumplir los derechos que corresponden para los pueblos indígenas” “Our deputy brothers and sisters are taking on the great responsibility of ensuring that the rights which belong to indigenous peoples are fulfilled.” (El Día)
Deputy Pedro Nuni, President of the Indigenous Bloc:“Si nos reconoce o no la Asamblea Legislativa Plurinacional es otra cosa, pero nosotros trabajaremos y no seremos parte de los 2/3 del oficialismo, porque muchas veces somos objetos de manipulación.” “Whether the Plurinational Legislative Assembly recognizes us or not is another matter, but we will do our work and we will not be part of the governing party’s two-thirds majority, beacuse many times we are objects of [their] manipulation.” (El Día)
The issue of a two-thirds majority has been a prominent issue for press discussions on the Indigenous Bloc. The MAS won 88 of 130 seats in the Chamber of Deputies in December 2009, and has 26 of 36 Senators. However, four La Paz deputies belong to members of the Without Fear Movement (MSM) which ran in alliance with the MAS, but declared its independence in 2010. The Indigenous Bloc subtracts three more voting members from the MAS, leaving them with 82 deputies, or 63% of the lower house, and pushing them below two-thirds of the entire Assembly.
The two-thirds threshold was the subject of an extended controversy in the Constituent Assembly of 2006–2007, but it’s unclear how effective a one-third minority will be in stopping legislation.[Update, 19 Jan: La Razónreports that a 2/3 majority is required both for impeachment and for the approval or modification of laws.] However, indigeneity is a central value of the process of change in Bolivia, and this is one more step that questions whether the MAS is the true standard bearer of that process.
Nearly two months after the cross-country Eighth Grand National Indigenous March won a law prohibiting any highway project through the Isiboro Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), construction of the project has finally been suspended, but not stopped. The Brazilian contractor OAS has laid off 80 of its 800 workers, and pulled back its work camps, machinery, and work teams from areas of active construction, reports today’s Los Tiempos (Cochabamba). The layoffs were reported earlier in the Brazilian newspaper Valor (secondary coverage from the Erbol community radio network). Update: OAS now reports that it is laying off 411 additional workers, leaving just 300 on staff “for continuity” of its operations. The worker’s union reports even larger layoffs: 350 on December 14 and another 350 on December 15. (source: “Despido masivo en OAS; la ABC no halla motivos,” Los Tiempos, 15 December). Evo Morales criticized the move and the company. Further Update (January 7): The Brazilian ambassador to Brazil, Marcel Biato confirms a “slowdown” in work, but attributes it to the rainy season, rather than any monetary dispute. The ambassador mediated in the Decemeber impasse between OAS and the Bolivian government, and claims to have resolved it. [Opinión puts it this way: Biato, que había interpuesto sus buenos oficios para superar el impasse, dijo que aquello ya no es tal. ] Biato states that he expects the Bolivian government to renegotiate Segment II, but reiterates there is “no hurry” to do so.
The immediate cause of the paralysis in new work is a dispute between OAS and the Bolivian government over financing. While most of the funds (US$322 million) for the project are being provided by the Brazilian state development bank BNDES, the Bolivian government share had been set at US$190 million. However, the Bolivian government is now offering just US$143 million, although the reasons for this are unclear.
Workers on the project have offered the Bolivian government a 48-hour deadline to resolve the issue or face mobilizations.
The Bolivian Highway Administration (ABC) claims to be working within the mandate of Law 180 protecting TIPNIS, but has doesn’t seem to have worked out that the current route of Segments I and III essentially require a cross-TIPNIS connection. ABC official, however, have deferred the issue to Cochabamba Governor Edmundo Novillo (of the ruling MAS party) and the highway booster committee.
Engineers: Alternatives Exist
Meanwhile, the Beni Inter-Institutional Committee and the Cochabamba Association of Emeritus Engineers have worked out alternate routes. The Cochabamban engineers proposed 270- to 300-km routes east of the park or a 749-km route northwest of Cochabamba to Trinidad in Beni. They estimate a cost savings over the current project, but realizing that cost savings requires stopping construction. The Beni group came up with an additional route passing immediately west of TIPNIS.
Political conflict continues
Despite the existence of alternatives, the debate over the future of the highway continues to be a political one. The national government, the MAS party in Cochabamba, and a quasi-independent organization of indigenous in the colonized zone of TIPNIS called Conisur continue to be the heart of the pro-road effort. President Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera continue to vocally advocate for construction on the original route. The Bolivian government is pursuing parallel, but opposed tracks on the issue: authorizing regulations protecting the park on one hand and organizing a civil society campaign to overturn these decisions.
Some members of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Mojos Highway Booster Committee, however, have expressed flexibility on the route. And several prominent Bolivian grassroots forces have distanced themselves from the campaign for the road, notably the national colonizer federation (the Union Federation of Intercultural Communities of Bolivia) and peasant union founder Genaro Flores.
This week, the Pact of Unity split deepened into two separate meetings on Bolivia’s future agenda. The 1st Plurinational Forum to Deepen the Change met at Cochabamba’s Casa Campestre while CIDOB and CONAMAQ organized their own summit in Santa Cruz. Despite the best efforts of the road-through-TIPNIS campaigners, it seems that the issue will be left for regional Sub-forums to Deepen the Change. The indigenous gathering has reaffirmed defense of territorial rights, including a highway-free TIPNIS as the top of its agenda.