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The Fragility of Progress

Across South America, 2019 was a year of unrest. Protests erupted in Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, and Peru as citizens became increasingly infuriated with their governments, and riot police confronted protesters with unnecessary brutality. While these conflicts have had a broad array of causes, much of this political turmoil is a manifestation of Indigenous peoples’ frustration with a wave of politicians who have risen to power in part through the use of anti-Indigenous rhetoric. This pattern is clearly exemplified in Bolivia, where a political shift in November 2019 carried worrisome implications for Indigenous rights.

On November 15, a largely Indigenous group of people peacefully gathered in Sacaba, Bolivia, to protest the government of interim president Jeanine Áñez. Protesters waved a multicolored flag, representing the union of 36 different groups Indigenous to the Andes, chanting: “She must quit!” The scene became violent when protesters attempted to cross a military checkpoint, provoking an aggressive reaction from Bolivian armed forces. According to witnesses, police began to fire into the crowd, leaving nine dead and many others injured.

Though military responses to protests are not uncommon in Bolivia, the most recent turbulence is rooted in Bolivia’s long history of denying its many Indigenous peoples political self-determination. In the wake of new and heightened political and violent threats, the international community must defend the political rights of Indigenous people in South America and work to ensure that the new Bolivian government gives Indigenous communities opportunities to participate meaningfully in the political system.

When Evo Morales became the first Indigenous president of Bolivia in 2006, he pledged to bring sweeping changes to an impoverished country with a long history of colonial and economic exploitation. As president, Morales fulfilled many of his promises, bringing greater prosperity and relieving the economic burden of millions of Bolivians. Morales’ 2009 alteration of the constitution that redefined Bolivia as a “plurinational state” also legally enshrined the recently-expanded territorial rights of Indigenous groups, who make up around 40 percent of the nation’s population. On October 20, 2019, Morales won the presidency by securing the necessary ten-point margin over his opponent, Carlos Mesa. But when an audit of the election conducted by the Organization of American States found irregularities in the computer system used to tally the results, Morales’s opponents demanded his resignation and called for new elections to be held. After the military High Command urged Morales to step down, protests became increasingly violent. On November 10, Morales resigned, pleading for an end to the fighting, but vowing to make a return to Bolivian politics.

In the wake of Morales’s resignation, Jeanine Áñez, a religious conservative who served as the second vice president of the Bolivian Senate, assumed the presidency on an interim basis. Although she has been endorsed by the military and police, supporters of Morales have inculpated Áñez’s party for taking power by inciting violence rather than through peaceful political participation. In an unsettling echo of the political movements that elected South American populists Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Iván Duque Márquez of Colombia, Áñez’s rapid and unexpected rise has been fueled largely by her use of demonizing rhetoric toward Indigenous people. Though many have since been deleted, a number of Áñez’s old tweets vilifying Bolivia’s Indigenous population were recently unearthed by journalists. These included a racist depiction of Morales accompanied by a threat that Indigenous people were clinging to their “last days” of power in Bolivia. Another of Ánez’s deleted tweets criticized the “satanic”New Year’s celebrations of the Indigenous Aymara people.

Although Morales’ alleged anti-democratic conduct largely fueled the protests that led to his resignation, the behavior of the new government hardly indicates that Áñez is interested in promoting fair democracy. On November 14, the new government threatened to prosecute journalists who had reported on government forces tear-gassing protesters. In December, four of Morales’ former staffers were charged with misuse of public funds and sedition, but were denied due process. Morales, who has continued to communicate with his supporters from exile, has announced his intentions to run in future elections, but has been threatened by Áñez with prosecution for political crimes. Although Áñez initially pledged not to run in upcoming elections, she recently reneged, announcing in January her plans to compete electorally. Because Áñez came to power by accusing Morales of betraying democracy, it is paramount for the international community to recognize her presidency for what it is: an illegitimate transfer of power. Bolivians have good reason to doubt that this transition will lead to greater democratic fairness, and Indigenous people are rightly fearful that Morales’s ouster will be a setback for their inclusion in the political process.

According to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, Indigenous peoples “have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights.” A week after Morales’ resignation, when the death toll had risen to 17 protesters (and it would eventually rise further), U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet expressed concern over the repressive actions taken by Bolivian authorities. The actions of the U.N., however, have amounted to nothing more than hollow statements.

The U.N. and geopolitically influential countries need to work together to ensure a fair transition of power in Bolivia that affirms the rights of all to participate. Instead, nations around the world have largely praised the transition from Morales to Áñez as a victory for democracy. For example, American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo applauded Áñez for bringing her nation through “this democratic transition.” Áñez’s administration has also received the support of the United Kingdom, as well as Colombia, Brazil, and other conservative Latin American governments. Countries like Spain and Mexico are among the few who have been at odds with the Bolivian government; Áñez expelled two Spanish diplomats after they visited the Mexican embassy, where Mexican diplomats were working to help former members of the Morales government flee Bolivia.

Thus far, the Áñez government has not given international observers good reason to believe that she will be a champion of democracy and will fight for legitimate elections. Those who face the greatest risk from the potential abuse of power by the new Bolivian government are the Indigenous people whose hard-fought gains of the last 14 years seem increasingly fragile. If the U.N. and international community care about protecting the rights of Indigenous people in their own countries further than simply paying lip service, they need to exert diplomatic pressure on the Bolivian government to ensure fairness in future elections and to affirm and protect Indigenous peoples’ rights.

Illustration: Maegan Murphy ’20

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of the Brown Political Review magazine.