Democracy in peril in Bolivia

With Evo Morales in exile, his party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), has faced intimidation and repression. Amy Booth reports on why the polls are unlikely to be free and fair.

A riot police officer with a Bolivian flag is seen in Sacaba, on the outskirts of Cochabamba, Bolivia, November 15, 2019. REUTERS/Danilo Balderrama
A riot police officer with a Bolivian flag is seen in Sacaba,
on the outskirts of Cochabamba, Bolivia, November 15, 2019. REUTERS/Danilo Balderrama

Bolivia’s interim president Jeanine Áñez has scheduled new elections for 3 May. But with members from former ruling party the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) facing intimidation and repression the polls are unlikely to be free and fair.

Bolivia last held elections on 20 October 2019, but allegations of fraud from the Organization of American States’ observers and civil-society groups sparked weeks of conflict, which ended in a hard-right orchestrated coup against MAS president Evo Morales on 10 November.

Morales was Bolivia’s first indigenous president. After he came to power in 2006, his government drastically reduced poverty and inequality and took steps to end discrimination against the indigenous majority. But Morales was facing mounting criticism after his decision to ignore a referendum defeat and run for a fourth consecutive term in office.

Forced into exile, Morales is now managing the MAS campaign from Argentina. Former finance minister Luis Arce Catacora, who is widely credited as the architect of the MAS government’s economic success, is now candidate for president. Ex-foreign minister David Choquehuanca will run for vice-president. But it is hard to see how MAS will be able to rally its supporters in the current climate.

In January, Bolivia’s Ministry of Justice announced the launch of investigations into nearly 600 former members of Morales’ government. Many MAS politicians and functionaries have been detained and others have sought refuge in the Mexican embassy, triggering a diplomatic spat. The interim government has issued an international arrest warrant for Morales on charges of terrorism and sedition after recordings emerged, allegedly of him calling for protesters to stop food from entering cities.

Abuse by security forces is rife. Bolivia’s ombudsman has reported that at least 30 people had been killed and more than 700 injured by mid-December. Nine people died when a pro-Morales march reached a police roadblock near the town of Sacaba on 15 November. At least nine more were killed during a military and police operation to clear a blockade in the El Alto municipality of Senkata four days later.

The government has denied responsibility for these killings, but witnesses have told human rights workers they saw security forces shoot. The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) has classified both incidents as massacres.

A teenage survivor of the Senkata killings told how she found herself treating the injured when the military operation turned violent. Her first casualty was shot in the leg, the next had been shot in the back. Despite her efforts the latter bled to death.

Her way home was blocked by soldiers, so she and others fled, some of them carrying small children. As they ran, the military fired teargas from a helicopter.

David Inca Apaza from the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights in El Alto said there was such a climate of fear that many of the injured were not going to hospital or reporting what they had experienced.

Human rights defenders, including the ombudsman and a delegation of Argentine activists, have faced threats and intimidation while investigating abuses.

Bolivia’s forthcoming election is being watched nervously across Latin America as the swing to the Left in the region over the last 20 years continues to weaken. Seasoned observers predict MAS won't be able to compete freely.