Situation in Bolivia remains highly volatile amid political crisis

Bolivia Protests 2019

Claire Gerken
Regional Security Coordinator (Americas)

Travellers to Bolivia are recommended to seek bespoke security advice as security environment deteriorates

Bolivia is a landlocked country known as the ‘heart’ of South America with a population of 11 million; its territory spans across the Andes mountain range, the Atacama Desert and the Amazon Basin. Bolivia welcomes around a million tourists per year and attracts international business due to its large reserves of minerals and natural gas. Recently, the country has been in the midst of a political and social crisis since the general election held on 20th October. At the time of writing, the situation in Bolivia remains highly volatile with no end to the unrest anticipated in the short term. But what led to such deterioration of the security environment in the Andean nation?

Background to the Bolivia protests

Bolivia is no stranger to political instability: in the 194 years since it achieved independence from Spain, the nation has experienced almost the same number of coups, attempted coups and revolutions. In the latest period of political turbulence Evo Morales resigned on 10th November, putting an end to his three-term presidency and relinquishing a controversial period as leader. The first indigenous president to serve Bolivia since the early 19th century, Morales was the head of a coca growers’ union prior to embarking on a career in politics and was inaugurated as president in 2006, having gained considerable support from the country’s often marginalised indigenous population.

During his time in office, poverty rates almost halved and the per-capita GDP soared. However, there were allegations of the politicisation of institutions meant to be independent, primarily the Electoral Council, the centralisation of power in the government, alongside allegations of corruption, with reports accusing Morales of amassing significant wealth while President. Morales also proved reluctant to relinquish his time in power; in November 2016, Morales held a referendum asking the population to vote on whether the presidential term limit of three terms should be abolished. The Bolivian population voted against the amendment; however Morales’ ruling party, Movement For Socialism (MAS) took the issue to the constitutional court, claiming that to run for office is a human right and to prevent Morales from standing again would violate that right. The court ruled in his favour and he was able to stand as a candidate for a fourth term in office.

By 10th November 2019, Morales had resigned following sustained anti-government protests and calls by military and police leaders for him to stand down. At least 32 people have been killed and several hundred injured since the crisis began. Demonstrations were initially triggered by allegations of electoral fraud during the 20th October presidential elections. Following an audit of the election, the Organisation of American States (OAS) concluded that the results of the election could not be verified, recommending a new vote due to alleged voting manipulation and irregularities. After speculation of his whereabouts following his resignation, Morales was confirmed to have boarded an aircraft in La Paz on the night of the 11th November and arrived in Mexico City after being granted political asylum by the Mexican government.

Following Morales’ resignation, which he and his party claim was a coup, several other members of the government resigned, including the Vice President Alvaro García Linera and the Senate President, Adriana Salvatierra Arriaza, who would have been next in line for the presidency. On 13th November, opposition and conservative politician Jeanine Añez was declared as the Interim President, although a boycott by lawmakers from Morales’ MAS party denied Añez a quorum in Bolvia’s legislative assembly, preventing congress from formalising her appointment as president. Añez justified her immediate claim to office stating she needed to step into the role to fill the power vacuum to prevent further instability and to restore order. Bolivian politics has been further polarised after Añez selected a cabinet that did not include any indigenous representation, sparking accusations of the deliberate marginalisation of indigenous communities, further angering Morales supporters, many of whom are indigenous.

Outlook for the near term

Despite Morales’ self-imposed exile, the ex-president has been accused of fanning the flames of unrest and has continued to call on his supporters in Bolivia to persist in their struggle against the alleged coup. Morales supporters have protested against the legitimacy of Añez, leading to violent clashes between opposition supporters and the security forces. Añez also passed a reform giving the security forces impunity, increasing the likelihood of clashes escalating, as they did on 19th November when several people were killed after Bolivian security forces cleared a blockade of a fuel plant. Furthermore, the interim government’s ongoing negotiations with elements of the MAS are unlikely to bring a swift resolution to the crisis. MAS officials have demanded the Añez administration protect party officials from persecution and that the government guarantee Morales’ safe return to the country. The interim government is unlikely to cede to these demands and whilst Añez has promised fresh elections, it is unclear when these will be held.

At Healix, we anticipate a continuation of operational disruption in Bolivia in the near term, caused by roadblocks and demonstrations that are liable to turn violent and cause incidental harm to bystanders. Access to El Alto International Airport has also been disrupted on several occasions and food and fuel shortages have been reported in La Paz. We currently advice those planning travel to Bolivia to seek bespoke security advice prior to travel due to the security concerns associated with the ongoing crisis in Bolivia.

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