CALI, Colombia—A firebrand president stands accused of bucking constitutional limits so he can run for another term. At last his enemies see their chance. The military drives him not just from the presidential palace but into exile. Then his right-wing rivals name the successor of their choice, without due process, violating the nation’s charter yet again. The White House vows to recognize the successor despite mass protests and international outrage and—bang, zap, just like that!—the coup is legit.
Such was the script used by far-right oligarchs and generals to take down the democratically elected president of Honduras, Mel Zelaya, in 2009. And those same events played out in eerily similar fashion in Bolivia this November, when the military and wealthy opposition leaders deposed President Evo Morales, labeled him a “terrorist,” and forced him to flee the country fearing for his life.
In fact, this is a very old pattern in Latin America, where the far right and its allies in the military high command seize power with Washington's blessing because, to paraphrase a line attributed to President Franklin Roosevelt, they may be sons of bitches, but they are our sons of bitches. The result in the 1970s was a series of “dirty wars” that involved massive human rights abuses by military regimes with or without civilian facades.
Morales himself called the move against him a “cunning and nefarious coup,” while the perpetrators tried to frame it as a “democratic transition,” even as the country descended into chaos.
“When the military intervenes in the politics of their country and forces an elected president to resign two months before his term was over, that is a military coup,” said Jake Johnston, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), in an email to The Daily Beast.
“That Morales was barely able to leave the country and avoid arrest or worse, and only then due to the intervention of the Mexican government, makes clear the gravity of the situation,” Johnston said.
Bret Gustafson, an expert on Bolivia at Washington University in St. Louis, called the military’s actions “absolutely horrific.”
“Can you imagine if [General] Mark Milley, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went on television and suggested that Trump resign? We might like the sound of that, but that’s still a coup.”
As was the case in post-coup Honduras, Bolivia has been swept by protests and counter-protests and military and police violence in recent weeks. In all more than 30 people have been killed, many of them in “massacres by state security forces,” according to Johnston, who also cites human rights groups reports of “threats and attacks on journalists, arbitrary detentions and judicial abuses.”
Nevertheless, President Donald J. Trump has backed the de facto government throughout the crisis—just as President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did when Zelaya got booted—and as recently as this week Trump doubled down on his support for the new regime.
“The Trump administration is terrible on this,” said Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“If the government in question is right-wing, the White House congratulates it when it politicizes the military, for instance when putting down protests. If the government is left-wing, as in Venezuela, the White House urges it to act in a politicized way against the civilian regime,” Isacson said.
Perhaps most concerning of all is that the events in Bolivia are not isolated, coming at a time when military force has been used against peaceful protestors in several countries in Latin America, leading to questions about a pattern of regressive militarization reminiscent of the region’s violent past.
Morales was Bolivia’s first indigenous president in a country where indigenous peoples make up more than 62 percent of the population, and he won his first election by a landslide in 2005.
The first several years of his presidency were an unquestioned success, as he sparked the economy by nationalizing the oil and natural gas industries. Poverty rates fell by almost half, GDP skyrocketed, and health and educational opportunities improved. Native peoples in long-neglected rural regions were suddenly enfranchised by a leader who felt like one of their own.
But he also made enemies along the way. He encouraged the production of coca leaves, which are the prime ingredient in cocaine, but also a traditional indigenous staple. And he openly criticized U.S. foreign policy and the Drug War, which won him few allies in Washington.
At the same time, Bolivia’s non-indigenous minority—which had long considered itself the rightful ruling class—resented both his ethnicity and his tendency to share the nation’s wealth. This led to violent clashes in 2008, and diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show the U.S. Embassy in La Paz had prepared for a coup or assassination attempt against the president at that time.
Morales weathered that storm, and won the presidency for the third time by a wide margin in 2014. But Bolivia’s constitution would have prevented him from running for a fourth term. When a plebiscite failed, a controversial court ruling allowed him to run for office again in 2019, but also set the stage for his final downfall.
“Morales made a political calculation and it did not play out in his favor,” Gustafson said. Part of his decision to run again might’ve been driven by a fear of Bolivia’s old order returning to power without a charismatic candidate to oppose them.
“Nobody would have been able to cultivate unity like Evo,” he said.
And he almost pulled it off. When the election results were announced on Oct. 24 Morales was declared the victor. But the Organization of American States (OAS), which was monitoring the vote, complained of “serious irregularities” and accused the government of “intentional manipulation” of the election.
Since then, some observers have questioned those claims, and four members of the U.S. Congress also sent a letter to the OAS demanding answers and accountability. (The OAS declined to comment for this article.)
CEPR’s Johnston authored a paper calling the OAS report “biased and misleading” and “full of serious inaccuracies.”
“It’s obvious there were problems with the elections,” but the OAS’s final report presents “no evidence that the results themselves were systematically manipulated or altered and they obscure or discard evidence that runs counter to their narrative,” Johnston said.
Guilty or not, Morales did offer to hold elections all over again. But by then it was too late. His approval rating had sagged in the wake of his decision to run a fourth time, even some indigenous groups had turned against him, and his long-time enemies on the right saw their chance.
By early November, he had gone into hiding, after armed intruders broke into his home. Increasingly radicalized opposition forces had taken to burning his supporters’ houses, and Morales tweeted that the police were hunting him. A few days later, under pressure from the military and fearing for his life, he announced his resignation on television from a secret location.
In the wake of Morales’ departure, the Bolivian military “made the tragic choice to use lethal force with live-fire ammunition to put down protests and blockades” by his supporters, WOLA’s Isacson said.
During that time, the White House released a statement that “applauds” the Bolivian military’s actions, calling Morales downfall “a significant moment for democracy.”
Unfortunately, such a democratic “moment” seems unlikely.
Morales successor, interim president Jeanine Añez, declared herself president before a largely empty congress, without a quorum to ratify her claims, while air force jets buzzed the city in a show of force.
Añez’s conservative party had won just 4 percent of the vote in the most recent elections. Yet she was also aligned with the same far-right groups who had sought to overthrow Morales in 2008, and enjoyed the full support of the military and police.
An op-ed signed by Noam Chomsky and other prominent intellectuals accused her of having “taken advantage of the power vacuum created by Morales’ ouster to consolidate control over the state.”
Her family has also been linked to drug trafficking, as her nephew was arrested in Brazil in 2017 while attempting to smuggle more than half a ton of cocaine. By contrast, when the first lady of Venezuela was found to have a couple of “narco nephews” of her own, Trump’s White House slapped her with stiff sanctions.
“The reality is that ‘friends’ of [Trump] are treated differently than ‘enemies’—look no further than Honduras, where the president of the country has been implicated in drug trafficking and yet continues to be feted by U.S. government officials, including President Trump himself,” said Johnston of CEPR.
Añez ally and opposition leader Luis Camacho is another potential threat to restoring democratic order in a divided Bolivia, according to critics. Camacho, a wealthy businessman with a background as a member of an ultra-right paramilitary group, was also a leader in the 2008 plot against Morales.
“Añez and Camacho are Pinochet's children,” said Yale history professor Greg Grandin, making a reference to the notorious Chilean dictator. “Everything about them seems a throwback to the 1970s, except that they feel no compulsion to disguise their racism, and their dedication to plunder.” Grandin added that “for the class they represent, [power] is a right exclusive to white Christians.”
He characterized the nation’s ongoing strife as a struggle “between the forces of a battered but still existing left and an empowered but resentful, revanchist right.”
Washington University anthropologist Gustafson agreed:
“Both Añez and Camacho represent the oligarchy” and “have a long history of racism and paramilitarism, so the fact that they are now in charge is certainly frightening,” he said. “They are using their time in office to reorient state economic policy in ways that will privilege the interests of the wealthy elite.”
CEPR researcher Johnston also suggested Trump's “moment for democracy” was not at hand, saying the interim government has already demonstrated it’s “not a regime that is concerned with the interests of Bolivia's majority.”
Morales flew into Argentina this week, where he at last named a couple of candidates to replace him as the face of his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, if and when an electoral run-off takes place. But that might not be anytime soon.
“The Añez government took power with ostensibly one goal: the holding of elections. More than a month on, however, and no new date for elections has been set. As repressive efforts continue and the de facto government consolidates its own power over state institutions, the likelihood of this regime organizing truly free and fair elections continues to dim,” Johnston said.
Isacson, of WOLA, recently authored a report that sets the Bolivian coup—as well as other democratic setbacks and crackdowns in Venezuela, Guatemala, Colombia, and Honduras—against the backdrop of an ongoing trend toward militarization in the Americas.
In the report, Isacson warns that the “pendulum is swinging back fast” toward the days when many nations were ruled by military juntas or thinly disguised, right-wing regimes with close ties to the armed forces.
Economic growth in Latin America has stagnated over the last decade, as has faith in political systems tainted by corruption and drug money. That means politicians often end up ceding control to the military as they deploy troops to quash mass uprisings, using soldiers “to ‘defend’ against their own people, viewing them as national security threats,” according to Isacson’s report.
“The problem is that the military continues to hold elected civilians on a leash, which they yank back when they think the civilians have gotten out of hand,” Isacson told The Daily Beast.
“Leaders need to strengthen civilian democratic institutions so that they can break free of the leash” and not “co-opt the military” to provide “political support for the regime," he said.
Yale’s Grandin also said the Bolivian crisis could have far-reaching implications, perhaps setting a dangerous precedent for the region’s future.
“The coup's effect will ripple out beyond Bolivia, in ways that we can't yet know,” he said, “but increased militarization is a fairly safe bet.”