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Latin America & Caribbean

Coup or not a coup? Bolivia’s Evo Morales flees presidential crisis

Was Bolivian President Evo Morales removed by a coup d'etat or was it the result of an authentic popular uprising, and "an example for Latin America?"
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12 Nov 2019 – 04:17 PM EST
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Evo Moraes sarrives in Mexico, Nov 12, 2019 Crédito: AP

After President Evo Morales resigned at the weekend, Bolivians and others the world over are asking whether his decision to step down the result of a legal process – or not?

The country's first indigenous leader says he was forced out of power by a coup organized by the nation's economic elite and his political opposition, while critics claim it was his alleged abuses of power that led to popular, and entirely legitimate, uprising.

The debate over coup/no coup is much more than a semantic question, experts say. Despite resigning and seeking exile in Mexico, Morales has declared he plans to return one day, stronger than before.

Vague as that threat may be, it casts a shadow over the complicated constitutional situation Morales leaves behind.

While uncertainty persists over the manner in which Morales was overthrown, any incoming government could face challenges over their legitimacy. While his popularity had crumbled dramatically by the end, Morales still enjoys a large following among the country’s large indigenous community who constitute more than 40 percent of the population.

Ideological lines

The discussion over whether it was a coup falls largely along ideological lines. Left wing supporters of Morales point like to point to a long history of military coups in Latin America, while critics of the former president point to the 14 years he spent in power, in violation of constitutional term limits.

Morales allies who share his socialist ideology have backed his claim that he was removed in a coup d’état. Venezuela’s socialist leader Nicolás Maduro called it “a coup against our brother.”

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, who is expected to become head of foreign affairs for the European Union, told reporters “the intervention of the army" had altered the democratic process.

But political experts say the events hardly resemble a classic coup scenario.

“This is an entirely different thing [from a coup]. It’s an absolutely constitutional transition,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a renowned Bolivian-born political scientist at Florida International University (FIU).

“You have a president accused of a crime. Nobody forced him to resign. It was the violence of his own people that was the final straw that really turned the tide of public opinion against him,” he told Univision Noticias.

Gamarra pointed to an OAS report by a team of auditors that found wide-scale data manipulation the Oct 20 election in which Morales was seeking a fourth term. After the streets turned violent, the police turned against Morales and the military eventually withdrew their support as well.

In a typical coup, the military usually take a more proactive role, taking up arms against the sitting ruler and installing one of their own in the presidential palace, at least temporarily. Bolivia saw a notorious succession of such power grabs in the 1980s.

The military "suggest"

That’s not what happened in this case. On Sunday, the head of Bolivia’s armed forces, Gen. Williams Kaliman, issued a televised statement declaring that in light of the ongoing social upheaval, "we suggest that the president resign."

Some say that a ‘suggestion’ from the military could be considered enough to qualify for a coup d’état, as a clear interference of the military in civilian affairs.

“It issued a verbal declaration and did not give the president an ultimatum. I think that’s the crux of the matter. Whether you want to view that as a threat or not. If you view it as a threat, it’s a coup. If you don’t view it as a threat but as a suggestion, then you don’t,” said Polga-Hecimovich.

Bolivia’s main opposition leader, Carlos Mesa, adamantly denied it was a coup in an interview with Jorge Ramos, arguing Morales’ was forced to leave because of his own illegal actions and 21 days of peaceful street protests. "There was no action or even an attempt, by the Armed Forces to go out on the street or propose a non-constitutional exit," he said.

"An example for Latin America"

But he conceded that the ‘suggestion’ by the military was inappropriate. "I can accept that the phrase was unfortunate, I can accept that was a reaction that is not what one would expect from the Armed Forces," he said. "But, objectively, the Armed Forces didn't make the president resign. He resigned because the Bolivian people generated a pressure, a democratic, peaceful pressure, which is an example for America Latina.”

The crisis stemmed from Morales’ decision to run for a new term despite a 2016 referendum in which voters shot down a proposal to change constitutional term limits and let him run again. A top court that critics claimed was stacked in Morales’ favor threw out the restrictions, paving the way for him to run again. The court ruled that denying Morales another chance at re-election would be a violation fo his human rights.

To be sure, for Bolivia’s more than four million indigenous people, the Morales presidency had some positive results. The poverty rate dropped from 59.9 percent in 2006 to 36.4 percent last year. Access for indigenous communities to electricity, sewerage and water service all grew, according to the World Bank.

Bolivia's Mandela

It was a sad end to Morales' rule which began with great joy and optimism, wrote Jim Shultz, a veteran observer of Bolivian affairs who lived there for almost 20 years running an orphanage. "He was the first indigenous President of a nation where an indigenous majority had long been living in the disrespected margins of their country. As a symbol he was Bolivia’s Mandela," he wrote in an online essay for Medium, comparing Morales to Nelson Mandela, South Africa's legendary black president.

"He came from the nation’s poor and he woke up every day caring about them. He built schools and paved roads. He established a cash bonus system for students to keep them in school. He did many great things for a time, aided by many great people, including some of my friends," he added.

But Shultz, like many, grew disillusioned with Morales' authoritarian rule which he believes is eventually led to his loss of support. "I believe that under it all, Bolivians in huge numbers began to see that this might be their last chance to not head irrevocably down Venezuela’s dark authoritarian path ... This was a popular rebellion to preserve a democracy that the nation saw under threat," he wrote, dismissing accusations of a coup.

Lost support

Recent polling showed that Morales losing support among his indigenous base of Aymara and Quechua people in the highlands, said Gamarra, who was involved in some polling around the election. “We saw his support among the Aymara and Quechua was only 50 percent. I would never have expected that,” he added, saying that Morales had typically polled between 70-80 percent among indigenous voters.

Labor groups, including some that had marched in favor of Morales, began turning against him and calling on the leader to resign.

Public university students, normally a bastion of leftwing support, had also turned against him.

Besides the questions about the legality of his ouster, Morales leaves behind him enormous uncertainty about the future.

Jeanine Áñez, the Senate’s second vice president, is set to assume the presidency on an interim basis pending new elections. “I just want to help provide a solution for this terrible crisis we are living,” she said in tears on Monday.

But she first must win approval from the Congress, which is dominated by Morales’ MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) party.

As he left for Mexico on Monday night, Morales accused rival opposition leaders on Twitter of being “coup plotters." He also hinted menacingly that “I will be back soon, with greater strength and energy.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in reporting this story.