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A public policy blog from AEI
Students recently broke into the Supreme Electoral Court in Bolivia and torched the building. Then spontaneous hunger strikes appeared. Ostensibly, they were protesting Evo Morales’s campaign for an unprecedented fourth consecutive term as president. What has gone wrong in the South American nation that enjoys high levels of enthusiasm for democracy?
The former head of the coca-growers union, Morales has challenged democratic institutions since his election in 2005. Flush with victory, his presidency was, from the outset, aimed at wholesale economic and social change in Bolivia. On his 100th day in office, Morales nationalized Bolivia’s considerable oil and gas reserves. Under the guise of honoring the country’s sizable indigenous population, a name change to “the Pluri-national state of Bolivia” permitted Morales to run for reelection in what he argued was a “new country.” He won again in 2009 and 2014, as natural resource extraction lined the government’s pockets and funded a passel of social programs aimed at redistribution and patronage among his supporters.
From his early days, Morales’s mandate was personal in nature. The man many deride as “Ego Morales” built a $7 million museum to himself. Signs from his Movement for Socialism (MAS) party are ubiquitous in Bolivia’s larger cities. His smiling face announces public works projects and infrastructure developments, serving as an ever-present reminder for whom the Bolivian people ought to be thankful.
Morales paired physical omnipresence with institutional omnipresence. He began to exercise greater control over the media and civil society, and installed allies in the courts to rig judicial decisions. He also joined a similar chorus of leftist leaders in Latin America: any criticism of rule-of-law in Bolivia was a Western plot to hamper its growth, any concern for the expulsion of NGOs was a conspiracy led by the neo-imperial United States, and cooperation with the DEA on coca eradication programs was equivalent to “espionage” by a foreign power. Taking a page out of the regime playbook in Caracas, he has responded to reform movements with a mixture of tear gas and rubber bullets.
As Morales turned toward greater authoritarianism, his presidency was marked by flagging support and the casting aside of erstwhile allies. In 2016, Bolivians rejected a referendum proposal abolishing presidential term limits, after previously granting him the right to run for a third term in a similar plebiscite. Morales responded by claiming the 2016 referendum was non-binding, setting about to undermine the will of the Bolivian people. The courts proved to be Morales’s pliable instrument, invalidating the vote to prevent indefinite reelection, on the flimsy grounds that term limits impinged upon his human rights.
Through it all, however, there was little made of Morales’s systematic destruction of democratic institutions in Bolivia — save for the occasional protest from the US or strongly worded statement from the Organization of American States (OAS). For all the thundering rhetoric we hear from the Trump administration about a “troika of tyranny” in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, both the US and the OAS have been relatively silent of late about Bolivia’s slow-rolling coup. Perhaps attention has been elsewhere because Morales’s coup has been bloodless, relative to other countries in the region. Whatever the reason, it is clear that what was lacking in the goal of advancing freedom and expanding democracy in the region was the painstaking and not-so-sexy work of reforming and consolidating democratic governance. With Morales on the cusp of maneuvering to win yet another election, it may be too late to reverse Bolivia’s democratic backsliding.
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