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?

Bolivia enters nightmare scenario with Sacaba massacre, impunity decree, threatened detentions of MAS-IPSP leadership

Given the fast pace of events in Bolivia, my most responsive and up-tod-date commentary is available on Twitter, where I tweet as @CarwilBJ. However, it’s time for a brief summary of the disastrous, unfolding scenario.

President Jeanine Añez, a right-wing senator took power in a parliamentary maneuver late on Tuesday, November 12. A political unknown whose party Bolivia Dice No had received just 4% of the vote on October 20, Añez had a very limited mandate, both from the three-week mass movement that unseated Evo Morales and under the Bolivian constitution: restore public trust in the electoral system and convene elections within 90 days. Instead, Añez has presided over a rapid and deadly slide towards authoritarian rule that echoes the worst moments of early 2000s uprisings, 1988–2005 drug war, and the mass detentions that followed military coups in 1980 and 1981.

Three unmistakable signs of this disastrous turn have come this weekend:

The Sacaba Massacre: The mass shooting came amid police repression that wounded over 100 protesters at Huayllani Bridge, nine of whom were killed, in Sacaba (Cochabamba Department) on Friday. The shooting came about when military troops armed with guns replaced police who were keeping a coca growers’ march from entering the town on the east side of the Cochabamba metropolis. According to reporters on the scene, police teargassing touched off a two-hour confrontation. Security forces have claimed that some in the crowd had guns and fired them, showing several bullet holes in police windows. Journalists estimate that “nearly ten” police were evacuated from the scene for injuries; evidently, none of them have bullet wounds. The police have recovered a single shotgun and five bullets. Meanwhile their use of force was overwhelming, caused massive injuries, and ended nine civilian lives. Opinión offers the most complete initial narrative of the day (es).

Autopsies have confirmed that all nine people killed died from gunshot wounds; ballistic analysis was not yet complete as of Saturday. The dead in Sacaba are:

Armando Carballo Escobar, de 25 años, falleció por un trauma torácico penetrante por Proyectil de Arma de Fuego (PAF).

Plácido Rojas Delgadillo, de 18 años, murió por shock hipovolémico, trauma hepático y trauma torácico abdominal penetrante por PAF.

Omar Calle Siles, de 26 años, falleció por choque hipovolémico por hemorragia interna, laceración cardiaca por traumatismo y PAF. 

Lucas Sánchez Valencia, de 43 años, falleció laceración encefálica y traumatismo cráneo facial por PAF.

Emilio Colque, de 21 años, murió por choque hemorrágico, laceración de órganos vitales y trauma torácico por PAF.

Juan López Apaza, de 34 años, falleció por shock hemorrágico, laceración aortica y trauma torácico penetrante por PAF. 

César Sipe Mérida, de 18 años, murió por choque hipovolémico y traumatismo abdominal por PAF.

Marco Vargas Martínez, se desconoce su edad, falleció por lesión de centros nerviosos superiores, laceración de masa encefálica y trauma cráneo encefálico por PAF.

Roberto Sejas Escobar, de 28 años, murió por laceración de masa encefálica y traumatismo cráneo encefálico por PAF.

https://www.opinion.com.bo/articulo/cochabamba/autopsias-confirman-personas-murieron-armas-fuego/20191116211426737221.html

With at least 19 deaths, November has now become the deadliest month in Bolivian political conflict since October 2003, the time of the Gas War under Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Deaths in the current crisis initially occurred among civilians, but in recent days a clear pattern of military gunfire killing civilians has become the predominant cause of death.

Supreme Decree exempts military from prosecution: Saturday afternoon, Añez signed Supreme Decree 4078. Among other provisions, it exempts the military from criminal prosecution for actions carried out during the current efforts to “restore order” in the country:

Personnel of the Armed Forces who participate in the operations to restore internal order and public stability will be exempted from criminal responsibility when, acting in fulfillment of their functions, they act in legitimate defense or out of necessity.

El personal de las Fuerzas Armadas, que participe en los operativos para el restablecimiento del orden interno y estabilidad pública estará exento de responsabilidad penal cuando en cumplimiento de sus funciones, actúen en legítima defensa o estado de necesidad

https://www.lostiempos.com/actualidad/pais/20191116/decreto-exime-ffaa-responsabilidad-penal-caso-legitima-defensa-estado

While the decree technically reiterates the validity of exisitng guidelinse on the use of force, this exemption effectively eliminates any penalties for systematic human rights abuses, up to and including murder. Passing it the day after the Sacaba massacre only underscores how shameless and violent the Añez government is.

Crackdown announced on MAS-IPSP leadership: Today, Sunday November 17, Minister of Government Arturo Murillo announced he will detain MAS-IPSP legislators for “sedition” and “subversion” (effectively, for supporting anti-government protests), starting this week. The MAS-IPSP legislative delegation, who still hold a majority in both house (and won a continuing majority in the October elections) had emerged as a center of moderation and calm this week. On Thursday, November 14, they called for “mobilized sectors of social movements to allow us to achieve peace” and asked “equally, of the Armed Forces and the police: no bullets, please.” The Sacaba massacre was a grim response.

Over the weekend, the same legislators issued a call for the full Senate and Chamber of Deputies to hold sessions on Tuesday (Noveber 19) to convene new elections. Murillo’s new crackdown threatens to undermine this call and/or unseat the MAS-IPSP from its majority. The Minister, who supervises the security forces and prosecutors, said Sunday:

“There are senators and deputies (male and female), not all of them, just some; I will begin to publish their names who are fomenting subversion. Starting Monday, I already have the list which the leaders of the various zones themselves are passing to me. [We] will begin to detain them with prosecutorial orders.”

“Hay senadores y senadoras, diputados y diputadas, no todos, unos cuantos, que voy a empezar a publicar sus nombres, que están haciendo subversión. A partir de lunes voy a ordenar, ya tengo listas que los mismos dirigentes de varias zonas me están pasando, los van a empezar a detener con órdenes fiscales”

https://www.europapress.es/internacional/noticia-nuevo-gobierno-boliviano-detendra-diputados-mas-responsables-subversion-sedicion-20191117194230.html

At the beginning of the week, I argued that when “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,” their political interventions in Bolivia have not been remembered as coups d’ètat. We have crossed those lines.

This is a coup.

The US-Bolivia Relationship

Last week, Bolivia hosted a conference of defense ministers from all the countries in the Americas. This became front-page news here mainly because of the speech by President Evo Morales and proposals put forward by Bolivia. It also seems to have attracted at least a little attention in the United States.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates came to Bolivia with the public agenda of discouraging Bolivia-Iran economic cooperation. He was actually surprisingly diplomatic in his complaints, saying from the outset that Bolivia has the right to have relationships with whomever it chose, but cautioning that Iranian interest in Bolivia’s untapped uranium and joined Bolivia-Iran plans for civilian nuclear plants will be closely monitored.

During the summit, Evo’s opening speech criticized the United States’ history of intervention in Latin American democracies. He claimed that popular democracies are “three and one” in resisting attempted coups backed by the United States. The three are Venezuela (2002), Bolivia (2008), and Ecuador (2010); with the one being Honduras (2009). In fact, they are two inaccuracies in this score: the recent police revolt in Ecuador did not have any apparent American backing, as President Rafael Correa has said publicly; and Evo, like many other observers, leaves out Haiti (2004), the only case in which Americans had an on-the-ground role. The real score is a less optimistic two for the democracies, two for the United States-backed coups against them.

Nevertheless, what has gathered media attention is not Evo’s accuracy, but his audacity in making such a comment in front of a senior American official. The Heritage Foundation responded by saying that, “Morales demonstrated in his speech a quantity of venom, a lack of restraint, and complete disrespect for the U.S. that befits a bully and tyrant.” Heritage joins several right-wing congress members and urging more hostile relations between the United States and Bolivia.

It is difficult to imagine exactly what that would mean since the two countries have had not had ambassador-level relations since 2008, when Bolivia expelled the US ambassador for coordinating Bolivia’s right-wing opposition at a time when it was seizing and burning government buildings and taking over gas infrastructure. After the Obama election, both countries have expressed a desire for renewed relations and cooperation, but the Bolivian proposal for a treaty of mutual respect has languished inside the United States State Department. While in August of this year, the countries announced “90% agreement” on the treaty, there is then no action since. Now that members of the new Republican House majority are making angry noises about Bolivia, it will be even more difficult for the Obama administration to make headway on mending the relationship.

I’ve been meaning to write a bit of background about the US-Bolivian relationship, and the realistic and unrealistic fears of the Morales administration about US intervention. The threat is real; no one who pursues an independent policy as a Latin American president can ignore what happened to Salvador Allende (Chile, ousted by a US-backed coup in 1973); Maurice Bishop (Grenada, invaded by the US in 1983); and Jean-Bertrand Aristide (ousted by CIA-paid Army officials in 1991); and what nearly happened to Hugo Chavez in 2002. However, the rhetoric of foreign interference often gets carried over into domestic politics. A quick summary might be: Just because they are out to get you doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid; and, Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. However, since nearly 1,300 documents on just what the US Embassy has been doing in Bolivia are being released by Wikileaks beginning this week, I’ll suspend judgment on just who is paranoid until I read the documents.