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Bolivian military patrols streets, political power vacuum (Nov. 12, 2019)
Supporters and opponents of former Bolivian president Evo Morales clashed violently yesterday -- at least 20 people were wounded in La Paz and El Alto, in the midst of a deep political crisis after most of the chain of command resigned Sunday. (See yesterday's post.) The military decided to join police in patrolling the streets of the capital, in a bid to maintain peace after several police stations were attacked by mobs. The joint operation would “avoid bloodshed and mourning of the Bolivian family,” the head of Bolivia’s armed forces, Gen. Williams Kaliman, said in a televised address. Kaliman had called on Morales to step down over the weekend.
Social media images showed Humvees and other military vehicles patrolling the streets of El Alto. In Santa Cruz, a bastion of the opposition, people welcomed the military jeeps by clapping and cheering them on. Morales’ Defense Minister Javier Zavaleta resigned this morning, rejecting the use of troops against citizens. He called on election runner-up Carlos Mesa and protest leader Luis Fernando Camacho to avoid violence. (La Razón, El País, AFP, Associated Press, Reuters)
Bolivian lawmakers were unable to meet yesterday due to unrest, and were expected to hold a session today to accept Morales' resignation and swear in a caretaker government. It was not clear they would have enough lawmakers for a quorum. Senate second vice president Jeanine Añez, an opposition politician, said she would lead a transition government, but it's not clear the fierce anti-Morales politician will have the necessary support from Morales' supporters in congress. A protracted period without a legal head of state could deepen the violence and stall attempts to hold fresh elections, reports the Washington Post.
Morales was granted asylum by Mexico yesterday, and is being transported by a Mexican military plane. Last night, Morales tweeted an image of himself sleeping on a floor under a sheet tent, affirming that he resigned due to a coup by opposition leaders aided by the police.
While the Bolivians actually play out their political crisis, the rest of Latin America -- leaders and media -- is busy fighting over how to define what happened. Mexico branded the episode a "military coup," as did Uruguay, Cuba, Venezuela. Spain’s foreign ministry criticised the role of Bolivia’s police and army in the resignation. Leading Western left-wing politicians, including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, and former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece also sent strong messages of support. Brazil and the U.S. celebrated the episode as a victory for democracy. U.S. President Donald Trump applauded “the Bolivian military for abiding by its oath to protect not just a single person, but Bolivia’s constitution." Argentina's foreign ministry tied itself in knots to justify not calling it a coup (though the embassy in La Paz has granted protection to at least two former government officials). (La Razón, New York Times, Infobae, Reuters, Bae, Guardian)
If you want to get scholarly about it, El País quotes various experts with dissenting opinions. Those who say there has not been a coup focus on the weeks of upheaval that preceded the resignation, irregularities in the Oct. 20 election, and previous instances of institutional weakness -- such as Morales' decision to run for a fourth term after a popular referendum in 2016 vetoed the possibility. Those who argue it was a coup focus on the failure to follow constitutional mechanisms in the handover of power and the determining role of the armed forces in Morales' resignation.
Less concerned with such niceties, English-language media has mostly concluded that Evo got his rightful comeuppance for refusing to give up power. A sampling: "Bolivia is in danger of slipping into anarchy. It’s Evo Morales’s fault," reads the Washington Post editorial's headline. "Evo Morales Finally Went Too Far for Bolivia," in the Atlantic. And "The ousted leader is calling it a “coup,” but he entered dangerous legal territory in pushing for an unprecedented fourth term," according to Foreign Policy.
The OAS has largely stayed silent on Bolivia since Sunday -- no opinion on the whole resignation-coup thing -- though yesterday Secretary General Luis Almagro rejected any "unconstitutional" exit to the situation.
It's somewhat of a moot point now, but it's worth going back to the OAS audit of the Oct. 20 elections, which on Sunday found irregularities in the vote count that merited calling a new electoral process. "...Irregularities were detected, ranging from very serious to indicative of something wrong. ... Taking statistical projections into account, it is possible that candidate Morales came in first and candidate Mesa second. However, it is statistically unlikely that Morales obtained the 10% difference needed to avoid a second round." (See also Reuters' fact-box on the report.)
How the transition shapes up this week will be determining, wrote James Bosworth yesterday in the Latin America Risk Report: "If Bolivia fights over its interim president or if the military continues to involve itself in politics, a swift and smooth transition back to elected leadership becomes unlikely. If the new leadership targets Morales and his MAS supporters, it makes it more likely they will disavow the next election and question the legitimacy of the next government. Political retribution and violence also increases the potential the Morales and MAS work to toss out the next president and/or regain power in ways that go against democratic norms."
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