On December 28, 2023, prominent Bolivian right-wing opposition leader Fernando Camacho was arrested in the city of Santa Cruz on terrorism charges. Camacho’s arrest exemplifies increasing polarization throughout Bolivia. These terrorist charges put forward by the ruling left-wing party, Movement Towards Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo or MAS), accused Camacho of organizing a coup against former president Evo Morales in 2019. MAS also blamed Camacho for inciting post-coup protests that killed 37 Bolivians. Camacho remains in detention as he awaits trial. Camacho’s arrest is a result of dramatic polarization in Bolivia that has been growing since the election of Evo Morales in 2006.
The election of Bolivia’s first Indigenous president turned a precedent of white minority rule on its head and fundamentally changed Bolivian politics. Morales came to power using a populist discourse of the “have and have nots” or Indigenous vs. elite, neoliberals vs. Leftists. Morales had considerable support for leading Bolivia’s GDP to grow 4.8 % per year between 2004 and 2017 and reducing the number of those living in extreme poverty by almost half. Morales nationalized oil and gas industries, redistributed land to Indigenous families, and raised the minimum wage. Through these dramatic reforms, Morales and the MAS party also heightened opposition amongst Bolivia’s wealthy.
Much of the opposition to Evo Morales came from the region of Santa Cruz, where Camacho calls home. In the eyes of many Bolivians, Santa Cruz has always stood apart as a country of its own. The region and its central city Santa Cruz de la Sierra are the most populated in Bolivia and serve as Bolivia’s economic powerhouse. Santa Cruz’s economy thrives from revenues from soy and beef exports. While many of Bolivia’s departments struggle with economic insecurity, Santa Cruz upholds the country’s economy. Santa Cruz opposition leaders use Bolivia’s dependency as a key point of contention in their efforts to improve the department’s sovereignty. Culturally and racially, Santa Cruz stands apart from other Bolivian regions like La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosi, Oruro, and Chuquisaca. La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosi, Oruro, and Chuquisaca include large Quechua and Aymara populations who influence the region’s Andean cultures. Santa Cruz, on the other hand, borders Brazil and has historically identified with Brazilian and Amazonian roots. Santa Cruz identifies as mostly white/ mestizo rather than Indigenous. Due to their different racial makeup, culture, and economic realities, civic leaders have described Santa Cruz as the future and the rest of Bolivia “an incarnation of the past.” Since Morales’ presidency, pre-existing polarization between Santa Cruz and the rest of Bolivia has worsened. When Evo Morales became president, Crucenos felt increasingly left behind. They accused Morales of creating a forced “Indianization” of Bolivia.
Polarization came to a head in the 2019 coup of Evo Morales. Ultimately, this is the event that would lead Camacho to end up in prison. Fernando Camacho and international organizations accused Morales of fraud in the 2019 elections and sparked protests throughout the country, resulting in the death of 37 people. Following the coup, Camacho ran for president in the 2020 elections, standing on a platform of conservative fundamentalism and neoliberalism. He promised political representation for Santa Cruz corporations and the return to a pre-Morales Bolivia.
Since Camacho’s arrest, polarization has again increased. Following his arrest and detention in December 2022, his supporters in Santa Cruz and other Bolivian cities erupted into protest demanding his release. Protesters claim that MAS is attempting to suppress right-wing opposition. One of the ways Camacho supporters have protested is through the organization of street blockades throughout Santa Cruz. The blockades interrupt Bolivia’s distribution chain and contribute to economic distress across the country. Protests and blockades have increased the strains on La Paz’s ruling MAS party and the right-wing opposition in Santa Cruz.
In Bolivia’s current political climate, both sides depend upon the subjugation of the other. When Jeanine Anez was interim president, she threatened various MAS leaders. The Right claims that MAS is suppressing opposition. Escalating polarization and crackdowns on opposition are obvious signs of democratic erosion. Neither group has shown any willingness to compromise with the other, which is also not promising for Bolivia’s future of democracy. But the issue is about more than ideological polarization. Morales’ election ended centuries of white rule and included Indigenous voices who had been systematically excluded from the political system. Bolivia’s polarization is rooted in a dark history of colonialism that persists today. The election of leaders like Jeanine Anez hints at a return to white minority rule. Bolivia needs to address its colonial legacies as a whole and put forward institutional reforms to protect Indigenous peoples. Otherwise, polarization will continue to grow and so will democratic erosion. Bolivia could learn from its’ neighbor Peru and organize a truth and reconciliation committee. If Bolivia wants to preserve its democracy, it must first heal its historic wounds.