Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Sliced in Two

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, November 12, 2019 --  

The coup in Boliva offers a chance to save its democracy. It also risks destroying it for a generation.

When President Evo Morales fled violence in Bolivia for exile in Mexico, his supporters and detractors remained at each others' throats. Anti-Morales Protesters in the city of La Paz chanted "Here we go, civil war" while the exiled leader denounced his ouster as a coup d'état.1 Morales declared himself winner of disputed elections with only 47 percent of the vote when his margin over his nearest rival suspiciously jumped after a mysterious day-long delay in reporting election returns.2

A report by the Organization for America States claimed serious election irregularities, the security forces joined street protests and finally the military called for Morales' resignation. Morales claims he was forced to resign by coup plotters who invaded his home and threatened his life.

To say that Bolivia is a country divided is more than just a figure of speech. One of the world's highest mountain ranges slices the country in two. The Western side features high plains where much of the Quechua and Aymara speaking indigenous population lives. This is Evo Morales' political heartland, which launched him to power as the nation's first indigenous and longest-serving president.

The eastern lowlands and mountain valleys are populated by Spanish-speaking mestizos and the tiny European elite with which they identify. The capital city of La Paz stratles between the two zones -- occupying a canyon that leads down from the sprawling indigenous city of El Alto to the historic center in the ravine below. To go from one end of the metropolis to the other is to leave a world dominated by Indian women with bowler hats over braided hair to a culture where women regularly visit the salon to freshen their highlights.

The self-declared interim president, opposition Senator Jeanine Añez3, has blond hair that makes it obvious to everybody which side she is on. The session where she declared herself leader was boycotted by members of Evo Morales' Movement for Socialism. Police fired tear gas to disperse his supporters chanting, "she must quit."4

Tragically for Bolivia, the country has no equivalent of a Nelson Mandela to unify the races that keep the country divided in two. Morales' supporters fear that now he is exiled, the country will return to an era where indigenous concerns were ignored.

Despite the gains Morales offered indigenous Bolivians, he failed to groom a successor. He chose instead to cling to power. After losing a referendum to eliminate term limits, his party appealed to the country's supreme court which raised eyebrows by declaring that term limits violate human rights and struck them down.5 This stoked fears that Morales would seek to retain power forever.

Claims by Morales and many left-leaning politicians around the world that his ouster was a coup d'état is absolutely true. But it is equally true that Morales shattered his country's democracy by running for office in violation of popular term limits and then rigging an election to stay in power.

The obvious way to save Bolivia's democracy is with new elections with a plurality of candidates and international monitors that everybody trusts. But it's far from clear that will happen. Morales' Movement for Socialism, extremely popular in the highest half of the country. It has no candidate prepared to run in an election except Morales. Will he be allowed to return? Will his indigenous supporters participate in an election organized by a blond interim president from the lowlands who is allied with Morales' enemies?

If the opposition fails to convince their fellow countrymen of the fairness of a new vote, Bolivian democracy may be lost for a generation to come.


1. New York Times, Evo Morales of Bolivia Accepts Asylum in Mexico, November 12, 2019

2. Ibid., Morales Averts Runoff in Bolivia, Officials Say, but Anger and Doubt Remain, October 25, 2019

3. Deutche Welle, Bolivia: Senator Jeanine Anez Declares Herself Interim President, November 12, 2019

4. Ibid.

5. Reuters, Bolivian Court Clears Way for Morales to Run for Fourth Term, November 28, 2017