Bolivia has joined the list of nations around the globe dealing with ongoing battles between protesters and police. But unlike demonstrators who want to depose unpopular leaders in Haiti, Hong Kong, Iraq, and other places, Bolivian protesters want to bring back exiled President Evo Morales.
Morales, who served as president for 14 years, was the country’s first indigenous leader. A former coca farmer, he increased representation for the minority group to which he belonged. The nation’s economy also grew under his leadership.
But Bolivia began shifting toward dictatorship under Morales’ rule. A 2013 law required churches to register with the state and report information like membership rolls and financial details. In 2016, the government organized a referendum to change the constitution to allow Morales to seek a fourth term. When 51 percent of voters said no, Morales appealed to his loyalist-packed constitutional court, which ruled he had a right to run for reelection.
Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian professor of political science at Florida International University, said Morales would have been remembered as the Nelson Mandela of Bolivia if he had respected his term limits.
The Washington-based Organization of American States found irregularities in Bolivia’s Oct. 20 election and called for a new vote. Morales, who first sparked the protests by claiming he won a fourth term, agreed to a new election. But he resigned Nov. 10 after mounting pressure from the country’s military chief. The vice president and Senate president from his party, Movement for Socialism (MAS), also stepped down. Morales sought political asylum in Mexico, claims he is still president, and has called on the United Nations to intervene.
Opposition Senate Vice President Jeanine Añez stepped into the vacuum and declared herself the interim leader even after lawmakers from the MAS party boycotted her swearing-in ceremony. She insisted Morales left on his own and said he will likely face charges for election fraud if he returns. “I now call for a peaceful and democratic transition, revoking the conditions that had made us into a totalitarian country,” Añez said.
Añez has 90 days to organize a new vote, but Morales’ party maintains a parliamentary majority. An agreement last week with MAS fell through the day after it was announced.
“She has to name a new electoral board and hold elections all before the 22nd of January,” Gamarra said. “That’s going to be a very difficult task with the MAS mobilized on the streets and holding two-thirds of Congress.”
In the streets, Morales supporters—mostly indigenous people—continue to clash with security forces. At least nine people died and 22 others sustained injuries during protests calling for Morales’ safe return in the central town of Sacaba on Friday.
In the administrative city of La Paz, police fired tear gas at demonstrators mainly from the coca-growing region of Chapare, as they threw rocks and waved the indigenous “Wiphala” flags. Protesters blocked the city’s major highways, creating food and fuel shortages.
“[Añez] does not represent the people, but the big elites, the society that has money but does not represent the poor,” bread seller Ruth Moscoso told Reuters.