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Introduction: continuity and change in the 2019–2020 Bolivian crisis

Bolivia entered a period of crisis at the end of 2019, after elections held on 20 October that year failed and the first indigenous and longest sitting president of the country, Evo Morales, was forced to resign from office amidst social protest and military pressure. Morales’ ascendancy to presidency was preceded by a political crisis too. The period 2000-2005 saw a sequence of episodes of social insurgence in which popular social movements, particularly around pro-indigenous and anti-liberal demands, ousted president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2003 and Carlos Mesa in 2005, deriving in a transitional government led by Eduardo Rodríguez Veltze. Morales’ party, the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), booked a landslide victory in the December 2005 elections, promising radical political, social, economic and cultural transformations.

The almost 14 years of the MAS government under the leadership of Evo Morales, having won the 2009 and 2014 elections with over 60% of the vote, have sparked hot debates around its achievements, limitations and misapprehensions. There is relative consensus about the significant transformations the have resulted of the very ambitious progressive agenda, including the drafting and promulgation of a new constitution in 2009, the nationalization of key sectors of the economy, the revindication of the indigenous and the reduction of poverty. The MAS government has received recognition particularly for its sound economic policy. However, there has also been much critique, pointing towards an undermining and deterioration of democratic institutions and increasing authoritarianism, corruption, poor environmental policy and an uneven and contradictory inclusion of indigenous constituencies. Both praise and condemnation have been particularly directed to the address of Evo Morales. In line with the presidentialism that characterizes the Latin American region, Morales’ mark seems deep indeed. Upon his return to Bolivia, after a year of exile, he continues to be referred to as hermanopresidente (brother president) and the persistent weight of his leadership is attested by the emotive welcome given by the multitude that gathered for his homecoming in the Chapare region on 9 November 2020. However, Morales evoked equally intense feelings of rejection a year before when thousands of people marched the streets of the urban centres of Bolivia, demanding his resignation. After his demise, the right-wing transitional government of Jeanine Anez continuously celebrated the recuperation of democracy and the end of the prolonged ‘dictatorship’ of Morales, a discourse that resonated with large segments of the population. In that way, even upon the return of the MAS to power with 55% of the vote in the 2020 elections, the removal of Morales from the presidential seat arguably constitutes a turning point.

But the crossroads at which Bolivia stands involves much more than the change of a president. The political scenario is but one of the dimensions of the crisis. The increased political polarization has served to reignite and exacerbate long-standing ethnic, regional and cultural fissures that add a significant social layer to the Bolivian schism. In addition, weak environmental policy and the expansion of the agroindustry sector supported by the MAS government have incentivized the recurring practice of the burning of forest land in the Amazon basin, resulting in the largest fires in Bolivia’s recent history in 2019 and 2020, an environmental disaster. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused around 9,000 deaths according to official numbers, but studies suggest the real number could be as much as six times higher, situating Bolivia amongst the worst-hit countries in the Latin American region and in the world (DW 2020, France24 2020). Besides the severe health situation, the Covid-19 has had a major impact on the domestic economy, particularly affecting the popular sectors in the informal economy as well as the small- and middle-scale enterprises, while the sustained effects on the global economy have had a negative effect on the heavyweight export-oriented sectors.

Bolivia stands before a truly multifaceted crisis. The transparency and order that characterized the 2020 election should be acknowledged as a democratic triumph, but the long road that led to that moment was marked by hostility, tension, violence, misrule and uncertainty, and so its final outcome was by no means self-evident. It demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of the Bolivians opted, in tense calmness, for a democratic way out of the political crisis. It also shows that a 55% majority sees in the MAS the best bet to face the multiple challenges ahead, which constitutes a clear message that gives the Arce government a high level of legitimacy and trust to steer the country forward. These are both important and positive developments but, at the end of the day, they may not amount to much more than the minimal conditions to address the structural problems and the complicated political decisions ahead.

The fall of Evo Morales: coup d’état or citizen revolt?

The longest presidency of Bolivia came to an abrupt end on 12 November 2019 when Evo Morales resigned office amidst military pressure. The national elections held on 19 October 2019 had given Morales 47% of the vote, ten points above the challenging candidate Carlos Mesa, barely enough to avoid a second round, thus securing his fourth presidential term. But allegations of electoral fraud quickly spread on the election night. A mysterious interruption occurred in the unofficial rapid computing system stopping the actualization of the voter turnout as local results kept coming in. The system was restored 24 hours later showing a much larger gap between Morales and Mesa than it had depicted before the sudden interruption, just enough to prevent a run off. In the following days citizens mobilized in the Bolivian urban centres, denouncing the electoral fraud and demanding Morales resignation. This growing protest was soon met with mobilizations of supporters of Morales, defending his electoral victory. Morales requested an audit by the Organization of American States (OAS) and promised to call for new elections if fraud was detected.

The preliminary report of the OAS arrived on 12 November having found too many irregularities to endorse the election results. From that point the situation quickly deteriorated. Morales’ call for fresh elections was not able to appease the social insurgence. A mutiny under the police force that had started the day before severely weakened Morales’ position. Upon the result of the OAS audit, the military ‘suggested’ Morales to resign and reports turned up of higher-up MAS officials being pressured to leave office by burning their houses and threatening their family members. An interim government was quickly installed, as ice-president of the senate, Jeanine Ânez, assumed office in a questionable constitutional succession, following the resignation of various MAS representatives. Supporters of MAS and Morales organized protests against the coup d’état that were answered with harsh military force resulting in over 20 casualties amongst Morales supporters. Particularly the incidents in Senkata and Sacaba showed disproportionate use of violence, leading various instances to denounce severe violations of human rights (see particularly International Human Rights Clinic 2020).

Jonas Wolff (2020) offers a comprehensive review of the academic literature regarding the question of electoral fraud and the coup controversy, including all major technical reports. On the first point it concludes that, although serious irregularities occurred, the evidence put forward for intentional manipulation is limited and contested, and certainly does not prove massive fraud. However, given the thin margin by which Morales would avoid a second round, it is plausible that fraud made a decisive difference (pp. 174-175). On the second point, it concludes that in terms of procedure constitutional order was maintained while, substantially speaking, various elements attest to the undemocratic nature of the transition, not least of which was the open and drastic contradiction to the popular will (p. 177). Balanced and careful, these inferences remain inconclusive, reflecting that the answer to these questions is not to be found in factual or technical accounts but on the interpretation of facts and technicalities. Those that conclude fraud occurred, emphasize the irregularities and the plausibility of its effect on the final result, while those that contest it emphasize that there is no evidence of intentional and massive manipulation, and that results correspond with statistical analysis. On the second point, the conclusion that a constitutional and democratic transition took place in November 2019 ascribes determinant value to a strict legal procedure endorsed by the Constitutional Court, while those that support the coup assign conclusive power to the (violent) pressure exerted on the authorities, particularly by the police and the military, that forced the premature end of their constitutional terms.

In short, the polemic reflects the complexity and confusing nature of the October-November 2019 events and demonstrates that there is room for discussion and interpretation. And this is exactly what Bolivians have done from the very beginning. In October 2019, while the government was looking for an institutional way out of the evolving political crisis, awaiting the results of the audit by the OAS, the streets were considerably less conciliatory. On 28 October, thousands of people gathered in the wealthier southern district of the city of La Paz to denounce the electoral fraud and demand Morales’ resignation. At the exact same time, in the adjacent El Alto, a city that grew out of indigenous rural immigrants in search of jobs in the capital, an equally large concentration of people gathered in support of Morales. They denounced that the election and Morales’ victory was being stolen. This was not a coincidence. Both sides turned to the streets as a way to measure the strength and legitimacy of their position by the number of people each interpretation was able to mobilize on the streets. The concentrations of 28 October are, in a way, characteristic of how many of the most important political discussions have been held in the recent history of Bolivia. For example, the 2017 ruling by the Constitutional Court that allowed for Morales’ fourth presidential candidature was surrounded by mobilizations both in its favour and rejection. Although, formally speaking, his fourth candidature was ‘legal’ by the endorsement of the Constitutional Court, large segments of the population saw it as a tricky scheme by which Morales sought to ‘perpetuate’ himself in power and, although ultimately celebrated, it could not prevent from being intuitively frowned upon by Morales sympathizers and supporters. The 28 October protest in La Paz illustrates how the deep polarization that had marked the run up to the election ultimately crystalized into two competing narratives: ‘fraud vs. coup’. In this scenario, the questions, far from being a matter of investigation, were from the beginning a matter of opinion and political positioning.

Arguably, the schism in Bolivian society is an element of continuity throughout Bolivian history, which varies in the form and intensity of its expression in time. The various historical and structural divisions inherent in Bolivian society, in a way, collapsed into the two competing narratives of electoral fraud-civil revolt vs. the coup d’état, with powerful and significant mobilizing effects in the struggle to obtain political power. Bolivia was submerged in an electoral campaign that started mid-2019 and only ended in October 2020. As is usual with electoral periods, for over a year the public debate sought to maximize differences and contrast the political options, which were arguably two, MAS and anti-MAS, rendering the division more explicit and more profound. As a matter of political opinion, in 2020 Bolivians voted as much on the ‘fraud vs. coupe’ issue as on the candidates, if not more so. The candidature of interim president Jeanine Ânez should be interpreted in this way. As she assumed power, she promised not to pursue electoral ambitions but by January 2020 her rising popularity rates pushed the launch of her candidature. A portion of the population saw in Ânez the promise of continuity of the democratizing process that had started with the ousting of Morales, while others saw a confirmation of the ambitions of power that had forcefully removed Morales. Even Carlos Mesa, who had openly supported the transition, stated that Ânez candidature validated the coup d’état thesis (Mesa 2020). By September, it was clear that an ever-smaller portion of the population believed in a democratic role of Ânez in Bolivia’s past and future, leading her to withdraw from the electoral race to prevent further dispersion of the anti-MAS vote amidst an imminent victory of that political option (ANF 2020). In the same vein, the results of the 2020 election can be read as the expression of the division between those who believe they have recovered democracy after a year of the de facto government by Jeanine Anez, and those who believe they enacted a successful civil upsurge against the authoritarian regime of Evo Morales and for whom the return of the MAS to power constitutes a democratic regression. Although the 2020 elections are deemed a democratic success, they have not fundamentally altered this social fracture.

While the 2020 elections signal a partial emergence of the political crisis, the new government faces large challenges including the management of the pandemic and the reactivation of the economy. The necessary measures will only be viable if they can build on public trust and support. The much-needed consensus requires a certain level of reconciliation to create the space in which political differences can be set aside in favour of dialogue and negotiation, and in pursuit of the common interest. In that way, the 2019-2020 crisis constitutes a transition to a new and trying scenario, the crossroads at which Bolivia stands.

Aims and structure

The present volume takes the 2019-2020 crisis as the starting point, to address in a timely and concise manner the poignant questions of why the transition happened and what will be the forces and factors affecting the future. Through the prism of the crisis, the volume identifies and analyses underlying origins of fragmentation and transition that help make sense of the baffling events of October-November 2019 and will continue to be central in the coming conjuncture. It does so by identifying five key themes that meet three criteria: (a) it was central during the 14 years of the Morales administration, (b) it played a significant role in the 2019-2020 crisis and the transitional government, and (c) it is expected to be significant in the trying scenario post the 2020 elections.

Arguably, no work of this kind can be comprehensive, especially if it aims to be timely and concise. In addition, given the complexities of the Latin American scenarios, to which the pandemic has added extra uncertainty and to which Bolivia is no exception, venturing to future scenarios is close to fortune telling. In that sense, the book does not pretend to offer a clear and complete answer as to which direction Bolivia will turn at this crossroads. But by discussing the key issues and their role in the 2019-2020 crisis, identifying the continuity and change of factors and forces, the crisis analysis unveils the achievements and limitation of the MAS government while creating an insight into the challenges ahead. As such, the volume offers a strong base from which to read Bolivia’s development in the near future. In this manner, the crisis presents itself as a ‘constitutive moment’ in the sense by Bolivian thinker René Zavaleta (1986), a moment of political and social de-articulation that allows tracing the elements that will shape the new social conjuncture.

Chapter 1 opens the analysis with the contribution by former Bolivian president, Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé, where he discusses the role of the 2009 constitution in the historical pendular movement by which Bolivia swings back and forth between democracy and ochlocracy (mob rule). The chapter provides a detailed analysis of how the 2009 constitution, despite all the praise it has received, has shaped political institutions in a way that turns them incapable of canalizing and solving public dissent, falling prey to caudillismo politics. As such, the 2009 constitution constitutes an underlying cause for recurrent conflict including the 2019-2020 crisis. The analysis develops the argument of constitutional failure in which ‘constitutional’ is taken in its wider meaning, referring not only to the codified laws that define the structure of the state but encompassing the ways in which the state and society interact. The analysis finds substance in the scholarly reflection as much as in the author’s personal experiences at Bolivia’s highest offices (including the Supreme Court and the Presidency itself), examining the factors which led to the failure of constitutional order in 2019 and exploring the possibilities to overcome the democratic-ochlocratic pendulum.

Chapter 2 identifies social movements as the legitimate vehicles of citizen representation and participation in Bolivian politics. The chapter unveils the critical nature of the state-social movements’ relation to understanding the underlying developments that lead up to the 2019-2020 crisis and making sense of the events of October-November 2019. It first traces the relation between the MAS government and its base of support in the popular (indigenous) social movements from 2010, characterizing it as effective in containing oppositional forces but gradually deteriorating. More importantly, it discusses the rise of a plurality of‘opposition’ social movements around different demands amongst the (upper) middle-class and elite associated with the right wing, differentiating between those that answer to democratic grievances and those that reflect vested interests. The chapter shows the influential role of social protest, rendering any political force unable to govern without ‘contentious power’. It concludes that the Bolivian political experiment continues to look for effective ways to incorporate social movements in the political process, to canalize citizen demands and avoid polarization.

The third chapter, by Angus McNelly, adopts René Zavaleta’s epistemology of crisis to investigate the medium-term processes of subsumption, class formation and nation-building from a political economy perspective, identifying the origin and lineage of the socio-historical blocs behind the two competing narratives of fraud vs. coup d’état. It first discusses the contradictions created by the development model pursued by MAS that undermined support for the government amongst the urban middle classes, the upward mobile working-class and the indigenous communities affected by extractivism and infrastructure projects. It then turns to a discussion on the achievements and limitations of the Plurinational model as a nation-building project in relation to the emergence of a regional autonomy movement as its political negation. Together, the process of class formation and nationbuilding marked the amalgamation of socio-historical blocs into the two competing narratives that framed the struggle of the crisis.

Bret Gustafson’s analysis is centred around the contemporary political struggles over land, characterizing the Ânez government as a direct representative of wealthy landowners. The chapter first assesses the land policy under the Morales government, tracing the development from a more progressive stance between 2006 and 2012 to one being marked by concessions to the eastern agro-industrial elite in the period between 2013 and 2019. The analysis examines the issue in four areas: gender and land, the battle over GMOs, the fires in the Amazon and Indigenous territorial autonomies while attesting to transversal environmental effects. It then discusses the various ways in which the interim government advanced the interest of the agro-industrial elite of the east. The chapter shows how the resistance to extractivism has not been able to formulate alternative political visions of agricultural production and, more important, that attempts to change the current structure of land use pass by the unlikely dismantling of a hegemonic bloc connected to global agro-capital. In this way, the 2019-2020 crisis also reflects a clash between the interests of nature and human wellbeing and those of multinational capital.

The forceful removal of Morales from power ignited speculation on the role of the large lithium reserves. As early as 2008, the Morales government had started to delineate a clear strategy for the extraction and industrialization of this mineral, as the country is known to possess the largest reserves. As the main raw material for the production of batteries, the world demand for lithium is expected to rise exponentially amidst the global energy transition, first due to the harsh competition in the electric vehicles market, and then because of the need of powerful batteries to enable the revolutionary 5G technology. In this way, Bolivia’s lithium appears to be standing in the midst of the hegemonic dispute between the United States and China. The chapter traces Bolivia’s contradictory attempt at overcoming underdevelopment and reasserting sovereignty, through the indigenous worldview of‘living well’ while building on historical structures of extractivism. The chapter discusses the main tenets of the lithium strategy, its progress and the impediments it encounters to conclude that the Arce government stands before the challenge to recover ‘living well’ as the horizon of the way forward.

More than the sum of its parts

Although each of the contributions stands on its own and can be read separately in whatever order, the volume as presented here amounts to more than the sum of its parts. By connecting around their role in explaining the crisis, the central themes of the chapters reveal the intertwined developments, forces and actors. In this way, the five themes - the 2009 constitution, social movements, class, land and lithium - each tracing long-term developments, offer multiple perspectives and unveil the surfacing transversal factors and forces.

The state-society relation is an underlying factor in Chapters 1-3. By its analysis of the 2009 Constitution, Chapter 1 observes that the state institutions continue to be instruments of collective dominance rather than acting as consent-seeking actors. An important difference is that the collective dominance is no longer exerted by the white economic elites, but lays in the hands of (indigenous) popular collectives. This dysfunction renders institutional politics unable to find a solution to the conflict, leading to recurrent outbursts of ochlocracy. The salient role of social movements is an expression of this, where the deficient representation of social groups at the level of institutions, has pushed demands outside of it, to the realm of street politics. The historically marginalized indigenous and popular sectors protested against the exclusionary state under neoliberalism, producing the cycles of mobilization that brought Evo Morales to power. Although the 2009 constitution certainly establishes the institutional inclusion and greater representation of the historically marginalized, it appears to have been unable to change the historical nature of the state as an instrument of collective domination. The social movement serves as an effective and legitimate vehicle of citizen participation and representation that compensates this deficiency. Under the 14 years of the administration of Morales, old and new grievances have been articulated through this means. Chapter 3 traces the lineage of grievances in the long-term formation of socio-historical blocs and state nation-building projects as processes of class formation and alliances.

The rise of right-wing forces expressed in the 2019-2020 crisis is another transversal dimension of the joint analysis. Chapter 1 sees in the 2009 constitution the displacement of the historical dominance of the white economic elite. Having lost its privileged position in the realm of institutional politics, this force has shifted to street politics (Chapter 2), particularly as a regional autonomy movement linked to the agro-industry’s vested interests (Chapter 3), forming the backbone of the opposition to MAS. Chapter 4 deepens the analysis of this force by looking at its role in the crisis from the long perspective of the historical issue of land in Bolivia, identifying the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) as the base of fascism and characterizing the Ânez government as the capturing of the state by the agrarian elite of the eastern region of Bolivia.

The chapters also identify the indigenous as the central force in Bolivia’s development. The 2009 constitution reflects the struggle for indigenous emancipation, aiming at reversing the historical exclusion from the national projects (Chapter 1). Indigenous values act as guiding principles in concrete and strategic policy, where the lithium strategy is meant to create the material conditions to transcend capital and move towards ‘living well’ (Chapter 5). Indigenous movements were key in bringing the MAS government to power; they form the important base of support that kept it in power for almost 14 years and that brought it back in 2020. They represent the most consolidated of the plurality of social movements in contemporary Bolivia (Chapter 2). However, as the analysis shows, the ‘indigenous’ is not a solid block but a category that encompasses much heterogeneity, explaining its nature as a continuous source of resistance in defence of their rights and territory, particularly in relation to large infrastructural projects (Chapters 2-5).

In relation to the above the issue of the environment, as one dimension of the crisis, appears intertwined in the five central themes compounding this book. In Bolivia, the issue of the environment holds a strong connection with the indigenous worldviews, as it has been framed as the protection of the rights of Mother Earth. In that way, the subjugation of nature to development appears as the most important contradiction of the MAS administration, particularly by its extractivist policies. The case of the lithium strategy is emblematic in this sense. The extraction of lithium (Chapter 5) is meant to create the material conditions to transition to ‘living well’, but it constitutes an activity that will cause high environmental damage, and that will threaten local indigenous population’s access to water (water is needed in large quantities for the extraction). Thus, the pursuit of‘living well’ enters in direct contradiction with the rights of indigenous peoples and of Mother Earth. The environmental effects of the current agrarian use of land in eastern Bolivia are also identified as problematic, in the use of GMOs and also in the expansion of the agricultural frontier. Over the years, the MAS government has diluted its once progressive land policy, creating the conditions for the devastating forest fires in 2019 and 2020 (Chapter 4). As such, environmental concerns have been powerful in articulating social protest (Chapters 2, 3 and 5), but less in formulating political alternatives for land policy (Chapter 4) and for extractivist strategies (Chapter 5).

Last, the combined analysis points to the international dimension of the domestic crisis. Dependency structures have conditioned and continue to condition Bolivian paths to development, impacting the formation of socio-historical blocs (Chapter 3). The contribution of Bret Gustafson reveals the connections between extractivism and global capital and markets through the powerful agro-industrial elite that captured the state after the removal of Morales. The MAS government’s previous conciliatory concessions in land and environmental policy can also be seen as responding to the need to balance the pressure exerted by global capital. Chapter 5 takes a more explicit geopolitical analysis to the role of lithium, in which Bolivia’s attempt to reassert sovereignty in entering the global markets amidst a global energy transition, has situated the country at the core of global hegemonic disputes, affecting domestic affairs and attempts to overcome dependency and underdevelopment.

The contributions have been constrained in the extension, following the aim of producing a concise and timely assessment of the crisis. In this way, although certainly not comprehensive, the volume offers a wide-range and in-depth, yet succinct understanding of the 2019-2020 crisis, that builds on an assessment of the achievements and limitations of the almost 14 years of MAS government under the leadership of Evo Morales, and that hints at the challenges ahead. The multiple perspectives do justice to the complexity and controversy surrounding the crisis, revealing the intersections among the underlying themes while attesting to their significance for Bolivia’s past and future.

12 2019-2020 Bolivian crisis


ANF(2020)‘Trasbajoapoyoen encuestas, JeanineAflezdeclinacandidaturaa la Presidencia’, 17 September, tras-bajo-apoyo-en-encuestas-jeanine-anez-declina-candidatura-a-la-presidencia—406353?.__cf_chl_jschl_tk__=f64c50e2e006eff7dlfcba02b

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DW (2020) ‘Bolivia bate récord diario de muertes por coronavirus’, 9 September.

France24 (2020) ‘La vuelta al mundo: alarmantes cifras de letalidad por Covid-19 en Brasil, Perú y Bolivia’, 6 November. https://www.france24. com/es/am%C3%A9rica-latina/20201106-vuelta-mundo-letalidad-brasil-peru-bolivia

International Human Rights Clinic (2020) “The Shot Us Like Animals". Black November & Bolivia’s Interim Government, wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Black-November-English-Final_Accessible.pdf

Mesa, C.D. (2020) ‘Una decisión equivocada’, Página Siete, 26 January, https://

Wolf, J. (2020). ‘The Turbulent End of an Era in Bolivia: Contested Elections, the Ouster of Evo Morales, and the Beginning of a Transition towards an Uncertain Future’, Revista de Ciencia Política, vol 40, no 2, pp 163-186.

Zavaleta, R. (1986) Lo nacional-popular en Bolivia. Siglo XXI, Mexico.

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