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What Should Bolivia Do Now With Its Coup Plotters?

The victory of Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo party in Bolivia is a triumph for democracy and a rebuke to the right-wing coup plotters. But Bolivia now faces some serious questions: How will the country engage with these recent atrocities perpetrated by the Right? And what will happen to those who committed them?

Supporters of MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) candidate Luis Arce wave flags during a celebration the day after general elections on October 19, 2020 in La Paz, Bolivia. (Gaston Brito Miserocchi / Getty Images)

The recent victory for the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party in Bolivia’s election is a triumph of indigenous, socialist organizing in the wake of a brutal coup by the right wing and the military. With a victory margin so wide that even the leaders of the coup government couldn’t contest it, the party of ousted president Evo Morales will return to leadership under his successor, Luis Arce. Socialists, democratic activists, and politicians around the world have weighed in to celebrate their victory.

But of course, not all of these celebrations are created equal. Many liberal commentators in the United States, for example, have hailed MAS’s victory as a “happy ending,” while some leftist outlets have lauded the result as a triumph against fascism and an unassailable win against the Right and imperialism. The problem is that both of these perspectives frame the election as the conclusion of a story, the road to democracy — something that Bolivians themselves remind us is not the case.

This victory is only the beginning of another struggle: that of returning to democratic rule after a coup, a long and complex process under the best of conditions. Such struggles are unfortunately not new for Bolivians, Latin Americans, or indeed the citizens of many countries throughout the world. Coups and their aftermaths are difficult to overcome.

This most recent election was the result of a different electoral crisis last year, when former president Morales won a fourth term, made possible by a decision by the country’s Constitutional Court in November 2017. After Morales’s victory, conservative voices in Bolivia joined critics who claimed the election was “fraudulent” or “widely criticized” within the country (claims that have since been thoroughly disproven). The military then joined in, calling for the president to resign. In response, Morales offered to hold the election again, but by then it was too late. He had lost the loyalty of the military and the police, and was forced to flee the country after sleeping for several days in an old friend’s backyard. Morales has been in effective exile in Mexico and Argentina ever since.

Meanwhile, his exile also meant the ouster of his vice president and other members of his party, granting the presidency to Jeanine Áñez Chávez, a little-known representative of a small Christian conservative party. Her interim presidency saw MAS officials harassed and murdered, their offices burnt, and indigenous people oppressed by the military and other branches of the state — a return to injustices that Morales had worked to change.

Despite MAS’s resounding victory, the political situation in Bolivia remains in flux. When the interim president, Añez, chose not to participate in the election, the movement that supported her rallied around former president Carlos Mesa as the leading conservative candidate. It was Mesa who conceded to the victorious incoming president Arce, current leader of the MAS party. In addition to their presidential victory, it seems that MAS candidates have done well in both chambers of the Bolivian Congress, though their victory there is less outright.

However, while this election has resulted in a complete turnover in Bolivia’s elected officials, it by itself will not change the leadership of the Bolivian military that backed the coup. It won’t remove the chiefs of police in Bolivia’s major cities from office. It won’t necessarily cause any lasting inconvenience for the politicians that participated in Áñez’s government. There is as yet no guarantee that police and military personnel who perpetrated violence against Bolivian civilians and politicians during the coup will face charges. And, according to incoming president Arce, Bolivia’s future government won’t include Morales.

Even after this electoral victory, Bolivia and MAS are left with daunting questions: How will it engage with these recent atrocities? And what will happen to those who committed them?

Indigenous women sit on the floor next to a police barricade during a demonstration in support of former president Evo Morales and against interim president Jeanine Áñez on November 18, 2019 in La Paz, Bolivia. (Gaston Brito Miserocchi / Getty Images)

Justice After a Coup

These questions and issues all have historical precedent in Latin America and Bolivia itself. After an illegitimate government is ended and democracy is restored, people rightly demand that those responsible answer for the crimes they committed during the regime. Human rights abuses must be investigated, and those who perpetrated the coup must be punished.

The series of democratic transitions in Latin America in the 1980s and ’90s shows one way this kind of transition can be navigated: a “truth and reconciliation” commission or a “memory” commission. These commissions have two central possible outcomes: they can punish those responsible for violence and government overthrow, debilitating them enough that they don’t threaten democracy again; or they can appease these forces to convince them that the new democratic regime isn’t hostile enough to warrant another coup or more violence.

Bolivia’s people are no strangers to precisely this process. Nearly forty years after the restoration of democracy in 1982, Bolivia’s government established the Comisión de la Verdad, the Truth Commission. Its goal was to investigate human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and other crimes perpetrated by the various military and military-aligned governments that ruled the country from 1964 to 1982.

The Truth Commission was a successor to the National Commission for the Investigation of Forced Disappearances, formed after the dictatorships’ end. It was ineffective in actually performing investigations, let alone prosecuting or publicly denouncing those who participated in such crimes. That these efforts bore little fruit doesn’t bode well for justice after the latest coup.

The histories of other Latin American countries that emerged from military dictatorships show similar problems. After democracy was restored in 1983, Argentina saw a series of truth commissions, memory commissions, and other such bodies aimed at commemorating or prosecuting the crimes committed during the dictatorship. These were initially successful, resulting in the imprisonment of several military leaders. But their convictions were overturned and pardons were issued for all those who participated in any kind of violence. These pardons were themselves later overturned, with the back-and-forth between prosecution and pardon perverting the process of justice and the long periods without any enforcement letting many of those who tortured, captured, and killed during the dictatorship to die without facing justice for their crimes.

Another Bolivian neighbor, Chile, had a similar experience after its military and right-wing government under Augusto Pinochet. After the transition back to full civilian rule following the 1988 plebiscite that ended Pinochet’s presidency and the 1990 election that brought Patricio Alwyn to power, almost nothing happened to perpetrators of violence or other abuses during the Pinochet regime. In fact, the first time Pinochet was formally asked to answer for his crimes was eight years later, when a Spanish judge brought an indictment against him while he was staying in the UK for back surgery. It was only years later, and after overturning various laws that guaranteed him permanent immunity, that he went into house arrest shortly before his death in 2006.

Daniel Cespedes, “a suspected leftist,” at the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, 1973. (David Burnett)

Another Latin American country, Guatemala, is no neighbor to Bolivia but is comparable in a different way: both countries have indigenous majorities but have historically been ruled by white or mestizo politicians throughout most of their histories, a reflection of centuries of colonial and racist politics. Guatemala’s return to democratic rule in the 1990s saw a similar effort at “Historical Clarification,” but as with previous cases, this was more to prevent future conflict by appeasing both sides than to prosecute or punish those who had been responsible for the genocide perpetrated by the government. As with Chile, it wasn’t until years later that some of those responsible, like former president Efraín Rios Montt, were tried and convicted of genocide.

If history is any guide, we can expect something like this back-and-forth, too-little-too-late process in Bolivia in the coming years. Recent events and the implicit threat of another coup could prevent the incoming government from seeking real justice for the coup’s victims. Or those efforts might be eroded by the difficulty of proving what happened during the tumultuous time of marches and repression that followed Morales’s departure. Arce’s government might decide that it is in its best interest, or the best interests of the country as a whole, to try to move past the coup and its violence.

What Comes Next?

What comes next for Bolivia will depend heavily on how the coup and its perpetrators are handled. Former president Morales has said that he intends to bring the president of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, before the International Criminal Court for his role in promoting the coup, but what about the Bolivians who actually carried it out? Will they be prosecuted? Jailed? Pardoned? Promoted? What will happen to the thousands of other officials who weren’t part of the coup’s leadership but participated in or profited from it? And what about the millions of Bolivians who earnestly supported the coup and the right-wing government it established, and thus could become foot soldiers in future attempts to overthrow or disrupt the new MAS government?

Incoming president Arce has hinted at his response: he says that he will govern on behalf of “all Bolivians,” and that while MAS’s opposition is responsible for the coup, he intends to do what he can to reconcile with them for the good of the country. This may indeed be in his best interest as incoming president, knowing what happened to his predecessor. But it would mean moving forward without closely examining the crimes committed by the interim government — and possibly letting some atrocities go unatoned until it is too late.