Luis Arce’s election win is a huge victory for Bolivian social movements. All eyes are now on MAS’s political project.
by Nicole Fabricant
Part 2 - Accomplishments Despite Internal Contradictions
Evo Morales entered the 2019 election still popular, but having lost some of his luster after being in office since 2006. His popularity suffered after he narrowly lost a 2016 national referendum to do away with term limits (51 percent of the electorate voted no) and then turned to the courts to overrule the result. In the leadup to the 2019 election, he received criticism not just from right-wing opponents, but from some supporters on the Left.
Left-wing critics of Morales took issue with his retreat from the party’s most sweeping electoral promises in 2016—radical land redistribution, supports for small-scale agroindustry, diversifying the economy—and his decision to continue pursuing an extractivist agenda. They noted that the failure to transform Bolivia’s economy (still largely dependent on gas, mining, and soy) constrained the possibility for radical change and that concessions to the right-wing agroindustrial elites gave them more power inside the MAS state. Morales, for his part, insisted that these concessions and developmental projects were essential to enabling the government to enact its agenda and to reduce poverty levels.
Whatever its shortcomings, Morales’s MAS government made tremendous strides in economic development, national sovereignty, women’s and Indigenous rights, respect for the environment, and raising living standards, education levels, and healthcare coverage. The percentage of people living in poverty fell from 59.9 percent in 2006 when Morales came to power to 34.6 percent in 2017, with extreme poverty more than halving from 38.28 percent to 15.2 percent over the same period, according to government figures. For the first time in Bolivian history, Indigenous people could hold their heads high and participate as equals in politics.
The Right always opposed MAS’s rule, rightly seeing it as a threat to the country’s European and plutocratic order, which for decades had locked the country in underdevelopment while consigning Indigenous people to the margins. When the Right insisted that Morales was autocratic, it was pure opportunism. But in the wake of the disputed 2019 election—which the U.S.-backed Organization of American States helped undermine—the Right seized the moment of instability and launched a coup. Under the threat of police and military violence, Bolivia’s three-term president was forced to flee to Mexico and then seek asylum in Argentina.
Right-wing senator Jeanine Áñez declared herself interim president. There was no quorum in the Senate to approve this move, which was, at the very least, legally questionable. Nonetheless, a uniformed military officer draped her with the presidential sash on November 12, legitimizing the coup government. She promptly presided over a military massacre that killed dozens of Morales’s Indigenous supporters and granted immunity to the soldiers involved.
In the ensuing 11 months, Áñez attacked human and civil rights and slashed state support for housing and food introduced under Morales. She reopened Bolivia’s economy to intensified economic exploitation for the benefit of transnational companies by boosting gas, minerals, and lithium extraction. She opened the door to the use of five genetically modified (GM) crops, including soy, which threatens to exacerbate ecological and climactic threats while deforesting more of the Amazon through the expansion of monocultures.
And on top of reimplanting neoliberalism, Áñez far-right government pushed a hard-right religious agenda that viewed Indigenous people with contempt. After swearing herself in as president, Áñez declared with a mega-sized bible in hand, “The Bible has returned to the palace.”