Bolivia in Meltdown

I have returned quite reluctantly to the role of gringo explainer of Bolivia, something I did for a good long time in the nineteen years my family lived there. But I don’t feel like I have a choice. It is my other country. Three of the faces I love most in the world, my children’s, are Bolivian faces. I speak to my friends on the phone as they cry and share their fear about a country melting down around them. And I am angered by the foolish oversimplicity of all the people who have no real connection to the country but who are busy peddling their messages of certainty about what is going on. No one who really knows Bolivia is ever really certain about what is going on.

Evo Morales overreached. He took three terms in office that could have been a powerful legacy for generations and bent the constitution to demand a fourth, in an election that had enough tampering going on to put its legitimacy in doubt. I wrote that and still mean it. But in the midst of last Sunday’s dramatic events that led to his resignation and departure to Mexico, I also wrote on Twitter than I opposed the calls for his resignation and didn’t think he should, and for the very same reason. In a place like Bolivia (or anywhere for that matter) a serious constitution that everyone abides by is an urgent thing. In its absence the wheels come off the national bus. That is why Evo should have respected its well-established term limits (that his party wrote) and why the opposition should have respected the legality of his finishing his third term.

But that’s not what happened from either side and now the wheels are off the bus in Bolivia and the result is violence.

In the aftermath of Evo’s resignation the process of presidential succession became a circus. With Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera headed for Mexico with Morales, that line fell to the two heads of the Senate and House, both MAS party members and both resigned their leadership posts. That set up a succession to the fourth in line, a fierce right wing Senator from the opposition, Jeanine Añez Chavez.

In 2005 when Bolivia went through its last crisis of presidential resignation (Carlos Mesa, also in the face of national protests), the presidency fell to the head of the country’s Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodriguez. As he took charge he made it clear that he had one mission: calm the violence that had spread across the country, don’t pretend he had a mandate to change the country’s political direction, do whatever was needed to deliver clean and legitimate elections to the people, and leave. And that is what he did and those elections were the historic and completely clean ones that elected Evo as president.

Everything that Añez has done is the mirror opposite of that. She walked into the capital with a giant leather bound book in her hands and declared, “The bible is back in the palace!” She appointed a replacement cabinet that had not a single indigenous member (later adding one after this was pointed out). And more urgently she signaled the familiar old message of ‘mano duro’ aimed at the Morales supporters gathering around the country to protest her presidency. She went so far as to issue a decree effectively granting advance amnesty to the military and police.

And it is in Cochabamba, that lovely and peaceful city where my family lived for nearly two decades, where the highest price is being paid. As of yesterday the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reports at least nine dead and more than a hundred wounded in two days of battle between Morales supporters and police. All sides are describing these events to fit their narrative. Here is what I can piece together from people I know on the scene and from news reports. And it should be noted that much of the Bolivian press is astonishingly mute on what is actually happening.

The two areas of ongoing conflict were always going to be El Alto/La Paz and in Cochabamba, where a march of thousands of coca farmers loyal to Morales have sought to enter the city. If you listen to opposition leaders they were headed into the city with dynamite and guns, ready to take vengeance. If you listen to others they were coming to protest, as they have so many times before, and were slaughtered when they got a few miles away. The one person I have communicated with close to the scene, a human rights lawyer I respect, says the slaughter version is more accurate.

But as I spoke to my friends by Skype over the weekend, all I heard was fear. Activists I have known and respected for years are in hiding and have suffered threats from both sides. Our friends in rural Tiquipaya, where we lived our last ten years in Bolivia, tell us that they don’t know who is coming to do violence, it has all become one storm. They tell of gangs on motorcycles, of their neighborhoods using loud sirens to sound the alarm, of being warned to keep their house lights off at night. Another friend is worried about her young son, a conscripted soldier in the Bolivian army. Another could not stop crying. All of them talk about the stress of living in a country on the verge of a meltdown.

The new Bolivian government, elected by no one, is acting as if it has some giant political mandate to alter the landscape of the country overnight, to issue payback after a decade and a half of rule by indigenous peoples. The snakes that have done Bolivia’s worst are looking for a way to crawl back in. Intellectuals far away are busy having fierce debates on Twitter about who is to blame, about the grammatical definitions of coups that are hard, soft, civic or military, as if this is what average Bolivians are worried about as the new week begins. Everyone wants to buttress their narrative, as if it were all just so simple.

Here is the line of division that matters in Bolivia today, the one between those who think that violence is the way forward and those who do not. The new government is on the side of violence, that much is clear. The supporters of Morales are not so clean as they would like to paint themselves, but violence in the hands of the state is the more serious thing. The government has an army and police forces.

That is my view of things. Take it as you like. Attack me because I refuse to adhere to one side’s oversimplified rendition of events or the other’s. I write about Bolivia once again not because it is the cause of the moment and I want to make it support my world view. I write about Bolivia because I love Bolivia, because it gave me everything, including my family. Because it is a part of me.

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Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of The Democracy Center. He and his family lived in Bolivia from 1998 to 2017, where he also served as President of an 80-child orphanage. He is co-author and co-editor of Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization (UC Press) and the forthcoming, My Other Country, Nineteen Years in Bolivia (NFB Publishing).

A political activist for more than 40 years, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center. Back in the US after 19 years in Bolivia. A dad, a grandpa.

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