Bolivian Blunder

Evo Morales did great things. It’s too bad he didn’t follow his own rules.

Feature | by Gwynne Dyer

“Democracy is in danger in Bolivia as the result of legitimate pressures from the poor. We cannot generate economic growth and well-being for a few and then expect that the large majorities that are excluded will watch silently and patiently.”

A recent president of Bolivia said that, but it wasn’t Evo Morales (who quit and is in Mexican exile). It was Carlos Mesa, the man whom Morales tried to cheat out of the presidency in last month’s election. Mesa said it in 2005, the last time he was president, just before he quit and Morales won a landslide victory in the election triggered by his resignation.

Most outside commentators used to stick to a simple script when talking about Bolivia. Evo Morales was the good guy, because he was the country’s first Indigenous president (he grew up speaking Aymara, and only learned Spanish as a young adult), and because he looked like and seemed to care about the poor majority of Bolivians.

Whereas Carlos Mesa belongs to the privileged white minority (15 per cent of the population) who have always controlled both the politics and the wealth, so he must be the bad guy. But his face doesn’t fit the frame: he’s a historian and television journalist, and he resigned from the presidency in 2005 after trying and failing to nationalize the country’s gas industry.

Evo Morales took his place, and he did better. Morales nationalized not only oil and gas but the tin and zinc mines, and key utilities as well. He got away with it where Mesa couldn’t because he paid out good compensation to the owners — and he could do that because Bolivia was riding a commodities boom that tripled the country’s GDP in 15 years.

The boom has been over for a while now, and a more cunning politician than Morales might have decided to let Mesa win this election. Then, as the country’s income drops, Mesa gets the blame for downsizing the welfare state Morales built and in five years Morales returns to power triumphantly claiming Mesa betrayed the poor.

Morales’s mistake was believing that he was the indispensable man. He clung to office too long, and now he is toast. He will retain enough of a following to be a permanent political nuisance, but he has embarrassed his country and he’s unlikely ever to hold high office again.

Under the new constitution of 2009, promulgated by Morales himself, a Bolivian president can’t have more than two five-year terms. But as Morales got closer to the 2019 deadline he changed his mind, and in 2016 he held a referendum that proposed allowing presidents any number of terms. He lost.

So Morales went to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which is dominated by his own party. Unsurprisingly, the tribunal agreed that the two-term constitutional limit violated his ‘human rights’ — so there he was last month, seeking a fourth term as president in a race with eight other candidates.

Everybody knew that Morales would lead and Mesa would be the runner-up in the first round of voting. Many suspected that Mesa would pick up more votes and overtake Morales in the second round — so his advisers decided that he had to win in the first round. He could do that only if he were ahead of Mesa by at least 10 per cent of the votes cast.

On Oct. 20, the ‘fast count’ of the national vote went smoothly until 84 per cent of all the votes had been counted — at which point it became clear that Morales was not going to have a big enough lead over Mesa. So suddenly the counting stopped and did not resume for 24 hours. It then showed Morales with a 10.1% lead over Mesa, so no second round was needed. All hail Morales’s fourth term!

But the vote-rigging was just too blatant, and protesters took to the streets. Even the police refused to defend Morales.

When the election monitors from the Organization of American States delivered their verdict, saying that there were “serious security flaws” in the computer systems and “clear manipulation” of the count, Morales resigned. The election results were cancelled, and it’s pretty clear he will not be a candidate when the re-run happens.

How much damage has all this done? Not much. Bolivia used to hold the world record for military coups but the constitution demands a new election within 90 days, and everybody has behaved reasonably well this time — at least in comparison to the past.

Most of the good things Morales did, like entrenching the rights of Indigenous communities in the constitution, will likely survive him. Carlos Mesa, who will almost certainly be the next president, has a very different style, but he is not hostile to most of Morales’s goals.

And here’s a take-away for everybody in politics: if you are going to rig the vote, do it from the start. Don’t wait until the count shows that your candidate is not doing well, and only then intervene to fix it. Amateurs!

One thought on “Bolivian Blunder”

  1. Where is Dyer getting his info? CNN? John Bolton? Did he really just write that everybody is behaving well? It is a military coup, sure, he says, but they are used to them down there. No mention of the (at least) 8 pro Morales protesters murdered (https://www.npr.org/2019/11/16/780118421/8-killed-in-bolivia-as-protesters-call-for-return-of-ousted-president-evo-morale); no mention of rising racial tensions (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/world/americas/morales-bolivia-Indigenous-racism.html); of Christian fundamentalists in control of the state; threats against journalists and opposition politicians; a decree exempting armed forces personnel from prosecution for use of violence. But I guess that’s how the right behaves well in Bolivia. Even the UN is growing concerned (https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/11/1051531). And we know the OAS was less than honest about vote-rigging (https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-oas-lied-to-the-public-about-the-bolivian-election-and-coup-2019-11-19?mod=mw_latestnews), we know the Trump admin is delighted about what is happening (https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-president-donald-j-trump-regarding-resignation-bolivian-president-evo-morales/), we know Morales fled the country in fear for his life. But no, says Dyer: carry on folks! Nothing happening here! walk on by! Morales brought this on himself and the indigenous people will be just fine because rule of law will resume normal operation after the coup. Despite, he tells us, what “most outside commentators” may say. The smuggiest op ed performative utterance of them all: “most outside commentators.” And who are these “most outside commentators” Dyer is talking about? I watch the news. Most “outside commentators” are laying down the same line of Polly-Anna Wall Street bullshit as Dyer. If you want to read what one actual expert commentator has to say look at Gabriel Hetland’s take in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/13/morales-bolivia-military-coup). “Amateurs!” Dyer says. The condescension is staggering. The only amateur getting played here is Dyer.

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