The Bolivian political crisis set off by credible (if unconfirmed) allegations of fraud in the October 20 presidential elections took two dramatic turns this week. On Wednesday, a major escalation in clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators in downtown Cochabamba and near Huayculi in Cochabamba caused scores of serious injuries and the death of a twenty-year old student, Limbert Guzmán, who had been protesting against electoral fraud. The anti-government side engaged in less-lethal outrages upon government-aligned actors: subjecting the MAS-IPSP-affiliated Mayor of Vinto to march to the site of the clashes and pelting her with red paint, and last night burning out the Cochabamba offices of the Chapare coca grower’s union and MAS-IPSP political party.
But the pivotal event of yesterday is the decision of members of the national police to declare themselves in mutiny in solidarity with the electoral fraud protests. (Police mutinies are a periodic occurrence in Bolivia, and the term does not connote a necessarily violent uprising, but rather a collective refusal to follow orders.) The mutiny began at Cochabamba’s Police Operations Tactical Unit (Wikipedia), a specialized anti-riot force, and quickly spread to two other units in the city, and to police units and/or commanders in five other cities since then. Mutinied police officers have occupied their own barracks, raised Bolivian flags and sometimes anti-fraud banners, and effectively removed themselves as an option for President Evo Morales to control mushrooming protests. The ongoing protest mobilization has gathered hundreds or thousands of protesters around police barracks supporting existing mutinies and encouraging further ones. Meanwhile, the Morales government has described the police mutiny as the unmistakable sign of a coup d’état.
Police mutinies in their bottom-up form have accompanied Bolivian protest before. They can force governments to negotiate and avoid bloodshed. Or, in the worst case (Feb 2003), there can be bloodshed among state security forces. The next critical question is the stance of the military. Early signs are neither the military leadership nor Minister of Government appear to want the police and military to be deployed against one another.
Bolivia has had a lot of off-schedule changes of power, but since 1982 the have always been ratified by a vote at the ballot box. This was true in mid-1985, when general strikes and business lockouts forced Hernán Siles Zuazo to call early elections; in October 2003, when the Gas War uprising, supported by a series of hunger strikes led Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to resign; in June 2005 when further protests pressed Carlos Mesa to resign, and two legislators to forego their right to presidential succession, prompting December 2005 elections; and during the 2008 political crisis, when dueling protest mobilizations were ultimately resolved in favor of the Morales–grassroots left coalition, with the outcome ratified by a recall referendum and a constitutional referendum. In April 2000, a police strike influenced the government decision to capitulate to the Water War protests in Cochabamba and de-escalate its repression of rural protests in the Altiplano. At the final moments, the military high command pressed for a constitutional exit to the crises in 2003 and 2005.
In all of these cases, the military signaled limits to further state repression, stayed out of the presidential chair, and did not substitute its choice of leaders for one determined at the ballot box. Arguably, this is why none of these events are remembered as coups d’ètat. In the current context, doing so will require holding some kind of vote under terms that are acceptable to a broad swath of the Bolivian public and that acknowledges the rights of both Morales and Mesa voters. If and only if the police, military, Morales government and electoral opposition can agree to such an exit, democracy can be preserved.
Protests about the October 20 Bolivian election are now in their ninth day. Monday September 28 saw significant protest clashes between pro-government and anti-government demonstrators in Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, and La Paz, as well as between the police and anti-government demonstrators in Tarija. Listed below are some simple question-and-answer thoughts about the current situation (unapologetically, I’m sharing the questions asked by a news wire service), followed by other sources of information.
Why do the protests cover the whole country?
At the ballot box (see my analysis here) and in the streets the pro- and anti-Evo Morales coalitions in the current Bolivian electoral crisis are both multiracial and multi-class, although anti-Evo forces are stronger in urban areas.
Protesters in Bolivia first took the streets on the day after the election when the mysterious suspension of the “rapid count” of the results ended and Evo Morales surged past the 10% threshold he needed to claim a first-round victory. It was at this moment that allegations of fraud became widespread, although there was limited evidence as of that day. Those protests and the six days of mobilizations since have taken place in capitals in all nine of Bolivia’s departments. Carlos Mesa won a plurality of votes in all of those cities, with his strongest support coming in Potosí and Santa Cruz.
Relevantly, Potosí and Santa Cruz had been on opposite sides during the 2008 political crisis, in which separatist movements in the eastern departments refused to recognize the constitutional reforms led by the Morales government. Potosí was a bastion of pro-MAS votes in pre-2014 elections, but has had a series of mass movements since 2010 to demand greater investment and development in Bolivia’s most impoverished region, setting it at odds with the national government.
The protests built upon pre-election cabildos (public mass meetings that claim to speak for the city or region) held in Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, La Paz, Tarija, and Potosí. These meetings all pledged to defend “February 21” and “democracy.” That is, they promised to uphold the 2016 referendum vote denying Morales the right to run for a fourth term, and to defend the 2019 vote from any fraud or manipulation. Many Bolivians were ready to take to the streets on a moment’s notice after the elections.
What is the present scenario in Bolivia?
President Morales maintains a strong base of support, which is stronger in the rural areas, but not overwhelmingly in any one region of the country. Since late last week, Morales has mobilized his supporters to “defend his victory.” In some areas of the country, opposing protesters have faced off in the streets, causing injuries to one another.
Confidence in the electoral outcome, declared in favor of Morales over the weekend, is low. Morales indicates that he plans to remain in office for a fourth term. The OAS electoral observer mission has offered to audit the first round ballot, which the government has accepted while stating the audit will not be binding. Meanwhile, the OAS, the EU, and the political opposition are calling for a second-round presidential vote as a measure to provide confidence in the electoral victory of the next president.
At the moment, the two sides have incompatible demands and have not accepted a common forum for resolving the outcome of the election, leading to the danger of escalating tension and on-the-street violence.
What can happen with the economy?
Both sides are engaging in common means of protest in Bolivia: general strikes and road blockades. The opposition is framing its mobilizations as a national strike, and supplementing it with street blockades in major cities. Meanwhile government supporters are both mobilizing members to the cities and beginning highway blockades in rural areas that could isolate major cities from supplies. Prolonged strikes interrupt daily business, domestic and international commerce, and tourism; indeed this is their main leverage. All of these things are longstanding features of Bolivian politics, but the prospect of simultaneous national strikes and blockades in opposition to one another could raise the economic impact to an unusually high level.
Photo above: Confrontations flared between transport drivers who mobilized to break up blockades by anti-government activists mobilized “in defense of the vote” on Avenida Panamericana in Cochabamba, October 28. Photo published by Cochabamba newspaper Opinión.
Over six million Bolivian voters cast their ballots in peace on Sunday, October 20, but the calm did not last through the next day. As of Sunday night, all indications—including both the official electoral authorities’ “rapid count” (Transmisión de Resultados Electorales Preliminares; TREP) and private quick counts by ViaCiencia and Tu Voto Cuenta all coincided in showing a strong showing by challenger Carlos Mesa, and a narrow 4 to 7% lead by incumbent president Evo Morales, whose vote count stood at 45%, according to TREP. Unless Morales pulled ahead to a 10% lead, he would face a second round runoff against Mesa in mid-December.
Then, at 7:40pm local time on Sunday, the TREP rapid count stopped updating.
This was the first post-electoral sign of irregularity, and technically it only affected a non-decisive preliminary count, but it reached a Bolivian public that was on edge and concerned with the possibility of fraud or electoral manipulation. The president’s entire 2019 campaign was conducted in defiance of the majority vote that denied him constitutional authorization for a fourth term on 21 February 2016. Ultimately, permission to run was granted by the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal in December 2017. Periodic protests have urged “defense of the results of 21F,” although without impact. In the final weeks before this year’s vote, massive public meetings—called cabildos—were held in Santa Cruz, La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosí, and Tarija, all pledging to defend democracy in the event of manipulation or fraud, and upholding 21F. That portion of the Bolivian public opposed to Morales was watching suspiciously.
On Sunday night, Carlos Mesa gave a not-quite-victory speech celebrating the runoff as a major accomplishment. President Evo Morales also gave a victory speech, claiming an unprecedented fourth victory at the polls (while true on its face, this had never previously been either attempted or permitted by law), and expressing confidence that late breaking rural voters would hand him a first-round victory. The publicly funded newspaper Cambio, whose editorial line is partisan advocacy of Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism—Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP), took its cues from Morales and proclaimed outright victory the next morning. Communication Minister Manuel Canelas joined in expressing “We are quite confident in the final result of the count.” To suspicious ears, this all sounded like foreshadowing for a manipulated result.
On Monday, the official count results trickled in, reaching 50% by late afternoon. By Tuesday morning, the Plurinational Electoral Organ was reporting 73% of the votes had been counted. These official results showed a Mesa lead on Monday, and a very narrow race as of this writing: at 7:43am, Morales has a 42.30% to 41.74% edge.
The central story of Monday, however, was not these vote totals, but the unraveling confidence in electoral authorities and nationwide mobilizations by critics of the government. By mid-day, Carlos Mesa, civic committees, and the National Coordination in Defense of Democracy were all calling for vigils at the sites of departmental vote counts. Protesters were also outraged by discoveries of caches of ballots marked in advance for the MAS-IPSP in La Paz and Potosí. By evening these became large, and sometimes chaotic protests. In some places, these protests faced off with MAS-IPSP partisans. In Sucre, capital of Chuquisaca department, enraged protesters set fire to a series of offices, including the Departmental Electoral Tribunal, MAS-IPSP campaign offices, and the campesino federation. Confrontations and fires were also reported in Potosí and Tarija. By the end of the night, electoral authorities had suspended vote counts in four departments—La Paz, Potosí, Chuquisaca, and Cochabamba—citing the protests as justification.
The events of Monday night were driven not by these slow-moving official results, but by sudden and unexpected changes to the TREP rapid count. After a 23-hour pause, the rapid count website roared back into action. Shocking the country, TREP soon read: Evo Morales 46,86% — Carlos Mesa 36,72%, a 10.14% margin that would mean no runoff. This switch, apparent official endorsement of a first-round victory for Morales, was the spark that turned the protests from guarding against irregularities mid-day to protesting or resisting fraud by nightfall.
Ironically, the protests themselves became a (sometimes reasonable) pretext for pausing parts of the official count. And the damage to vote counting installations and ballots themselves is likely to complicate the possibility of independently auditing the results. In a further irony, the TREP rapid count tilted away from Morales last night. By 11pm, it read Evo 46.40% — Mesa 37.07%, close enough for a runoff.
Right now, the rapid count is a hair’s breadth from requiring a runoff, the official count is partial, but it indicates a runoff may be needed. However, doubt, tension, and mobilization are all working together in a feedback loop that could lead to suspended vote counting. Should the Plurinational Electoral Organ announce anything other than a runoff, the opposition is unlikely to accept the results. Years of growing distrust and the lack of trusted and fully independent electoral and judicial institutions have led the Bolivian government to the brink of a serious legitimacy crisis.
Evo Morales’ bid for a fourth term as Bolivia’s president will be put to the test when voters go to the polls on Sunday, October 20. All signs point to the most competitive presidential contest since 2002, when the future president narrowly lost to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the architect of neoliberalism in Bolivia. After grassroots protests ousted Sánchez de Lozada in 2003 and his historian-turned-Vice-President in 2005, Evo Morales swept to power with a decisive majority in a December 2005 special election. Since then, Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) has dominated national and municipal politics in the country, and never dipped below 48% support on a national ballot.
Morales is now the longest serving president in Bolivian history, but polls, past electoral results, and an extraordinary series of pre-election protests point to his extraordinary vulnerability this time around. Even though Morales retains a solid base and a significant lead in the polls, he may not clear the threshold for a first round victory, and could face a competitive runoff with Carlos Mesa a month later.
To understand the uncertainty in the election, you must first know the ground rules of the vote. Under the 2009 Constitution, presidents are elected by popular vote. In the initial round of voting, a candidate who receives over 50% of the votes cast (for a candidate), or who receives 40% and holds a 10% advantage over the 2nd place finisher is elected president. Otherwise, the top two finishers face off in a new head-to-head vote. Current polls agree that Morales and Mesa will finish first and second, respectively, but differ as to whether a runoff will be triggered.
Bolivian public opinion polls vary widely in quality and consistency. Historically, some have concentrated their samples in the more accessible urban corridors and underestimated the MAS-IPSP vote, which once had overwhelming rural strength. This year, however, a research team at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (La Paz’s famed public university) produced a poll with an extraordinarily large and geographically representative sample called Tu Voto Cuenta (“Your Vote Counts”). Their most recent results are shown here:
If accurate, Morales’ 32.3-27.0 margin would neither clear the 40% threshold nor the 10% minimum difference, even after excluding blank, null, and unsure votes as the electoral authorities will do in their calculations. Another poll by CiesMori shows a wider lead, 36.2-26.9. Discarding the neutral votes, this puts Morales just above the numbers needed to avoid a runoff.
After a year of drafting and debate, the significant but limited liberalization of Bolivia’s abortion laws lasted just six weeks. It was signed into law on December 15, 2017, as part of an omnibus reform of the country’s Criminal Code, but that law was repealed in its entirety on January 27, 2018. Between these two dates, the major challenge to the law was not about abortion but rather an extended strike by medical workers who opposed provisions in the law that criminalize malpractice. Transport workers also objected to new ways of being held liable for traffic accidents.
Reportedly, the abortion provisions—which would have exempted more women from the general criminalization of abortion in Bolivia, and allowed qualifying women to fill out a form rather than seek authorization from a judge—were a matter of internal tension within the ruling Movement Towards Socialism party.
The medical strike unexpectedly became a convergence point for various critics of the government, who formed the Coordinadora de Defensa de la Democracia (Coordination in Defense of Democracy) and demanded the government respect the February 2016 referendum vote that rejected President Morales running for a fourth term.
Early on Sunday morning, September 17, over sixteen hundred Bolivian police massed in the high desert plateau east of Lake Titicaca. Perhaps the largest police mobilization under the presidency of Evo Morales, these forces gathered to interrupt an extraordinary local protest that had blockaded roads and interrupted travel by road in the region for an unprecedented 26 days. The operation used its overwhelming numbers, police vehicles, and a substantial amount of tear gas to break up the Achacachi blockade. Over forty-five people were arrested, twenty-one of whom are being held without bail in Patacamaya and San Pedro prisons. The intervention looks to be a decisive turn in the municipality’s protests, which have been ongoing throughout 2017.
The protesters, who have numbered in the thousands, are backing a demand that Édgar Ramos (of the governing MAS-IPSP party) step down as mayor of Achacachi municipality over allegations of corruption. That demand prompted protests in February, in which anti-Ramos demonstrators damaged the mayor’s property and his organizational allies in Achacachi city. In response, Ramos’ rural allies looted the city’s commercial district. In July, the national government advanced an investigation of the anti-Ramos forces, notably Achacachi Neighborhood Federation (Federación de Juntas Vecinales; Fejuve) leader Esnor Condori, but not of pro-Ramos forces. Reversing an earlier decisions to grant house arrest, a judge jailed Condori and two urban teachers affiliated with the movement, Pastor Salas and Gonzalo Laime, in San Pedro. The day after they were jailed, August 22, the blockade began.
In a remarkable month of mobilization, the mostly urban Achacachi protesters who began the blockade (in so far as a town of nine thousand people is considered urban on the Altiplano) both maintained steady control over regional roadways and built a surprising network of alliances. They were joined in protest by Felipe Quispe, the famed, but retired leader of the national peasant confederation CSUTCB, who is a native of Achacachi Municipality. They signed a pact of mutual support with TIPNIS community leaders still reeling from the August law that permits development in their territory. And on August 28, a march of Achacachi women descended from the Altiplano and El Alto to stand before the San Pedro Prison. Their signs read:
Damn those who defend corrupt mayors with their power.
Jail for this looter
Evo, listen: Your mayor is corrupt “Malditos aquellos que con su poder defiende a alcaldes corruptos”, “Cárcel para este saqueador” “Evo escucha, tu alcalde es un corrupto”
The Achacachi women stayed in the capital of La Paz, staging regular demonstrations and setting up a sit-in blockade in front of the Ministry of Justice. Their mobilization seems to have built more surprising ties to parts of the Paceño population, while the highland traditionalist organization CONAMAQ Orgánica, regional labor federation COD-La Paz, and the traditionally radical teacher’s union all offered their support.
On Friday, September 15, these groups combined to hold a cabildo—a mass public meeting that can issue statements or coordinate protests—in the Plaza San Francisco, the traditional heart of grassroots protest in Bolivia, four blocks below the presidential palace in La Paz.
The cabildo termed itself “Achacachi Somos Todos” (We are all Achacachi) and managed to generalize the demands of the local movement, related to the mayor and the detained protest leaders, into “an Agenda that comes from the Aymara people to the whole country.” The six points of departure raised and approved in the cabildo include (1) the struggle against corruption, (2) the struggle against the politicization of the criminal justice system, (3) the right to dissidence and critique, (4) respect for individual and collective rights, (5) critical debate about the vision for Bolivia’s development based on local demands and perspectives, and (6) rejection of the instrumentalizing of indigenous peoples for political ends.
Achacachi municipality, particularly the smaller town of Warisata and the many Aymara rural communities that make up most of its population, was the point of ignition for the 2003 Gas War, and a key part of the rural mobilizations that preceded it. At that time, a thousand marchers from the Altiplano led by Felipe Quispe implanted themselves in the overwhelmingly indigenous city of El Alto (just above La Paz on the edge of the Altiplano plateau) and became an articulating force for collaborative protest. Today, Achacachi Municipality is divided along partisan lines (which are partially town/village lines), but its mobilization again seems to be bringing other movements together. It is very much an alliance of outsiders, those grassroots social forces that have had the harshest break-ups with the national government. But the process of connection among them should be watched closely as the Achacachi movement regroups from Sunday morning’s police intervention.
Broad Legitimacy for Road Blockades as Protest Tactic in Bolivia
Road blockades are a frequent form of protest in Bolivia, at many different scales. A small demonstration may claim a single roadway, or a coordinated effort can deliberately paralyze transport across an entire region. Sometimes small protests in just the right place can lead to big consequences. Bolivia is one of the most highly mobilized countries in the world in terms of protest: In a 2012 national survey by LAPOP (the Latin American Public Opinion Project), just under 17% of 2,999 people polled said they had taken part in a protest in the last 12 months. The 508 who said yes were asked if they had blockaded a road or other public space, and 229 confirmed that they had. In other words, one out of every 13 adult Bolivians polled had taken part in a road blockade. Asked in the same year whether they approved of different kinds of political action, Bolivians rated blockading a bit lower than simply demonstrating, but ahead of creating a political party.
In 2002 and 2004, LAPOP asked Bolivians a more incisive question about road 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?
The result was overwhelming: 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.” (Negociar con los manifestantes aunque esto pueda tardar días o semanas, afectando la economía del país vs. Mandar a la policía para abrir los caminos).
Add to this the fact that the ruling political party, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People emerged from the Chapare cocalero movement, which frequently used blockades as a protest tool. And that it came to power in 2005 on a wave of unrest that was powered by blockades and sparked into national revolt in Achacachi. And that road blockades were also a frequent tool of the grassroots left in the 2006–09 struggle against a separatist right-wing movement in the east of the country.
Accordingly, the Morales government has often approached blockades with tolerance on the ground. It’s the exceptional application of intensive force to break up a blockade that attracts well-deserved attention: the 2010 police raid on the Caranavi blockade demanding a citrus plant, the 2016 effort to break up blockades by the cooperative miners federation, and this week’s operation in Achacachi. The first two efforts had deadly consequences: two townspeople were killed in Caranavi, and five miners and one Vice Minister died in last years confrontations. While the current operation caused no fatalities, it represents an important break point between the government and a movement that had been a solid part of its broad grassroots base until now.
An assembly of Bolivia’s departmental Civic Committees has called on the government of Evo Morales to re-route a controversial highway to the east of the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). In their joint statement issued on July 20, the establishment organizations write, “We categorically reject the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxo highway project for destroying TIPNIS and propose that the connecting of Beni and Cochabamba should be [instead] articulated along a Villa Tunari–Camiaco–Loreta–Trinidad route. Rechazamos categóricamente el proyecto carretero Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos por destruir el Parque Nacional y Territorio Indígena Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS) y proponemos que la articulación entre Beni y Cochabamba sea: Villa Tunari-Camiaco-Loreto-Trinidad.” This alternative route is one of several that has long been ignored as the Morales government pressed to build a highway northwards out of the coca-growing Chapare and directly through the national park, inhabited by Mojeño-Trinitario, Tsimané, and Yuracaré communities who have campaigned against it for over a decade. I last reported on these option in 2012, when the Isiboro Sécure Defense campaign estimated that the route (number 2 on the map below) would be 250km in length, about 50km shorter than the project underway.
Bolivia’s civic committees are coalitions of mainstream organizations, equivalent to an amalgam of a Chamber of Commerce, assembly of government officials, church leadership, and charitable organizations. While in the 1960s and 1970s, they played a key role as an independent voice for civil society amid Bolivia’s military dictatorship, they emerged as a right-wing counterweight to the Morales government in 2005. The right-wing civic movement encompassed committees in the eastern and central provinces, while civic committees in Potosí, La Paz, and Oruro have tilted leftwards. (Oruro and Potosí civic committees have organized important protests making regional demands of the national government.) This week’s report of a joint statement represents an important new voice in the ongoing conflict. It builds upon an alliance of indigenous and center-right project skeptics that backed Carmelo Lens in the 2015 governor’s race in Beni department. As can be seen below, civic committees from Cochabamba, El Alto, Tarija, Oruro, Pando, Camiri, and Chuquisaca, issued the statement, in cooperation with TIPNIS leaders Fabian Gil, Marqueza Teco, and Fernando Vargas.
Images of the resolution provided by Lelponi Maria Alba Guillén de Vargas.