Violence spreads in Bolivia: Here’s what you need to know
The Andean nation of Bolivia, home to 11 million, has been engulfed in political turmoil since disputed elections were held last month. Ex-President Evo Morales is now in exile in Mexico.
Some questions and answers about the Bolivian crisis.
Who is Evo Morales?
Morales, 60, was elected in 2005 on a socialist platform and served as the first president from Bolivia’s historically marginalized indigenous community. His rise was significant in a nation long run by a mostly white and mixed-race elite with close ties to the United States and multinational corporations. Morales has emerged as an icon of the international left.
What is Morales’ background?
Morales comes from humble origins — before seeking public office he had been a llama herder, bricklayer, sugar cane cutter, trumpet player in a traveling band and head of the federation representing growers of the coca leaf, from which cocaine is derived. The latter post propelled Morales into national prominence, and the country’s many cocaleros remain crucial allies.
What happened in Bolivia’s elections?
Morales says he won reelection cleanly in the Oct. 20 balloting. But thousands took to the streets alleging that the results had been rigged. Morales finally agreed to new balloting after a team from the Organization of American States found widespread irregularities.
When did Morales step down?
Morales resigned on Nov. 10, along with his vice president and other political allies, in the face of what he says was pressure from the military. He calls himself the victim of a “coup” and a “political and economic conspiracy” launched from Washington.
How does the U.S. government view Morales?
Not well. U.S. administrations have had rocky relations with Morales, the last one standing of the “pink tide” of leftist leaders who took office in South America more than a decade ago. Morales regularly denounces U.S. “imperialism” and has been a strong ally of leftist governments in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua — all targeted by the Trump administration. Morales’ campaign pledges in 2005 to eliminate coca-leaf eradication efforts angered Washington. As president, Morales expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from Bolivia. The Trump administration greeted Morales’ departure as a step forward for democracy.
Was Morales’ administration a success?
Morales’ policies during almost 14 years in office helped reduce poverty and elevate living standards in what has long been one of South America’s poorest nations. A country with a long history of social unrest and military takeovers was mostly stable. Despite his fiery socialist pronouncements, Morales was known for pragmatic economic decisions. Revenue from natural gas — the country’s major export — was funneled to social programs. Bolivia remains extremely poor, but inequality has been reduced. Millions credit Morales and revere him.
What do his detractors say about Morales?
Critics say Morales has shown increasingly autocratic tendencies and an apparent desire to be president for life. He refused to abide by a 2016 national referendum in which Bolivians upheld term limits, saying “the people” urged him to run again. A ruling from a court that critics say was packed with Morales supporters paved the way for him to seek a fourth term this year.
What does Mexico have to do with the tumult in Bolivia?
Morales was granted political asylum in Mexico and arrived to Mexico City on Tuesday. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the country’s first avowedly leftist leader in a generation, is an admirer of Morales. Mexico’s foreign minister calls Morales’ ouster a coup. The Mexican news media have since reported sightings of Morales, with heavy security details, at an upscale restaurant and spa in the capital. Morales has continued his political activism from Mexico, calling for a “national dialogue” and hinting he would be willing to return to Bolivia if asked to do so. The interim Bolivian administration has accused Morales of “inciting” chaos from abroad and asked Mexico to muzzle the exiled leader, a step that Mexican authorities have refused to take.
Who is Jeanine Añez?
Morales’ departure, and the exit of his vice president and other constitutionally designated successors, left a power vacuum in Bolivia. A conservative opposition senator, Jeanine Añez, declared herself Senate leader and interim president at a legislative session lacking a legal quorum and absent lawmakers from Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party, which has majorities in both congressional houses. The self-appointed interim leader toted an oversized Bible to the presidential palace, a rebuke of Morales’ preference for indigenous religious symbols in a nation where much of the population remains Roman Catholic. Añez is allied with right-wing activists based in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, long a bastion of anti-Morales sentiment.
What is Añez’s plan for Bolivia?
Añez said she is working to restore peace and arrange for new elections. She appears to have the crucial backing of the nation’s military and police forces, at least for now. From Mexico, Morales assailed Añez’s ascension as an illegitimate “assault on the power of the people” and called for United Nations-backed dialogue to quell the crisis and prevent further bloodshed. The United States has embraced Añez’s rise. The asserted interim president has said Morales would be barred as a candidate in future elections and should be prosecuted for electoral fraud if he returned to Bolivia.
Has Añez changed Bolivia’s foreign policy?
Añez has abruptly aligned her country with Washington’s Latin American agenda, working to undo Morales’ leftist international orientation. She moved to expel hundreds of Cubans, many of them physicians and medical staff, and vowed to break ties with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whom Morales long supported, while allying Bolivia with another self-declared South American head of state: Juan Guaido, recognized by the United States and its allies as the legal leader of Venezuela.
What is the situation on the ground in Bolivia?
Very tenuous. Pro-Morales demonstrators have been blocking roads and calling for his reinstatement. Authorities worry about shortages of gasoline and food. Journalists have been attacked on the streets and, in the most violent incident to date in the crisis, nine people were killed and dozens injured Friday when security forces open fire on pro-Morales protesters, including many coca growers, outside the city of Cochabamba. That incident brought to at least 23 the death toll since last month’s elections, according to rights monitors. Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. human rights chief and former president of Chile, voiced concerns that the violence in Bolivia “could spin out of control.”
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.
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