Protesters march through the street of Bolivia’s capital La Paz in the wake of disputed elections in October 2019. Photo: Paulo Fabre Luiz.
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Pandemic and protests in Bolivia
Driving Bolivia’s narrow, twisting mountain passes is a treacherous endeavor — the country is home to a 40-mile cliffside route once dubbed the world’s most dangerous road. In recent weeks, those roads have become even more perilous, as protesters set more than 100 blockades in a demonstration against repeated electoral delays by the country’s caretaker government.
Bolivia’s political crisis began in October 2019 (members’ link), when incumbent president Evo Morales declared victory in a general election marred by allegations of irregularities and fraud. The protests, which had remained peaceful in the lead-up to the vote, quickly became violent (member’s link) after the results were announced. The leftist leader resigned in November and fled the country, leaving a political vacuum filled by right-wing senator Jeanine Áñez.
While Áñez’s ascension brought a brief period of calm, demonstrations have accelerated in recent weeks, as protesters aligned with Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism, or Mas, grew angry over repeated election delays. The transitional leader pledged to hold a new vote within 90 days of Morales’ resignation, in line with Bolivia’s constitution, but she has delayed that election twice. Meanwhile, her government has charged former Mas officials with sedition, leading protesters to accuse her of staging a power grab.
Bolivia’s fierce social divisions have worsened the unrest, which has killed at least 35 people and injured 833 others since October last year. It has also inhibited the country’s ability to manage the coronavirus pandemic. Áñez’s government claims the recent blockades have killed at least 31 people by preventing the transport of essential medical aid, while the country’s epidemiology chief says a $1.8 million shipment of medical supplies from the World Health Organization remains stranded. Protesters say this is a political ploy and point to videos showing blockades being lifted to allow ambulances through.
With the election firmly set for October 18, polls suggest Morales’ candidate Luis Arce will likely face Carlos Mesa, a centrist, in a second round of voting, indicating the past year’s unrest has done little to shift the country’s political needle. As Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales enfranchised those who had never seen themselves embodied in the country’s leadership before. But last November’s protests signaled that Bolivians will not tolerate corruption in exchange for representation; the desire for a fair electoral process is paramount.
“The nation’s only viable means of emerging from this crisis is to put the human rights of all its people at the centre of its response,” says Amnesty International’s Erika Guevara-Rosas. Ensuring free and fair elections take place in October is the most pressing of those rights, and will no doubt bring some much-needed stability to Bolivia.
- Factal’s Bolivia list (members only) curates journalists on the ground, national and regional media outlets and official sources which enable us to provide localized, timely and accurate coverage.
- This episode of the Worldly podcast by Vox discusses whether November 2019’s disputed election can be classed as a coup, and the implications of Bolivian instability for politics across Latin America.
- This paper from four Latin American specialists delves deeper into the politics of representation with regards to Bolivia’s indigenous population, with particular focus on the relationship between political engagement and the experience of corruption.