Coup or No Coup, Bolivia’s Morales Fell From Grace

(Bloomberg) -- South America’s longest-serving president, Bolivia’s Evo Morales was part of a wave of leftist leaders who reshaped Latin American politics during the 2000s. Unlike like-minded allies in Venezuela and Cuba, Morales presided over strong economic growth. But he ignored a referendum defeat on presidential term limits, and his effort to secure a fourth term plunged Bolivia into chaos after he claimed victory in an Oct. 20 election plagued with allegations of fraud. An icon for socialist movements across the world, Morales was forced from power Nov. 10 and fled the country a day later.

1. What brought Morales down?

The opposition refused to accept the results of the election and alleged fraud. They took to the streets in protests that became ever more violent. At least seven people died, and swathes of the country were paralyzed by clashes between opponents and supporters of Morales. Some police joined with the anti-Morales protesters. Matters came to a head after monitors from the Organization of American States published a report Nov. 10 saying that it was “statistically unlikely” that Morales had won by enough votes to avoid a run-off election. Morales initially agreed to another election. But after the armed forces’ chief called on him to step down, Morales resigned, saying he was the victim of a coup.

2. Who’s in charge now?

Morales’s resignation created a power vacuum and a constitutional crisis, since the three people the constitution lists as possible successors -- the vice president and the heads of the two houses of congress -- also quit. Jeanine Anez, an opposition senator, told congress she would assume leadership of the Senate and declared herself interim president. Bolivia’s constitutional court backed the move, and Anez has been recognized as legitimate by governments including those of the U.S. and Brazil. Morales called her maneuvers part of a “crafty and nefarious coup.” His supporters pledged nationwide protests until he returns to power.

3. Was it a coup?

Morales managed to cling to power through three weeks of protests and criticism from the OAS but threw in the towel an hour after the army withdrew its support. Bolivia, a landlocked country of 11 million people, has a long history of coups and military interference in politics, and Morales says he’s the latest victim of this. His opponents say the army was simply one institution among many that deserted him and that he was forced out by pressure from civil society, which refused to let him steal an election. Even if the armed forces did behave unconstitutionally, they haven’t seized power for themselves. It remains to be seen whether Bolivia now holds free and fair elections, as Anez has promised.

4. What’s the reaction of other governments?

The government of Mexico said that Morales was the victim of a coup and is providing him asylum. The military’s intervention was also deemed a coup by allies of Morales such as leaders in Russia, Cuba and Venezuela as well as Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernandez and U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. President Donald Trump of the U.S., which has had strained relations with Bolivia under Morales, praised the military for defending the country’s constitution and applauded Morales’s departure.

5. How did Morales rise to power?

Morales is a member of the Aymara indigenous group, in a country traditionally ruled by a wealthier, white elite. Many indigenous Bolivians chew the leaves of the coca shrub as a legal stimulant and resented U.S.-backed efforts to eradicate coca, which is also the raw material for making cocaine. The coca growers’ union that Morales led gained influence as it opposed these programs. Morales was elected in 2005 on a socialist program, pledging to “nationalize everything,” but in practice he ran a more pragmatic administration, which was relatively friendly toward foreign bondholders and mining interests.

6. What’s his record?

Gross domestic product per capita more than tripled during the time Morales was in office, to $3,600, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund, though Bolivia is still the poorest country in South America after Venezuela. For more than half of Morales’s presidency, strong natural gas revenues allowed him to run a fiscal surplus while also spending more on social programs. Since the natural gas bonanza ended, the nation has moved back to deficits. The central bank has burned through about half of international reserves, which are down to $8 billion from $15 billion at the start of 2015, as it has intervened to stop the currency from weakening.

7. What might Bolivia without Morales look like?

Before his downfall, Morales enjoyed the support of about four in ten Bolivians and the backing of a party with a majority in both houses of congress. The party may still be electorally competitive without him. If the opposition wins the next elections, Bolivia’s strained relations with Washington would improve immediately, and its alliance with Venezuela and Cuba presumably would end. Any future government will need to take action to rein in the fiscal deficit, which may stoke protests like those seen recently in Ecuador and Chile.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Congressional Research Service report gives an overview on Bolivia.
  • The World Bank’s page on Bolivia at a glance.
  • Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith argues that Bolivia’s problem isn’t socialism.
  • The book “A Concise History of Bolivia” offers background.
  • A study of Bolivia’s coca policies offers background.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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