Democratic Candidates Are Fumbling in Response to the Bolivian Coup

Perhaps it’s because they may have to own up to insidious U.S. interventionist actions over the decades

Bolivia’s interim president, Jeanine Anez speaks during a press conference during her first day in power, at the Quemado presidential palace in La Paz, on November 13, 2019. Photo: Jorge Bernal/Getty Images

JJeanine Añez, Bolivia’s interim president, assumed the role of head of state last month carrying a large Bible into the presidential home saying, “The Bible returns to the Palace.” With a history of making disturbing anti-Indigenous remarks, she has tweeted that the Aymara New Year holiday was “satanic” and that “nobody can replace God.” The Aymara constitute 41% of the country’s population. She has also invoked a Christian God as a source of political power.

President Trump has praised the ouster of Morales, a native Bolivian of Aymara ancestry, but the field of Democratic presidential candidates has not been consistent in their response to the rise of religious conservative Añez. Añez’s actions, such as persecuting journalists and political opponents and making racist statements, are opposed to the progressive ideals that Democratic candidates in the U.S. promote.

In October, Morales, the country’s first Indigenous president, won a fourth term. Morales ended up with a little more than a half-point over the threshold to avoid a second-round ballot. The Organization of American States (OAS) implied that there was election fraud. A statistical analysis by the D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that Evo Morales did indeed win the election.

There were middle-class protests and right-wing demonstrations in the aftermath of the election. Law enforcement ransacked Morales’ presidential home, and the Bolivian army chief called for the Indigenous leader to step down. The “forced resignation” of Morales was effectively a coup.

FForbes Bolivia featured Añez on its cover with the caption, “El Poder es Feminino [power is female],” yet women were making gains under Morales’ leadership. By 2011, five years into his presidency, half of the ministers in his cabinet were women. As of February 2019, Bolivia had the third-highest percentage of women lawmakers in the world. There had even been steps to ease strict abortion laws during Morales’ leadership. However, women in Bolivia still faced challenges such as high rates of femicide and widespread physical and sexual violence.

While the Associated Press has called interim president Añez a “women’s rights activist,” if her choice in interim interior minister Arturo Murillo is any indication of the kind of women’s rights she will pursue, women should be concerned. In 2017, when abortion laws were being eased, then-Senator Murillo said that women who assert agency over their bodies with abortion should kill themselves before terminating a pregnancy. Last month right-wing protesters assaulted Patricia Arce, a mayor from Vinto who belongs to Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS) party, dragging her through the street and covering her in red paint. The Añez government created a dress code for state ceremonies and government offices banning Indigenous attire, but appears to be backing down on that ban after Morales shared the memo about banning traditional clothes on his Twitter account.

“Her [Añez] ascension into power is not a reflection of the people’s vote and so I worry for the people of Bolivia. We don’t know what she’s going to unleash there,” Sylvanna Falcón, associate professor of Latin American and Latino/a Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz told ZORA.

BBernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard were the only two candidates who clearly called the removal of former president Evo Morales a coup. Elizabeth Warren soft-pedaled her response saying that Bolivia deserves free and fair elections, but later said that it looks like a coup. Julián Castro indicated that the current president should not be legitimized and that there should be free elections. Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and others did not release statements on the crisis in Bolivia.

At a time when the U.S. has its own right-wing leader in President Trump that Democratic presidential hopefuls criticize daily, why aren’t they speaking out about Añez, a destabilizing right-wing leader in Bolivia?

Perhaps progressive candidates have avoided calling the recent events in Bolivia a coup because it opens up the conversation about the role of the U.S. in the region and the bipartisan consensus on intervention and exploitation that has destabilized governments and prompted mass migration. During the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton’s state department rubber-stamped a coup in Honduras in 2009, that pushed the country into turmoil with large caravans fleeing to the U.S.

While the Associated Press has called interim president Añez a ‘women’s rights activist,’ if her choice in interim interior minister Arturo Murillo is any indication of the kind of women’s rights she will pursue, women should be concerned.

Thea Riofrancos, an assistant professor of political science at Providence College, told ZORA that the U.S. has traditionally acted violently and aggressively toward left-leaning governments in the region.

Alexander Aviña, an associate professor of Latin American history at Arizona State University, believes that progressive presidential candidates should be pushed on their views about what’s happening in the hemisphere and more broadly.

“You can push the presidential candidates to be more consistent. If you are going to take a weak perspective on what happened in Bolivia by not calling it a coup, then at least call out Piñera in Chile who has a 14% approval rating and Iván Duque in Colombia who also has low numbers,” Aviña said.

This fall Colombians and Chileans have taken to the streets to protest their right-wing led governments. In October, there were mass protests in Chile over a transit fare hike and other austerity measures, and in Colombia, several thousand have marched through Bogotá to voice discontent with the conservative Duque.

What should the progressive presidential candidate response be to what is happening in Bolivia and in the region?

“From a U.S. political perspective, in my view, a progressive outlook would mean having a nuanced understanding of what’s happening in Latin America and remembering the role of U.S. intervention in the region; and where progressive leaders in the U.S. condemn military takeovers and coup d’états while also supporting ways to enhance and strengthen the democratic process in the region,” Falcón said.

“A progressive position would have multiple prongs — condemning coup d’états and those who violently target their political opponents and then support efforts to strengthen and enhance democratic electoral processes where there is no doubt as to who won the election.”

Southern California based freelance writer

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