Bolivia is often overshadowed by its neighboring countries– Brazil to the east, Chile to the west, and Argentina to the south. Similar to these countries, Bolivia transitioned its government from a military junta to a democracy in the late 20th century. Beginning in 1982, elections became a tradition and democracy was stable. The reemergence of populism in the 21st century risked Bolivia’s democratic institutions– reaching its zenith in 2019. So why did Bolivian politics implode? What led to the deterioration of Bolivia’s democracy? Evo Morales, a key figure in the 2019 political crisis, utilized populist messaging to retain a loyal following. Populism and Evo Morales’s autocratic leadership eroded democracy and sparked the 2019 political crisis.
Bolivia’s State of Affairs:
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. The country suffers from high poverty levels and more than half of the total population live in rural areas. In 2020, the richest 20 percent held 49 percent of Bolivia’s income.
The wealth inequality extends to racial divides. Amerindians make up 55 percent of the population and 30 percent are mestizo. The remaining 15 percent are white. Bolivia is one of the most unequal countries in the world.
The inequality created a hierarchy within Bolivia’s government. A small group of white and wealthy elites governs over a large group of indigenous and impoverished people. From 1982 to 2005, Bolivia’s democracy failed to promote reforms to alleviate the inequalities. The failure led to the creation of a gap between the people and the elites who govern. This gap became susceptible to populist movements.
At The Expense of Democracy: Inequality demands answers. Evo provided a solution.
Evo Morales won the 2005 presidential election. Morales and his party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), won the popular vote. Crucially, Morales advocated for coca growing in Bolivia. A campaign that spoke to indigenous farmers and Bolivia’s traditions. He offered hope and change for Bolivia’s democracy– because he represented the people. In 2005, Morales became the first indigenous leader of Bolivia, an identity that garnered a lot of attention from the indigenous population (55-85% of the total population). Morales never neglected to appeal to identity politics. His past as a llama shepherd and a union leader for coca growers was attractive to voters. Especially to those who Morales represented, “Bolivia is a majority indigenous nation, but that majority has always been excluded.”
Morales challenged the hierarchy of power, wealth, and race. Sukojayo, an indigenous teacher explains his view to the New York Times, “it has been 500 years of oppression since the Spanish came here… if we are part of the government – and we are the majority – we can make new laws that are in favor of the majority.” Morales did pass laws in favor of the majority. Under his first presidential term, Morales cut economic ties with the United States. A decision made in favor of coca growers. He oversaw steady economic growth and lifted a million out of poverty.
MAS, the party led by Morales, is a left wing populist political party. Morales did not shy away from implementing a populist government. His populist form of leadership became his undoing, leading to the 2019 crisis, which deteriorated Bolivia’s democracy.
Morales recognized Bolivia’s need for change. Years of inequality made the population desperate for a solution. When Morales was elected, his emotional appeal to indigenous rights grew support for his administration. Morales made statements that solidified support for his governance, “In 2006, I entered the presidential palace in the main square of La Paz as the first indigenous president of Bolivia. Our government… is committed to ending colonialism, racism, and exclusion that many of our people lived under for many centuries.” Morales campaigned under a socio-economic form of populism. His supporters, indigenous and impoverished, were championed by his leadership. He blamed a myriad of factors for inequality: colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism.
The consequences of populism outweighs the benefits of a populist leader. Morales became power- hungry, and his hold on power lasted for 14 years. During this reign, Morales used a combination of authoritarianism and emotional appeals to hold onto power. Autocratic practices, such as disregarding term limits in 2014 and again in 2019. A 2009 constitution defined these term limits but Morales sought methods to override this democratic institution. Emotional appeals prolonged support for Morales.
Similar to other populist governments, Morales was anti-pluralism and applied a moralistic imagination of politics. Anti-pluralist rhetoric like, “I’m just the democratic voice of Bolivia” proposes that only Morales could represent the people. He pitted his administration, a morally righteous, against a morally evil opposition. His loyal followers fed into this morality. The 2019 Bolivian crisis became unavoidable as Morales refused to relinquish control and opposition leaders continued to challenge his control.
The 2019 Bolivian Crisis
Morales’s rhetoric, opposition leader’s challenges combined with inequality culminated in the 2019 Bolivian crisis. A political crisis that almost eroded Bolivia’s democracy completely. The crisis began on October 20, 2019, as Evo Morales– the incumbent, won the presidential election. Carlos Mesa, defeated opposition leader, challenged the results. Those opposed to Morales’s rule alleged fraud– prompting protests across the country. These protests were compounded when OAS completed an audit of the election. The results alleged that the victory was too suspicious and fraud was likely.
Following the OAS report and nation-wide protests, government allies of Morales began to step down. His allies and the chief of the Armed Forces pressured Morales to resign. Morals resigned on November 10, 2019, ending his rule. This resignation sparked massive protests– led by supporters of Morales. Supporters, police, and opposing protestors clashed in major cities. Evo Morales stoked the fire, “they say they [opposition protests] defend democracy, but they behave as if they were in a dictatorship.”
The crisis boiled over on November 13, 2019. Jeanine Anez, leader of the Senate, declared herself interim president of Bolivia. Morales quickly claimed this move as a coup against him. The anger exploded and resulted in increased property damage, death, and a distrust of democratic institutions.
Anez’s rule was brief and Morales never returned to power. Luis Arce, assumed office in 2020. Morales’s influence was not over. In his resignation speech he promised, “I want to tell you sisters and brothers, the fight does not end here, the humble, the poor, the social sectors, patriotic professionals we are going to continue this fight for equality and for peace.”