A tumultuous year for Latin American politics took another sharp turn on Sunday when Bolivian President Evo Morales, the region’s longest-serving leftist leader, suddenly resigned amid massive protests and pressure from the armed forces following last month’s disputed election.
Morales said Monday he was headed for Mexico after being granted asylum there. The former president, a socialist who became Bolivia’s first Indigenous president when he took office in 2006, was not the only Bolivian lawmaker to step down: his vice president and Socialist Party leaders in the Bolivian House and Senate also resigned, as did many of Morales’ ministers. The resignations came after the Organization of American States — the member group of 35 nations in the Americas — issued a preliminary report that it said found “serious irregularities” in Bolivia’s October election.
The departures, Morales said, were an attempt to calm the nation amid what he called a military-led coup against his government, and he warned in a speech from La Paz that “dark forces have destroyed democracy in Bolivia.”
Now the country, which had stabilized under Morales after years of unrest, finds itself in the position of having no legitimate elected leader. Morales’ opponents have painted his ouster as an effort to restore democracy after his 14 years in power, his supporters at home and abroad say it’s a coup, and the future is anything but certain in the splintered Andean nation.
Morales was first elected in 2005 as part of the “pink tide” that swept leftist politicians into power across Latin America — most notably in Venezuela, where socialist Hugo Chavez won the presidency in 2001, and Brazil, which elected left-populist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva president in 2002.
An ardent critic of neoliberalism in South America during the 1980s and 1990s, Morales raised taxes on certain industries and instituted an ambitious slate of social reforms that eventually helped cut Bolivia’s poverty rate in half. A global boom in commodities prices fostered vast economic growth that helped stabilize what had once been South America’s poorest nation.
Morales won reelection in 2009 and again in 2014. In 2016, facing constitutional term limits that would have prevented him from running for a fourth term, he put forth a referendum on whether he should be allowed to run again. The referendum failed, and Morales initially said he would respect the result. But in 2017, a court ruled the referendum invalid, saying that Morales had been subject to an illegal smear campaign. He pledged to run again even as his opponents declared the decision an “attack on democracy.”
Although Morales remained popular, especially among parts of his base, the referendum polarized Bolivia and motivated opponents who’d long sought to remove him from power. Inside MAS, Morales’ socialist party, there had long been a belief that the party’s political opponents wanted nothing more than to end the social programs Morales had instituted. The saga over the referendum, however, also deepened mistrust of Morales not only by his opponents, but even by some Bolivians who had once supported him.
Ahead of the Oct. 20 elections, most polls showed Morales comfortably ahead of a cohort of opposition candidates. Carlos Mesa was his most notable opponent; Mesa had served as president from 2003 to 2005 but resigned amid protests led by Morales. The polls did suggest Morales could struggle against a unified opposition in a head-to-head race, so the question entering Election Day was whether Morales would successfully avoid a runoff election.
To do so, he needed to either win a clear majority of votes, or top 40% and finish at least 10 points ahead of his closest challenger.
What Happened On Election Night?
Early on, results appeared to show Morales running well ahead of Mesa but potentially short of the threshold he needed to avoid a runoff, and as Bolivia’s election commission updated publicly available results, Mesa declared that he had indeed qualified for a second round against Morales.
Late that evening, the election commission suddenly stopped publicly updating results — and didn’t come back online again until the next day. When it did, it showed that Morales had gained a few percentage points of support and had cleared the runoff threshold. It was a bad look for Morales and the electoral authorities, who struggled to provide an initial explanation.
Mesa and many Bolivians who’d long sought to end Morales’ hold on the presidency were incensed and immediately cried foul. Protesters took to the streets across the country.
Mesa and the opposition did not present any specific evidence of fraud, but the OAS immediately called for an audit of the election results and processes. Morales agreed to the audit’s terms, but Mesa, who said he did not trust the agreement, did not.
As the audit took place over the subsequent two weeks, Bolivia’s protests intensified, and supporters and opponents of Morale clashed across the country.
The protests broke out on Oct. 21 across the country as frustration with Morales boiled over. Protesters targeted election offices and other government buildings over the initial days of the demonstrations.
The protests intensified on Oct. 25 after Bolivian electoral officials declared Morales the outright winner of the election, and Bolivians from across the ideological spectrum took to the streets again. “There are indigenous and workers both on the side of the government and the opposition forces,” a former Morales ambassador wrote of the demonstrations.
“Morales’ opponents have painted his ouster as an effort to restore democracy after his 14 years in power, his supporters at home and abroad say it’s a coup, and the future is anything but certain.”
Two people died in the initial round of protests. A third person, a student, later died, inspiring even larger protests and arguments between both sides about who was to blame: The police claimed the student had been fatally injured by protesters, who argued that police had shot the student as he ran into an alley. Morales painted the death as the beginning efforts of “a new sort of coup” in which the opposition was “looking for dead people to accuse us.”
Last week, anti-Morales protesters targeted Patricia Arce, the mayor of the small town of Vinto and a member of Morales’ party. Protesters dragged Arce through the street, cut her hair and doused her with red paint after setting fire to her city hall offices.
Morales and his supporters also faced widespread allegations of fostering violence and attacking protesters, especially after a caravan of miners said this week that they had been shot at while driving to join demonstrations in the capital.
In some areas of the country, footage of the protests showed police beginning to join in as the demonstrations continued last week ― a key sign that Morales’ grip was weakening.
What Happened Sunday?
The OAS said Sunday morning that its audit had found significant irregularities in the Bolivian electoral process. The problems in the computerized electoral system were “of such magnitude that they must be deeply investigated by the Bolivian State to get to the bottom of and assign responsibility in this serious case,” the OAS said. It also questioned the likelihood that Morales had won enough votes to avoid a runoff and called for new, immediate elections.
Morales’ supporters have claimed there were no specific irregularities on election night ― that the OAS report was too vague in its assertions and that there was a misunderstanding of Bolivian electoral processes.
The Center for Economic Policy Research, a progressive think tank based in Washington, released an analysis this week that it said “found no evidence that irregularities or fraud affected the official result.”
But Morales called for new elections on Sunday and said that he would replace the electoral tribunal overseeing them in an attempt to placate opponents. Mesa and the opposition were unmoved and continued calling for his resignation. Protests broke out again.
Morales also lost support from some of his key allies, including some top labor organizations and Indigenous groups, some of which had already turned against the president over environmental policies that threatened their land and had contributed to outbreaks of fires in the Bolivian Amazon this summer.
But there were few signs that Morales was prepared to leave office before his term expired in January or new elections were held — until Sunday afternoon, when the armed forces got involved.
“After analysing the conflicted domestic situation, we ask the president to resign his presidential mandate to allow for pacification and the maintaining of stability, for the good of our Bolivia,” Army Gen. Williams Kaliman said. The general added that he had ordered “operations in the air and on land to neutralise armed groups acting outside the law.”
After the military’s pronouncement, reports emerged that Morales was considering fleeing to Argentina. Within hours of the general’s call for his resignation, the embattled president went on TV and told Bolivians that he had agreed to step down. His vice president also resigned, and Senate President Adriana Salvatierra, who would have finished Morales’ term under the Bolivian constitution, soon followed.
Across the region, Morales’ leftist allies joined him in decrying the “coup” that was underway.
“It is unfortunate that Latin America has an economic elite that does not know how to live with democracy and the social inclusion of the poorest,” da Silva, newly freed from prison in Brazil, tweeted.
“The military’s role in Morales’ decision to step aside will heighten concerns not just in Bolivia, but across Latin America, as generals have begun to reassume more powerful roles.”
Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Argentina’s newly elected President Alberto Fernández also backed Morales, while Mexico offered asylum if he needed it. Progressive U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) both called Morales’ resignation a coup on Twitter. From his presidential campaign account, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted that he was “very concerned about what appears to be a coup in Bolivia,” and said the United States “must call for an end to violence and support Bolivia’s democratic institutions.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement that supported Morales’ resignation and backed calls for a new election. “In order to restore credibility to the electoral process, all government officials and officials of any political organizations implicated in the flawed October 20 elections should step aside from the electoral process,” Pompeo said. On Monday, President Donald Trump weighed in, saying, “we are now one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous, and free Western Hemisphere.”
The Bolivian opposition, meanwhile, cheered Morales’ departure and suggested the protests wouldn’t end. “Today we won a battle,” Luis Fernando Camacho, a prominent opposition figure, declared. “Only when we can be sure that democracy is solid, then will we go back home.”
Jubilant rallies filled the streets across Bolivia while Morales supporters staged their own counter-protests. The protesters are united more by their opposition to Morales than by a coherent ideology, and at times, leaders took more extremist turns.
Videos that spread across social media appeared to show protesters burning the Indigenous flag that had flown atop the presidential palace. Camacho, the opposition leader, entered the governmental palace and placed a Bible over the Bolivian flag. “The Pachamama,” he said, referencing the Indigenous earth goddess, “will never return to the palace. Bolivia belongs to Christ.”
On Thursday, Mesa, the presidential candidate, decried efforts to paint Morales’ ouster as a coup and said the military had only recommended his resignation because “they didn’t want to take lives” by trying to rein in the protests.
Mesa wasn’t alone in pushing back on that narrative. “Do not be fooled” by Morales’ claims of a coup, a top Bolivian Indigenous organization that has opposed encroachment onto its lands under Morales told its followers.
What Happens Now?
For now, the Bolivian government is expected to name an interim leader, and Jeanine Áñez, an anti-Morales lawyer and senator, has said she will seek to become the new head of the Senate, which would put her in line to temporarily assume the presidency under Bolivia’s constitution. Áñez said this week that she wants new elections, but it’s not clear what will happen next.
Morales’ efforts to hold on to power over the last three years had already raised concerns about the health of Bolivia’s democracy. Even if he’d remained in power, his ability to govern would have been in question — Bolivia had become more polarized, and a slim mandate or the prospect of new elections wouldn’t have given him the broad support he once enjoyed.
The military’s role in Morales’ decision to step aside will heighten those concerns not just in Bolivia, but across Latin America, as generals have begun to reassume more powerful roles in societies where armed coups and military dictatorships were once the norm, including in Bolivia.
The region steadily redemocratized after the fall of military dictatorships in Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and other nations three decades ago. But democracy seems on the brink across the region now.
Maduro, Venezuela’s socialist leader, has maintained his authoritarian grip on power with support from the military amid regime-change efforts from opposition forces and the United States. Concerns about the militarization of security in Brazil were already prevalent before the 2018 election of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army captain who stocked his Cabinet with military men — and whose son, in a signal to pockets of supporters who’ve favored a return to military rule, recently endorsed the return of dictatorship-era policies.
Chilean President Sebastian Piñera turned to the military during mass protests there and invoked a state of emergency in Santiago that raised ugly memories of the Pinochet era. Other leaders across Latin America have increasingly turned to the armed forces for stability in the face of burgeoning crises.
Bolivia’s situation differs from those countries in many ways, and some observers have suggested that the Bolivian military has no interest in seizing power.
It’s unclear what the next moves from the armed forces or the opposition will be. But protests in Bolivia continued Monday, with Morales supporters marching against the opposition. On social media, reports circulated that the military and police had been deployed into the streets as the protests began.
There’s a clear vacuum of power in Bolivia now — and even those who support Morales’ resignation may worry about whether Bolivian democracy will emerge intact, given that Latin American history offers little hope of democracy surviving a change in power that resulted from any military influence at all.
This story has been updated with Bernie Sanders’ tweet and tweets about the military taking the streets.