By Nikhil Bandlish
With a warm climate, low cost of living, an abundance of untouched, uninhabited rainforest, and beautiful mountains and deserts, one could be forgiven for assuming that Bolivia is the embodiment of a modern-day natural oasis. However, beyond the surface of rural dirt-tracks and urban neoclassical architecture lies a nation with a fractured history attempting to turn the page of a chapter that has seen the rise and fall of oppressive military juntas, persecution of indigenous populations, and the suppression of perceived dissidents.
The late 20th Century saw a succession of military leaders, notably Col. Hugo Banzer Suárez, who rose to power in 1971 in a U.S.-backed coup against his socialist predecessor, Juan José Torres. His tenure was marked by the suppression of any and all dissent as propagated by Operation Condor, the U.S.- sponsored network of state terrorism throughout Latin America. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that democratic change became a viable possibility; 2002 saw Revolutionary Nationialist Movement (MNR) secure 22.5% of the popular vote, with the relatively new party, Movement toward Socialism (MAS) taking 20.9% of the vote. MAS, whose champion was an ambitious native leader called Evo Morales, was gaining on the established political powers.
While You’re Here…
Why not take a moment to subscribe to The International’s free monthly newsletter? It takes seconds to sign up, and you’ll stay up to date with the stories shaping our world at a pace that won’t overwhelm.
Mismanagement of natural resources and state infrastructure dating back to the late 19th Century had led to discontent among the rural and indigenous populations, while the oppressive tactics of the military juntas and subsequent governments led to several high-profile crises. The violent protests in 2001 regarding the proposed privatisation of the national water system, as well as the Bolivian gas conflict, were instrumental in Morales’ swift rise to popularity which in turn culminated in his victory at the 2005 general election, where he secured 53.7% of the vote.
His progressive agenda sought to break the shackles of Bolivia’s troubled past and usher in a new era of democracy. What was thought to be a new chapter in Bolivia’s history turned sour when Morales was accused of fraud in the 2019 election and forced to resign, fleeing to Mexico while an interim government endorsed by the military took his place.
A Fractured Past
Since independence was gained from the Spanish and Peruvians in 1825, Bolivia has seen almost 200 coups and counter-coups wreak havoc to the political systems. Its recent history begins in 1952, where the ever-present MNR orchestrated a revolution, having lost the 1951 elections. Following 12 years of instability, the military overthrew the government in 1964 in what was the first of many interventions. The years that followed saw a succession of weak governments that induced military interventions, who were made effective due to the financial support and training from the CIA. The tumultuous years of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s is well characterised by the assassination of Juan José Torres in 1976 under Operation Condor, and the 1967 killing of left-wing, well-popularised revolutionary leader Che Guevara, who was slain by a team consisting of CIA officers and the Bolivian military.
In the late 20th Century and veering into the 2000’s, the MNR remained the party at the forefront of Bolivian politics but in a notable change, left-wing groups had begun to emerge, with MAS and the ‘Tupac Katari Revolutionary Liberation Movement’ credited with soaking up the support of the indigenous, lower socio-economic and agricultural demographics. By the time Morales secured the 2005 election, the combination of decades of instability and ultra-nationalist governments had taken its toll on the socio-economic infrastructure; so, Morales set about reversing several policies. The privatisation of Bolivian services and resources was a cornerstone of the MNR’s agenda, and so 2005 saw the beginning of a new era for Bolivia. Re-nationalisation of Bolivia’s hydrocarbon industry and initial steps to re-write the constitution to make room for the indigenous populations made Morales a popular leader and in 2009, he saw his advantage extend to just over 61% of the popular vote in the general election. In a long-winded legal effort, he even managed to override his own constitution that stipulated a two-term system for presidential candidates, allowing him to prepare for further elections in the future. It wouldn’t be long however, until this seemingly untouchable and messianic figure would be brought to his knees.
Ashes To Ashes
Amidst allegations of fraud in the 2019 general election from opposition parties and members of the country’s military, Morales was forced to resign despite having an official tally of approximately 47% – marginally over the 10 points lead required to avoid a run-off election. The interim government led by Jeanine Áñez adopted a hard-line approach to social issues; protests were quashed violently, indigenous groups were allegedly targeted due to their involvements in popular demonstrations, and Áñez issued a decree that shielded the police and armed forces from criminal responsibility in the pursuit of ‘public stability’. In essence, it threatened to reverse the years of trust built between Morales and the people of Bolivia. However, it culminated in Morales returning from exile in Mexico as recently as October 2020, in a rerun of the 2019 election. This time round, his margin of victory was extensive; 55.1% with a record voter turnout and margin of 26.3% over his nearest competitor. As a result, Morales will lead Bolivia into the next decade and potentially beyond, but the events of the last 20 years continue to raise questions.
Although he is seen by many as a saviour who epitomises the essence of perseverance, the reality is that Morales remains a divided figure on the international stage. While supporters argue that his government suffered a coup at the hands of opposition figures who fabricated claims of fraud, others believe it was a social uprising of sorts, designed to protest the unconstitutional nature of his presidential campaign, as it was Morales who stipulated the two-term rule, only to renege and challenge it later.
One thing is clear however: this is not the end of Bolivia’s turbulent and troubled past. As Morales institutes further policies, he will undoubtedly antagonise the U.S. who, based on their history, have no appetite for left-wing leaders, as well as the entirety of the private sector as he seeks to transition the country into a public-driven model.
Nikhil Bandlish is The International’s Latin America correspondent.