Bolivia’s Coup Government Uses Repression and Pandemic to Avoid Election

Katheryn Ledebur, of the Andean Information Network, based in Cochabamba, Bolivia, talks about the consequences of the on-going repression of the right-wing coup government. On theanalysis.news podcast, with guest host Greg Wilpert.

Transcript

Greg Wilpert
I’m Greg Wilpert, guest host for the podcast theAnalysis.news. The situation in Bolivia at the moment is
quite tense. On one hand, Bolivia is dealing with the coronavirus pandemic just as everywhere else, but
on top of that, about nine months ago, Bolivia went through a coup that deposed the leftist government
of President Evo Morales and replaced him with a far-right president Jeanine Áñez. Evo Morales’s
opponents, including the Organization of American States (OAS), accused Evo Morales of having
committed fraud in the election last year.
Morales had agreed to new elections though, but that wasn’t good enough, and the police and the
military intervened, forcing Morales and his vice president, Álvaro García Linera, to resign. Since then,
numerous protests in support of Morales have taken place, including a recent general strike in the
second week of August. Joining me today is Kathryn Ledebur. She is the director of the Andean
Information Network and a researcher, activist, and analyst, with over two decades of experience in
Bolivia.
Thanks for joining me, Kathryn.

Kathryn Ledebur
Thanks so much for having me, Greg.

Greg Wilpert
So let’s start with the political situation in Bolivia at the moment. I mentioned in my intro that there was
a general strike, so let’s start with that. And the situation of course, with the general strike and the
political situation that is, mixes with the situation of the coronavirus. And that’s one of the things that
actually came up in the news recently, that the government has accused protesters of hindering
shipments of medical supplies, and that could cause deaths.
But before we get into that, I want to just ask you about, well, who was organizing, who was behind the
strike, how long did it last? How effective was it? And how many people basically supported it? I mean,
was it a general strike? What was the situation?

Kathryn Ledebur
The general strike was quite broad through most of Bolivia’s rural areas. It was an amalgam of different
social movement actors, the COB (Bolivian Workers’ Center, the largest labor union in the country),
mining unions, rural farmers, coca growers from both regions, Bartolina Sisa (National Confederation of
Campesino, Indigenous, and Native Women of Bolivia). And there were non-violent blockades. In some
cases, there were sections of the road blocked with dirt, or hills knocked out. But for the most part, it
was a very strong protest against the changing of the election date for the second time, this time
without any legislation, and after the threats, the Áñez government made against the head of the
electoral court. The Áñez administration said, and later the electoral court parroted the same version,

that the elections scheduled originally for next week, September 6th, would occur at the peak of the
pandemic, and that there would be too many health risks to carry it out successfully.
This was something that the head of the electoral court just two weeks earlier had said was doable, and
that there was a clear plan. So there’s a lack of clarity of where we’re going here, or of following rules.
And people were very, very concerned, and began to block the roads. It’s also important to know that at
the same time, the intense political persecution has continued of social movement leaders, of hundreds
of MAS (Movement for Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples) public officials
at all levels, or former officials.
And the concern was building because there has not been a response to a request for dialogue on the
other side, flexibility, or any sort of retreat in this process.
It’s amazing that just last night the Áñez administration said they’re going to be loosening the public
health and safety regulations they had put in in response to the pandemic, which completely contradicts
their argument about why elections should be postponed. I think it’s key to understand that this
government does not want elections. This government has a lot to lose because of the poor handling of
the pandemic, corruption, and other scandals, so they seem to be seeking strategies to maintain
themselves in power.
It’s important to note that these blockades, which lasted approximately 10 days, began to evolve past a
request for moving up the election date and other measures, to a very strong movement to force Áñez
to resign.

It’s pretty important to remember that Áñez does not have a constitutional right to be president.
She appointed herself in an almost empty Senate chamber, and the excesses and the irregularities from
that point on have just continued to get worse.

Greg Wilpert
So before I dig deeper into the political situation at the moment, I just want to ask you about the
situation with the pandemic in Bolivia now. Recently, there was an article in The New York Times that
painted a pretty dire picture, saying that the death rates were something like 15 times higher in Bolivia
at the moment, or I guess it was at the height of the situation, which might have been in late July, early
August or so, way higher than they normally are.
And that people were having a hard time finding places to bury the victims, and that that there weren’t
anywhere near enough tests to find out what the situation actually is like. From what you’ve been able
to see, what is going on in terms of the pandemic?

Kathryn Ledebur

Well, I agree that the situation is quite severe and that the official statistics don’t at all capture the
severity of the crisis, and I think that there are several reasons for that. One is that the government has
no public health approach, has no real way or need to gather statistics.
It’s not as if there’s some sort of strategy to lead to a solution or containment of the pandemic. Finally
now, there’s greater access to tests, although test results take a long time. Finally, there is some access
to health care, but many, many people couldn’t get a space in the hospital when they needed one. Many
people went to the hospital, didn’t receive appropriate medical attention, and became a lot worse. So
we are beginning to relax the quarantine regulations, but when they lasted, we were in full quarantine
for two and a half months here. And that on the part of the central government, although they’ve
received hundreds of millions of dollars of international aid, there was no key policy or strategy put in
place, and no money disbursed to the local governments to carry out any of these efforts to trace
contacts or have any valid, coherent strategy to address this pandemic.

Greg Wilpert
Now, one of the things that you mentioned also was that the government itself had been accused of
corruption in relation to the pandemic response. Just tell us briefly what that is about.

Kathryn Ledebur
Well, there’s a wide range of corruption charges, from the phone company, to the hydrocarbons
company, and then a very key case of over 100 respirators that were purchased from Spain at three
times the going price that are still not functioning. They don’t have functional software, they don’t have
the elements that they need to work, nor are they appropriate for what is most needed, and that is
respirators within the context of an intensive care unit. And this is something that has been reproduced
in another case of the purchase of respirators from China that has just come to light. But also really
important to point out that millions of Bolivianos, several million dollars, were spent on anti-riot gear,
equipment for the security forces, at a time when the Áñez administration knew that the pandemic was
inevitable.
So we have a problem with priorities. You have cronyism in terms of the companies or the shell
companies that are chosen to buy this equipment and health equipment, and an overall scandal and lack
of accountability and transparency on where this massive amount of international aid is ending up,
although I have my suspicions.

Greg Wilpert
Yeah, your mentioning of the use of money for repressive measures brings me to the next topic, which is
precisely what’s been going on in terms of repressing of the popular movements in Bolivia, and the
election campaign that is supposed to be kind of happening, I guess. I mean, the elections have been
postponed, as we mentioned several times now. And of course, with the pandemic, it makes it almost
impossible to campaign.

But talk a little bit about what has been happening in terms of the repression and how the campaign is
going. And then, of course, what the candidate of the MAS, the movement toward socialism, which Evo
Morales heads up, but which Luis Arce Catacora is the candidate now, what does that look like?

Kathryn Ledebur
Well, I think we’re looking at a straight forward, blatant, aggressive political persecution, you know. At
the request of the MAS leadership, and in coordination with the MAS Congress, a law was passed
sanctioning this October 18th election date, and the protesting sectors retreated and voluntarily lifted
blockades.
But it’s important to note that even that didn’t slow what has been a consistent series of attacks on MAS
leaders, both social movement leaders and public officials, and trumped-up charges against some, very
public announcements of this. So we are going into an election period which supposedly will be free and
fair, although right now the only confirmed significant set of electoral observers are the Organization of
American States, and we’ve seen how questionable their electoral audit and some of the key areas that
they face are.
But right now, you have the presidential candidate, the vice-presidential candidate, key Senate
candidates, and other congressional candidates with terrorism, sedition, a violation of public health
charges layered on sometimes simultaneously in four different jurisdictions. And this is something that
the international community has yet to speak out about for the most part. We really have had silence on
the part of key actors, such as the European Union. The United Nations High Commission on Human
Rights put out its first report on human rights violations in Bolivia and highlighted this political
persecution.
But this idea that we are going to be able to have elections with this severe political persecution, it’s
very hard to imagine how that will turn out. Remember, at the same time that we still have these
paramilitary para-state organizations like the Cochala Youth Resistance, the motorcycle gang that works
sometimes in tandem with the police, but obviously with the permission of the police, and with links to
the Áñez government in Cochabamba at least, and the Santa Cruz Youth League, remember, they do a
Nazi salute, and this is another organization that is a para-state organization, and very violent. They
were implicated along with the police, in the shooting of 47 citizens in
San Ignacio de Velasco, Santa Cruz Department. That was two weeks ago. Still, some of these people
have not received medical attention, and have bullets, buckshot, and rubber pellets inside their body. So
we have these other actors where the state has deniability, but they have consistently since the October
20th elections, and at other times where key decisions are being made in Congress or in rural areas,
consistently harassed and threatened MAS supporters and other social figures with no legal
consequences.

Greg Wilpert
Now, it seems like two major questions are looming over the elections if they were to happen. One is
basically if they’re going to happen, and secondly, if they do happen, will they be fair at all, given all of

the repression that you’ve been talking about? But a third question that I’d like to raise, which is, let’s
assume that all of this does happen, that is first of all, that there is an election, maybe in October,
maybe later, and that after the candidate, Evo Morales’s candidate, is able to campaign properly, what
do you see his chances as, let’s say, factoring out the repression aspect, but in terms of just the
popularity of the MAS, and of Arce as the candidate, who I should mention used to be the finance
minister under Evo Morales, what does it look like in terms of their popularity at the moment in Bolivia?

Kathryn Ledebur
Well, I think that it’s important to note there was a significant sector of people who had previously
supported MAS that were discontented with Morales’s decision to run for a fourth term. But at this
period of time, when the right maintains a very racist, anti-indigenous, discriminatory discourse, and the
level of human rights violations, remember, we’ve had two massacres, and the consistent attacks, have
really torn people more in favor of the MAS government. It’s really hard to know. According to the polls,
most polls list Arce with a slight lead over Carlos Mesa, and other candidates trailing.
But within the situation of a pandemic, we don’t know how profound polls are. Their methodology is not
transparent. Polls always, and especially during this period of time, prioritize urban areas, and rural
areas are often a MAS stronghold.
So I think that there’s concern that MAS might win, and I think that probably in a fair and clean election,
they would. It’s not clear at this point in time when the votes are counted, and the way we’re going, and
with little what I would say independent or credible oversight. We don’t know what’s going to happen
and we don’t, you know. It’s an election with a very short turnaround time, October 18th, and if no
candidate gets a ten-point majority, a second round, and my assessment is if it goes to a second round,
all the candidates on the right will again jump into the same basket.
Carlos Mesa, the former president, has done very little to denounce human rights violations or the
impropriety of the current government. And I think there’s this idea that anything’s better than a MAS
return in the mind of the far-right. And remember that the Trump administration fully supports the Áñez
government. And we’re looking at a whole series of oligarchic figures that really want to return to
power. At the same time, you have an international community where the upper echelon seems to be
relieved that, you know, you really no longer have to take social sectors, unions, and grassroots
seriously, or include them as sectors in a debate or mediation. What I perceive is, and when I hear the
discourse from the international community, it’s very paternalistic, it’s very neo-colonial. Deciding
what’s best for people who were in government for a very long time, who have very clear proposals and
projects. And I think this is really a setback from the level of engagement that existed during the
Morales administration.

Greg Wilpert
I think it’s very interesting that you mentioned that Carlos Mesa is not denouncing the Áñez government
because clearly he probably is hoping that Áñez and other opposition candidates will support him in the
second round. Now, of course, one of the big weaknesses of the opposition seems to be precisely that

they’re so divided right? I mean, what does it look like? You mentioned that, of course, a winning
candidate could either win with 50% outright, but also if they get less than 50 percent, they have to
have at least a 10% lead over the next closest candidate, which, of course, gets more difficult if there are
too many candidates, if the right is fractioned among too many candidates. I guess my question though
is, how does it look for Carlos Mesa, what does he stand for, and what is he saying in his effort to win
over the population?

Kathryn Ledebur
In all fairness, I don’t know what he stands for because it’s been very fluid and he’s been very vague.
And, although in the October 20th elections he was perceived and presented as a middle of the road
candidate, a moderate, maybe as a version of a US mainstream Democrat for a US audience to
understand, he really has not held up to any of those principles. He’s often sided and gone to political
summits with the far, far authoritarian right, and I include both Áñez and Fernando Camacho of Santa
Cruz in that category.
So I think it’s so ironic that he pulled away from Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 2003, citing human rights
violations and an unwillingness to be complicit, yet he has not acknowledged the two massacres, nor
asked for investigations or respect for human rights. So I think that he’s kind of amorphous, and that the
apparent differences in the right are not as acute as one might think because their idea is kind of a
return to this pack, to the power that we had before MAS first came into office.
This idea of making an alliance and dividing up the state into different quotas, or different sectors, or
different ministries for parties to divvy up the spoils. And so you don’t have a clear set of proposals, you
don’t have a clear set of programs, and you have from no candidate besides Arce, a discourse of there
needing to be investigations, needing to be transparency, needing to rein in these paramilitary groups
that act with impunity at any time. Those are all things -proposals for reconciliation, proposals for
investigations, proposals for police reform, and for armed forces reform- no one’s putting that on the
table. I mean, it seems very much an election about capturing power, and, on the right at least, keeping
power away from MAS, and having their own little fiefdoms within the Bolivian state.

Greg Wilpert
I want to turn now to, for our listeners who haven’t been following the situation that closely in Bolivia,
to the coup, I mean, what brought us basically to the situation in Bolivia right now. As I mentioned
earlier, it took place last year. In October, October 20th, as you said was the election I mean, and then
eventually, formally what happened was Morales resigned. But let’s reconstruct briefly for our listeners
what happened more or less in a nutshell. That is, there was the election, and there were questions
raised about the election. What were those questions, and how did that then lead to Morales’s
resignation?

Kathryn Ledebur

Well, in the end, on October 20th, they had two things, they had a rapid count of the election that gives
you preliminary numbers, and that rapid count froze for a period of about 18 hours.
This is within the framework of a riot that had been calling fraud even six months before the election.
So that gray area of the count freezing, and then the assessment on the part of some sectors, and the
doubt that it created for international observers was a suggestion that the trend jumped dramatically in
favor of MAS, which is not something that is actually shown by the statistics. It wasn’t a significant jump.
And because of the pressure of all the other sectors, MAS agreed to an audit by the Organization of
American States of Electoral Results, and promised it would be binding, as none of the other sectors or
the other parties agreed.
Mesa, who had initially promised the OAS and had promised the United Nations that he would engage in
the audit, pulled a 180 and rejected it. So you had a period of time where an audit was being carried out
after elections.
The right and upper-middle-class Bolivians had blockaded roads in urban areas for a period of
approximately three weeks. But what you saw during this period was an escalation in the demand. So
first the right and the more conservative forces were demanding a second round in the elections. They
quickly moved away from a second-round in elections to demanding a new election. And after the
hastily presented OAS results, which we’ve now seen have some very significant methodological
problems, and I would say some other problems in terms of the interpretation of the data, though
certainly, this isn’t my area of expertise. But when Morales agreed to a new election on November 10th,
just 15 minutes after the OAS announcement, the sectors continue to attack MAS politicians, burnt
down their houses, and tortured some of their family members. But eventually, the Bolivian armed
forces suggested that Morales step down. We aren’t that far off from the dictatorships in the 80s to
understand that that suggestion, it’s not a suggestion.
It’s a clear violation of Bolivia’s constitution, a clear violation of international law. And what we saw then
was Morales having to go into hiding in the Chapare region before he left. And so even as the sectors
achieved Morales’s resignation, the violence continued, and they went after other key people in the
succession. The vice president had to flee. The head of the Senate, who was also a MAS person, had her
family threatened.
The head of the lower house of Congress’s brother was tortured and his home was burned down, all to
create a powerful way in which they could insert someone. Morales made many errors, but in this
period, he followed and kept his promises to the international community, and he did not bring the
armed forces out against the civilian population. As soon as Morales resigned, the military went out on
the streets the next day and started pumping bullets into people, we had seven dead.
There were retaliatory attacks on the part of grassroots supporters and MAS supporters, but, you know.
Several days later, the government passed a supreme decree guaranteeing, illegally again, impunity for
the security forces, and they began to pump bullets into the crowd in a period of violence that was
sustained, and that we haven’t seen since October 2003.

Greg Wilpert

Now, I guess the two main catalysts or incidents that brought about this coup were, first of all, the
accusations of fraud that were supported by the OAS, and then of course the military asking, or
supposedly asking Morales to step down, although I think it should be clear, as you suggest, that it’s not
really asking, it’s really more extortion than anything else. But let me just briefly get to those two
aspects.
I mean, one is the OAS count. That was really used, it seems, to justify the opposition’s maneuvers, and
also the military’s maneuvers to oust Evo Morales. But much later, the Center for Economic and Policy
Research had a detailed analysis showing that that OAS count was misleading, that, as you said, didn’t
lead to this huge jump that they claimed after the interruption. As a matter fact, just a couple of days
ago actually, there was a report that CEPR (the Center for Economic and Policy Research) released that
stated they finally got access to the official data analysis of the OAS, and it showed that they had a
programming error which caused the data to leap, and that’s why nobody was able to replicate it. And
as a matter of fact, MIT research researchers said the same thing, that the OAS analysis was faulty. So I
guess my first question in this regard is, what has been made of all of this? I mean, in Bolivia itself, have
there been any repercussions in terms of these analyses that were made outside of the country?
Have they reached the Bolivian people? Has anybody paid attention to it? Have there been any calls to
reflect on what actually happened?

Kathryn Ledebur
Well, I think there have been a lot of calls and this is something that we’ve gotten a lot of news about in
Bolivia, people are very concerned about it. With the high level of polarization, there are people who
dismiss it completely, some in the middle that will look at the data, and then some that felt from the
very beginning that the study was off, you know, the blip.
It’s interesting because I talked to somebody at the attorney general’s office who said we’re doing our
own investigation, and we found lots of errors in the OAS report. It’s interesting to note that they’re
prosecuting Morales officials, they certainly are not skewed in favor of MAS, but it really sets up this
whole dynamic where we have to look at something that was hastily done with a lack of clarity. And
then look at the ongoing role of the Organization of American States, and I find that so worrisome. You
have Almagro after this, although he had said that Morales should continue and finish his third elected
term through the 21st of January, as soon as Morales left, he said Morales was carrying out a coup.
He had very public meetings with members of the far-right, including Luis Fernando Camacho, a very
good rapport with Áñez officials, many of whom are also Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada officials, and very
clear bias. He even attacked, for example, when The New York Times presented another study, an
independent study critiquing the OAS electoral audit, attacked The New York Times, and insulted them
on his Twitter page. So you have this explosive figure allied with the far, far-right in Bolivia and the far,
far-right in Brazil and a lot of things, the Trump administration’s pick showing bias towards Bolivia, and a
lack of clarity. And then, you know, at the end of last week, his shocking intervention in the Inter-
American Human Rights Commission, refusing to renew the contract of Paulo Abrão, the executive
secretary, even though he had been reelected by the commission. So you don’t only see questionable

acts from the OAS in terms of electoral observation, but also an intervention in the Inter-American
Commission, which is supposed to be autonomous and move independently.
The Inter-American Commission, unlike Almagro and the greater OAS, has been quite critical of the gross
human rights violations, and has been quite pointed in their reports about them and their
denunciations. And I think that it’s quite telling that immediately after the news came out that Almagro
was inappropriately blocking and saying there were administrative denunciations, but being very vague
about it. This was simultaneously on the part of the Bolivian right a move to attack Abrão and to present
formal denunciations against him for not prioritizing things.
It’s really a part of this authoritarian far-right playbook that you see here in Bolivia with concerned
citizens denouncing blockaders and MAS officials for terrorism.
The concerned citizens in the end turned out to be the lawyer for the paramilitary motorcycle gang in
Cochabamba and other figures. And them being forced to prosecute, forced within quotes. And the
same thing happened allegedly with Almagro, there were other people who were concerned, and so he
is taking action, responsibility. But we see it over and over again, and we see that the moment it’s clear
that he’s pushing Paulo Abrão out, the security forces and citizen groups begin attacking all of the
people who have precautionary measures from the Inter-American Court, the violent civilian groups
storming into the Defensor del Pueblo’s office, threatening to hurt the Defensor and other employees,
kicking in doors, screaming racist chants, and other actions against officials who are withdrawing police
support.
So there’s a direct correlation between this blocking human rights investigations by Almagro and the
OAS towards the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, and at the same time using this as a way to
guarantee impunity for these far-right forces.

Greg Wilpert
It’s really amazing the extent to which Almagro, and we know that from lots of other cases, especially his
role in Venezuela, has been a factor for enabling the rise of the far-right in Latin America.
But let me just touch very quickly before we end on one other point that I raised earlier, which is the
role of the military. And one thing that, and this actually raises the question of the comparison again to
Venezuela, is that in Bolivia, the military decided essentially to side with the people who were trying to
overthrow Evo Morales. This is something that didn’t happen in Venezuela. And we all know why it
hasn’t happened that way in Venezuela, it’s because Hugo Chavez was a military person himself, knew
the military, and made sure that that wouldn’t happen if push came to shove.
Now, in Bolivia, what’s the role of the military? I mean, why do you think that they played along in this?
Was it that Morales didn’t pay enough attention to them?

Kathryn Ledebur
You know, it’s rather ironic because Morales paid a lot more attention to them than I thought they
deserved. They had salary increases, they received a lot of equipment, they received an increase in their

retirement to retirement pay with full salary. The other element in this that I forgot to mention is that
the police mutinied a week before Morales’s resignation, demanding the same benefits as the armed
forces.
I’m not sure whether the high command was offered money. The new high command certainly has, in
my assessment, personally benefited, although the armed forces have been in a very questionable
position.
It wasn’t a lack of attention to the military, but it was this inability to restructure or to make them a
citizens’ armed forces, and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One, you have an old guard.
You have a lot of personal interest, you have temptations on the part of the far-right, or the suggestion
that the tide is turning and that there will be much less oversight, and we certainly see there has been
no oversight. The military high command promoted itself and other high-ranking officers without
congressional approval in violation of the Constitution. So you have a group that seems to want to gain
something, but you have the lower ranks of the police force and the military now wondering why they
made that decision.
They were put out on the streets in repressive control of COVID-19. Many of them got sick. The benefits
and the promises for the most part, beyond a small raise for the police, haven’t materialized. And
there’s a great deal of discomfort. So, you know, it’s clearly a coup, a textbook coup with this new kind
of Trumpian dimension of polarization through fake news. I read the other day on Facebook that I was
one of the people that supposedly was procuring underage girls to go out with Evo Morales.
You know, this wave of false information which has really affected public opinion. And denial of the
massacres, the Bolivian government says they shot themselves in the back of the neck. So we have this
element that’s facilitated a power grab and really authoritarian behavior that that is very similar to a
dictatorship.
And this new online movement and manipulation of the news kind of reinforces the authoritarian
behavior.

Greg Wilpert
OK, well, we’re going to leave it there for now. We’ve covered a lot of ground, but I think that’s really
great. So thanks again, Kathryn, for having joined us today. It’s been really great to have you on again.

Kathryn Ledebur
Thank you so much for having me.

Greg Wilpert
Again, Kathryn is the director of the Andean Information Network and a researcher, activist, and analyst
with over two decades of experience in Bolivia, specifically in Cochabamba. Thanks also to the listeners
for having tuned in to theAnalysis.news.

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