Departmental legislator Gustavo Torrico and Evo Morales’ legal representative Patricia Pamela Hermosa are the latest people arrested in the interim Bolivian government’s legally dubious effort to prosecute exiled president Evo Morales for the crimes of sedition and terrorism. Torrico, a member of the Departmental Legislative Assembly of La Paz, was arrested last night (February 6) and is expected to be charged with sedition for threatening comments he made in a late October radio interview. Hermosa, for her part, was arrested on February 2while bringing Morales’ identity documents into Bolivia in order to register him as a MAS-IPSP candidate for Senate. She seems to be under investigation due to telephone records indicating she spoke with Evo Morales in November after his overthrow on November 10. The government has also floated the possibility of subpoenaing Chapare cocalero leader and senate candidate Andrónico Rodríguez in the case.
These moves, on top of the active investigation of at least 592 Morales government officials for alleged financial irregularities, and the recent brief arrests and apparent physical mistreatment of two officials given safe passage out of the country, illustrate a scenario in which judicial actions is being used as an active mechanism of political persecution against members of Morales’ party. The “sedition and terrorism” case is the spearhead of that overall effort.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges & Lawyers Diego García-Sayán has publicly called out the Áñez government: “I am concerned by the use of judicial and prosecutorial institutions for political persecution. The number of illegal detentions is growing. Today it was the turn of former minister Gustavo Torrico. I call for respect of the independence of institutions and for due process.”
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?
Today, December 18, the Bolivian government issued an arrest warrant against Evo Morales, charging him with sedition, terrorism, and financing terrorism, for his efforts to encourage and organize protests within the country after his November 10 ouster from the presidency of Bolivia. Specifically, the charges seem to stem from a single phone call between Morales and Faustino Yucra, the only named co-defendant in the arrest warrant and the initial investigative documents released in November (see below for details). The call was recorded in a cell phone video first revealed by Government Minister Arturo Murillo (photo above, by APG).
The charges represent a dramatic, and extremely one-sided, redefinition of the basic contours of legality in Bolivia, where widespread mass protests frequently use road blockades as pressure tactics and demand the resignation of presidents, and where neither “sedition” nor “terrorism” have regularly been used as means to criminalize such political acts. Insofar as these charges are directed at Morales, three-times elected president and currently the “campaign chief” for his party in as-yet-unscheduled 2020 elections, they represent an attack on the country’s largest political party, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples. As signals of a new legal standard for protest, they represent a dramatic shift in the behavior of prosecutors that could criminalize common forms of protest. (Similar charges have been levied against demonstrators arrested in Sacaba and Senkata after their fellow demonstrators were massacred.) In both cases, the current government is overlooking the similar practices of the movement that challenged Morales for alleged electoral fraud in October and November, demonstrating a double standard that could compromise free and fair elections.
I’ve translated the following essay by Roger Adán Chambi Mayta, a Bolivian living in Brazil, because it speaks directly to many of the questions that my friends following current events Bolivia are asking. I will be sharing multiple pieces here and linking to others. Not every thought aligns with my own, but I think it’s vita—now, more than ever—I that we hear from Bolivians who are wrestling with the future of their society. And that we slow down our desires to put the Bolivian situation into a pre-defined schema, at least until we understand it well and hear from those on the frontlines. This piece appeared on the Colectivo Curva Facebook page, which is filled with a vocal and diverse debate among grassroots Bolivian voices.
“They have lost their best leader!” “Now the Right will come back!” “The poor indigenous!” These are some of the comments that I have received from my friends in Brazil after Evo’s resignation. For many here, Evo Morales represented a government that was of the left, progressive, anticapitalist, and above all: the principal defender of indigenous peoples and of the political vision of Vivir Bien [Living Well: in sufficiency, community, and harmony with nature]! The moment I utter my first criticism, they have already branded me as being a defender of the coup against the indigenous former president. “If the left goes down, the right comes back. Are you from the left or the right?,” a friend asks me on messenger. Once again arises the typical and simple dichotomy that seeks to put some on the “revolutionary” side and the rest among the reactionaries. As if things were that way, so simple, as if there was only a single question of taking on one ideological title. Well now, I understand that these readings respond to a Brazilian idiosyncrasy, my friends ask me questions and make their judgments in an exercise that is an analogy to what they have experienced with Temer and Bolsonaro, and I don’t judge them for it. But we are talking about Bolivia, a country that has a long tradition of indigenous struggles and where the left and right have always met the expectations of the white-mestizo sector, which is racist and discriminatory against its racialized others. That is why I tell my friends that, it shouldn’t be strange that there are Aymaras who are critical of the “left” government of Evo Morales and who are not because of that defenders of the right.
Are there reactionaries that want to claim hegemony of the current violent conjuncture for their own benefit? Evidently so. Aren’t Bolsonaro and Trump celebrating this context? I have no doubt. But, out of fear of that, should we have continued with Evo for fourth term? For that, did we have to keep watching as more white-mestizo become newly rich in the name of the indigenous government? For that, do we have to bear the instrumentalization of our history, of our culture for the benefit of a precious few?
“But think on the structural level, of the world system, of imperialism!,” my friend questions me, and it’s certain that we must think of the macro level. But the first to think of the consequences should have been the government! It was they who sacrificed the so-called “process of change” by not building new legitimate leaderships that could continue their government. A fourth term, besides being illegal was intolerable! Once I heard an Aymara grandfather say to me, “Evo says he’s indigenous, but he doesn’t carry out the practices of the community; the authorities must always rotate, for the health of all.” And now I ask myself, for all that they talk of being the government of Vivir Bien, To what degree would a fourth term bring us closer to Vivir Bien? Would my friends have asked the MASistas that question? Of course not! It wouldn’t even have mattered to them!
But now, Evo is no longer in the country and has left his people that he said he loved, in the midst of a fierce social convulsion. The wiphala, the historic flag of the Andean peoples, has been erroneously labeled as a synonym of the MAS. The people who supported it so much on social media now say nothing.
It seems that they are happy how the people carries on confronting one another after their manipulative tactics. The reactionaries who want to take advantage of the moment will not hesitate to burn the wiphala so as to strike fear in all those people who are racialized.
It’s important to say that Evo in his last days in the presidency called upon indigenous communities to protect his government (filled with non-indigenous people), and now that he is no longer in the country, left behind a people confronting one another, with pain and sadness in the streets.
But there is resistance, I see on the screen my Aymara brothers and sisters in the streets of El Alto, supporting demonstrations against the discourse of discrimination, and they shout: No more racism! Respect our symbols! El Alto on its feet, never on its knees! After the resignation of the president, the population did not stand back with its arms crossed. Evo is gone, but we won’t accept a Camacho either! “Evo is the hope of Latin America,” they say to me here. Was it just Evo? Was it the person? I think that this reading was wrong; it wasn’t that Evo, the caudillo, was the Latin American hope, but rather that he represented the beginning of that hope. A racialized person of the lower middle class, part of an indigenous nation with an insurrectionary tradition that arrived in power.
The hope of Latin America comes from those peoples who, like the Alteño people in this moment, have pushed beyond those simple dichotomies of left and wright and who go out into the streets to defend their rights, their family, their work, their symbols, their history, and their country.
The balance of power in Bolivia is rapidly shifting away from President Evo Morales as the police mutiny that began last night in Cochabamba has now spread to all nine departments of the country, and most critically to police barracks in La Paz, the seat of government and site of the Presidential Palace. From the palace, President Morales, flanked by Vice President Álvaro García Linera and Foreign Minister Diego Pary put forward a mid-day call for dialogue among the four political parties that will hold seats in the legislature following the hotly disputed October 20 elections.
Sisters and brothers, we have the historic responsibility to defend our democracy and its social policies. I ask our patriotic professionals, workers of the countryside and of the city, to reject in a peaceful manner this coup attempt that is an attack on the constitutional order.
To preserve the peace in our beloved Bolivia, I make an urgent call for a table of dialogue with the representatives of those political parties that won legislative assembly seats in the elections. I call upon Pope Francis, and the various churches and international organizations to accompany us in the dialogue.
The three opposition party leaders—second-place presidential candidate Carlos Mesa Gisbert (Comunidad Ciudadana), Chi Hyun Chung, and Oscar Ortiz—have all rapidly refused the invitation. This is the clearest sign that maximalist demand, for Evo Morales to resign unconditionally, has now become a general demand across the opposition movement.
But it is not the only sign. Moves by police, MAS-IPSP politicians, and the public all show that the ground is shifting against Evo Morales on the Bolivian political scene.
The High Command of the Armed forces has declared:
“The Armed Forces, in the framework of democracy and law, will guarantee the union among compatriots, and therefore we ratify that we will never put ourselves in confrontation with the people, to whom we owe and for whom we will always ensure peace, coexistence among our brothers and sisters, and the development of our homeland.”
“Las Fuerzas Armadas, enmarcadas en la democracia y las leyes, garantizaremos la unión entre compatriotas, por lo que ratificamos que nunca nos enfrentaremos con el pueblo, a quien nos debemos y siempre velaremos por la paz, convivencia entre hermanos y el desarrollo de nuestra patria”
The October 20, 2019, election in Bolivia marks a watershed moment in the electoral fortunes of Evo Morales and the party he leads, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP). When Morales was elected in 2005, he was the first candidate to achieve an absolute majority (53.7%) of Bolivian voters in at least half a century. The MAS-IPSP was the leading force of a three-fifths majority alliance in the Constitutional Assembly of 2006 and 2007, which produced a new constitution approved by 61.4% of voters in January 2009. In the next two elections, in 2009 and 2014, Evo and the MAS-IPSP won over 60% of the vote, and gained two-thirds supermajorities in both houses of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly.
A referendum to authorize Morales to run for a fourth term was held on February 21, 2016. Despite a vigorous campaign, Morales was unable to secure majority support to amend the constitution. He finished with 48.7% of the vote.
This week, Morales has again fallen short of the 50% mark, winning between 44% and 46.85% of the vote. Vote counting is ongoing, but the key question is not whether Morales will win majority, but whether he will outpace his leading challenger by more than 10% and avoid a runoff. In the legislature, the MAS-IPSP will lose its supermajority, but will remain the majority party in the Chamber of Deputies and may end up with half the Senators, or one or two more.
While the final vote totals are not in, we have both a broad-based rapid count (TREP) by the Plurinational Electoral Organ of some 83% of the votes cast and a parallel analysis by researchers at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés and Fundación Jubileo called Tu Voto Cuenta (“Your vote counts”). The differences between these two sources are minor, and putting either into context lets us see the overall trends. (Since the re-started rapid count is the object of speculation about vote manipulation and the official count is incomplete and rapidly changing, I’m not using their data here.)
Morales lost votes across the board since 2014, 2016
Compared with the last presidential election in 2014, Evo Morales’ MAS-IPSP lost support in all nine of Bolivia’s departments, receiving 15.9% altogether. (All percentages in this post are percentages of votes cast, not percentage declines.) The sharpest losses for the governing party came in Chuquisaca, Potosí, and Oruro. Potosí and Oruro are traditional sources of strength for the MAS-IPSP, but have been fading for nearly a decade. In the two most populous departments, La Paz department fell away from the MAS-IPSP slightly more than the national average, while Santa Cruz’s vote share decline slightly less. The northern Amazonian departments of Beni and Pando saw the smallest declines.
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.
On Friday, October 4, the Santa Civic Committee (Comité pro Santa Cruz) convened what will almost certainly prove to be the largest political gathering in Bolivia this year. Estimates of the crowd, while unverified, hover around one million people, including large numbers bused in from outside the city. Sixteen days before the 2019 presidential election, this “Cabildo for democracy and the land” follows in the footsteps of regional cabildos in 2004 and 2008, at a time when the department of Santa Cruz was the leading center of opposition to the grassroots left movement in the country and to indigenous president Evo Morales.
Now fifteen years after the first major cabildo put proposals for autonomy and federalism (that is, the devolution of national powers to the level of Bolivia’s nine departments; the analogue of states in the USA), the same movement has reconvened and added new demands to platform. First, the Santa Cruz movement remains a pole of opposition to Evo Morales, but it now frames that opposition in terms of defending the democratic vote cast in the February 21, 2016 referendum, when 51.3% of voters denied Morales the right to run for a fourth presidential term. The Cruceño movement views the judicial and electoral decisions to allow Morales to nevertheless participate in the October 20, 2019, election as illegitimate.
But the cabildo, and the election, have been reshaped by the ecological crisis of the Bolivian fires this year. While every year sees deliberate burning of future agricultual lands in Bolivia, the fires this year spread into a regional disaster of unusual (if not unprecedented) proportions. Over the past ten weeks (and these figures are likely underestimates since they run through September 25), fires have consumed over 5.3 million hectares of Bolivia’s land, and some 3.9 million hectares in Santa Cruz alone. This is over 10% of the department. Nearly all of the 2 million hectares of forest that burned was inside the department, including at least one sixth of the Chiquitano dry forest (1.4/8.6M ha) has burned in the last two months. Cruceños have watched as news of the disaster came in daily, including devastating losses in twelve natural protected areas and the deaths of five people engaged in fighting the fires.
On one hand, the political fallout has been predictable: existing regional grievances that divide Santa Cruz from the federal government have been reactivated. These fall into there areas: Cruceños (at least as led by the free-market-oriented, agribusiness-connected elites) perceive themselves as culturally and politically distinct from the more Andean, indigenous, and socialist central government. Their government and administrative officials have long chafed at the centralization of the Bolivian state. And, the tensions around racial identity spark hottest around the steady migration of Aymara- and Quechua-speaking highlanders to both urban and rural Santa Cruz. Which is to say that economics, administration, and race are all part of the conflict.
With the world’s eyes turned towards the fires in the Amazon rainforest, and primarily on Brazil, there is good reason to survey the larger problem of deliberate deforestation across South America. Right now Bolivia is several weeks into the most devastating season of fires in at least a decade. As of August 22, the Bolivian government reported that 744,000 hectares of the country were affected by the blazes, and by Saturday, August 24, the regional government of Santa Cruz raised that estimate to over one million hectares.
A key driver of the fires in both countries is the deliberate clearing of forest land for agricultural production, which has been prioritized by left-wing government of Evo Morales as well as the right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro. Last week, both presidents reacted flippantly to the growing international attention surrounding the fires. (On August 19, Morales called the fires “natural phenomena” that “will continue” in years to come and seemed preoccupied with avoiding blame: “This is not the first time that there have been fires, they have always been around. Now they want to blame Evo Morales for the fires.” ) After the fires became a key discussion point at the G7 meeting, and following growing protests demanding international aid in eastern Bolivia, however, both men have attempted to show their governments are proactively responding to the emergency. Nonetheless, government policy in Brazil and Bolivia is fueling and authorizing the underlying drive to convert more of primary forests into croplands and grazing fields for cattle. This fact has been widely recognized for the government of Bolsonaro, who defied environmental regulators on his own private property before taking office, and who has dismantled environmental protections as president.
Unfortunately, the same policy priorities are at work in Bolivia under President Evo Morales. While from a different social class, as the leader of the Chapare coca grower’s union, Morales shares a similar orientation towards the forests of their respective countries. Both men see the Amazon rainforest (and in Bolivia’s case, the Chiquitano dry forest as well) as underpopulated areas of land that ought to be incorporated into the national economy through production for the market. (Contrary to some wild-eyed Twitter claims, however, the current fires in Bolivia are in the service of cattle and lowland export crops like soy, not coca.)
In 2013, the Morales government laid out its territorial vision as part of its 2025 Patriotic Agenda, a thirteen-point series of goals whose target date is the bicentennial of Bolivian independence. The plan, describing “how we want our beloved Bolivia to be” in Morales’ words, proposes an ambitious reterritorialization of Bolivia that will affect large portions of the country’s land surface, with millions of hectares altered by new agricultural, hydrocarbon, and infrastructural initiatives. It offers quantitative targets for the use of Bolivia’s land, water, and natural resources. In writing the plan, Bolivian government planners worked on a wide canvas: the full area of Bolivia’s national territory, which consists of nearly 110 million hectares and land and domestic waters.
The most dramatic shift proposed in the Patriotic Agenda is the so-called “expansion of the agrarian frontier”: increasing the total land under cultivation from 3.3 million hectares (in 2013) to as many as 13 million hectares by 2025. This staggering figure has been put forward by the president, vice president, and ministers, but their reach exceeds their grasp. The technical data used by the government’s planning staff, according to Fundación Tierra researcher Enrique Castañón Ballivián, corresponds to a still-startling 6-million-hectare cultivated area. Nearly half of the projected expansion would come in the eastern department of Santa Cruz, where soy (and soy oil)-exporting agribusiness dominates the economy. Costañón argues that this expansion would inevitably clash with indigenous collective titles, as well as forested areas.
While this agricultural land goal seemed unrealistically ambitious at the time, it has set the direction for Bolivia’s forest and land management agencies and for new decrees like the one that set off the current fires in the Chiquitanía.