Evo Morales and the Authoritarian Betrayal of Democracy

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Despite coming to power thanks to the indigenous rights movement, Morales' administration has been eroding democratic infrastructure and cracking down on protesters.
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Writing about tyranny under authoritarian regimes requires boldness. Thousands of activists around the world face daily reprisals for attempting to expose the reality under which they live. As an activist, academic, politician or simply curious human being on the web you may be aware of such danger when you read articles written by citizens of Togo, Venezuela or even those who flee North Korea.

But would you suspect such censorship in a Latin American country governed by a UN-celebrated “human rights champion” and indigenous president? You should.

Evo Morales became president of Bolivia in 2006, with 54% of the national vote – one of the most popular presidents we’ve ever had. His party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS), rose to power championing indigenous rights, left-leaning policies and real ownership of our resources. Bolivian citizens placed their hope in a candidate who could achieve what political elites had failed to since Bolivia’s return to democracy in 1982: defend indigenous rights in a highly pluralistic society, create stable economic development without relying on hydrocarbons, and give dignity back to a country often dubbed as the “poorest one in South America”.

Instead, Morales’ government has done the exact opposite of what it promised, demonstrating that Morales was just a facade for a new and even more corrupt elite.

This government violates indigenous rights and persecutes indigenous leaders more than any previous government. It has opened national parks for hydrocarbon exploration and aggressive exploitation, and is currently enabling a high number of projects by Chinese companies with no checks and balances from Bolivian citizens. Freedom of the press is as non-existent in Bolivia as in Venezuela according to this year’s report from Reporters Without Borders, and human rights activists, like myself, face regular personal attacks from government officials.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Although the citizens movement I am a part of, Ríos de Pie (“Standing Rivers”), has used humor and satire to involve citizens in politics and demystify the image of our current authorities, we are also aware that our democracy is facing a serious crisis.

I am not here to bring you the soap opera-worthy stories of corruption under Evo Morales’ presidency (though you can read about a corruption scandal involving his former lover, Gabriela Zapata). Instead, I will present facts that show the extent of Morales’ authoritarianism and then let you be the judge.

Bolivians took to the streets to protest the Supreme Court decision allowing President Evo Morales to run for fourth term.

Bolivia is set to hold national elections on the 20th of October this year, in which Evo Morales will run for the fourth time – despite a constitutional clause forbidding re-election for more than two terms. Morales even lost a 2016 referendum in which Bolivians explicitly rejected amendments allowing him to run for a 4th term. This is dangerous, and could escalate to a disaster as in Nicaragua or Venezuela.

As a citizens movement, Ríos de Pie is working hard on spreading the use of non-violence as the main form of protest to avoid violent encounters between protesters and police or pro-government forces. However, should the abuses of the current government escalate as well as their violent rhetoric against protests, one citizens movement alone cannot guarantee Bolivians will not take to more radical measures. Violence is a real risk when people find their will overturned by authoritarian structures.

Morales and the Arab Tyrant Manual

Iyad El-Baghdadi and other Arab activists have analysed the reactions Arab tyrants had to the uprisings of 2011, and found three driving motivators to their response patterns. Upon reading them, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between these tyrants and the government in Bolivia.

The Morales government may not be a full-blown dictatorship but it does fit the definition of what Levitsky and Way described as “competitive authoritarianism”: a system which allows the existence of opposition within the country but limits their de facto participation by controlling every branch of government as well as the media. Let’s analyse these similarities one by one:

First, El-Baghdadi identified absolute ownership of state property as a driving force in authoritarianism. Tyrants believe they have absolute property rights over the country they rule, and so they end up treating state and sometimes even private property as theirs.

The Morales government has shown this in the most ironic of ways. Despite coming to power on the back of the indigenous rights movement, Morales’ administration opened up national parks and indigenous territories to highways and oil and gas extraction.

Protests against these measures by indigenous people who inhabit these areas have faced severe repression from state forces, with two incidents occurring just this past March. A group of 11 indigenous tatas, or elders, were forcibly removed by over 50 police officers from a peaceful protest they were staging to demand respect of their lands. The aftermath of this repression can be seen in a Facebook live transmission by indigenous leader Alex Villca, who live-streamed the incident due to the lack of press coverage.

Likewise in Tariquía, Tarija, southern Bolivia, a group of indigenous people, including women and children, was also violently removed by police forces from an area that is now being opened for gas extraction. The Morales administration seems to think that it can steal properties on behalf of businesses despite clauses in the constitution protecting indigenous people’s rights over the lands they inhabit. Despite protests, the Bolivian government does as it wants, and continues to promote extractivist policies that contradict the pro-indigenous rights image that Morales likes to sell to the world.

Another pattern common among tyrants is having absolute control over the lawmaking processes within a state. Tyrants often seek an absolute right to make and bend the rules at their convenience in order to concentrate power. Again, the Morales government falls into this category, and the easiest way to understand such control is by taking a look at the current election process taking place in the country.

The Bolivian constitution forbids Morales and his vice-president, García Linera, to even be candidates – it does not allow public officials more than two terms in office. But after using a legal loophole that allowed him to run and be re-elected for a third time, Morales began pursuit of a fourth candidacy early in his third term.

Morales called for a national referendum asking Bolivians if they wanted to lift term limits and allow for indefinite re-elections. Bolivians said no. Ignoring the results, Morales used the Constitutional Court (which is controlled by his party) to legalise it in November 2017. Protests followed, but Morales’ candidacy was nonetheless allowed by the Electoral Court in December 2018, leading high-ranking officers to quit in protest.

To add insult to injury, Morales made a public statement in February requesting that the electoral branch  move the date of the presidential elections. The request was approved by a commission of the constitution of deputies in a process that took barely twenty minutes! As a consequence, Bolivian citizens no longer trust the electoral branch; 72% of Bolivians believe there will be electoral fraud in this year’s presidential elections.

Finally, tyrants seek absolute legitimacy via political processes, or even through mythicising their image or claiming divine rights to govern. Morales has done both.

After losing the referendum – a string blow for Morales’ image – the government imposed elections to legitimize his candidacy within his party, with him as the only option on the ballot. And after his expected ‘victory’, Morales carried out an indigenous ritual in the ancient Tiahuanaco ruins to enthrone himself as spiritual leader of all indigenous groups in Bolivia, a ritual which he repeated after his second re-election. These ceremonies would be completely valid as cultural celebrations were it not for Morales having systematically eroded indigenous rights in the country.

With this in context, it is clear that these ceremonies are nothing more than a cynical attempt to create the image of a mythical indigenous figure centered around him without any actual respect for such cultures.

Bolivia’s struggle for democracy continues

As part of the younger generation which has not known any other president for the past 13 years, I worry about the future of Bolivia. While the government justifies many of its actions as opposing entrenched corrupt political elites, the only elite we know of is that of Morales’ party which has been in power for far too long.

We want to see a change in government, new and young leadership, transparency, sustainability and decentralisation to move our country forward, but we will not see any of those things if we continue to be governed by a corrupt and authoritarian regime.

While the international community continues to either ignore the situation in Bolivia or celebrate our president, we are struggling for the same democratic values that these countries and international institutions allegedly hold. We know that in the end defending democracy is our responsibility and not that of the international community, but we need them as allies to ensure transparency in this year’s elections and whatever comes after that. We still have time to prevent this from being another crisis story. We’re counting on you.