Un Término Más para el MAS: Luis Arce’s victory in Bolivia Represents a Resounding Victory for Democracy in Latin America

Dan Quezada, Editor

On November 8th, 2020, Luis Arce was sworn in as the third president of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. [1] Before serving as the presidential candidate for the Movimiento al Socialismo party, Arce served as Economic Minister under its previous leader, Evo Morales. During his tenure, he implemented policies that delivered economic growth rates far exceeding other Latin American countries. The Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) noted that during his tenure, Bolivian GDP per capita rose more than 50%- one of the highest in the world. [2] This radical transformation was in part owed to nationalizations he oversaw: from 2006 to 2019, industries such as telecommunications and mining were nationalized to finance anti-poverty campaigns. These programs also paid astounding dividends, with poverty rates slashed in half from over 60% in 2006 to 35% in 2019. [3]

Despite his successful record as Economic Minister, Luis Arce’s October 18 electoral victory was by no means guaranteed. In fact, the date of the inauguration was just shy of one year since the Bolivian government was the target of a coup d’etat, spearheaded by the now-former president Jeanine Añez. MAS’ substantial margin of victory in the 2019 Election was not immediately apparent, as the constituencies that supported MAS most disproportionately were remote Andean districts where reporting results took significantly longer than more accessible districts. Similar to the 2020 Election in the US, this late reporting by MAS-supporting districts made election night results seem significantly closer than they actually were, prompting the right-wing opposition to declare fraud. 

Their case was spurious from the beginning, but received key institutional backing when the Organization of American States, a forum for Latin American states which receives 60% of its funding from the United States [4], published a report alleging “irregularities” in the tabulation process, and declined to certify Morales as the victor. [5] Morales’ opposition seized on this declaration to rally support against him. As the military turned against him, Morales agreed to resign. afterward, second vice president of the senate Jeanine Añez unilaterally declared herself interim president in front of an empty legislative chamber. Afterward, Añez declared “the Bible had returned to the presidential palace,” and removed Wiphala flags (a symbol of Andean indigenous population) from national symbolism in a consummation of right-wing, white supremacist reaction to the expansion of indigenous representation during Morales’tenure. [6] Luis Camacho, a far-right politician and heir to a natural gas fortune, lent further credence to this position by inviting a pastor to the presidential palace to declare “Pachamama [an Andean deity] will never return to the palace… Bolivia belongs to Christ.” [7]

The seizure of power by Añez received little criticism, and in some cases outright endorsement, from governments around the world even after CEPR and MIT published research suggesting that the OAS’s claims of fraud were unfounded. [8] The US State Department was quick to embrace the new president, writing on November 13, 2019 that “the United States applauds Bolivian Senator Jeanine Anez [sic] for stepping up as Interim President of State to lead her nation through this democratic transition, under the constitution of Bolivia.” [9] The governments of Canada, Brazil, and the United Kingdom were quick to issue similar statements. 

While the world moved on, the struggle remained in Bolivia. In 2015, Morales was quoted as saying “Democracy does not stop at voting. Democracy is permanent contact with social movements.” The year following the coup is as good an affirmation of that philosophy as could be found. Faced with a government that made little guarantee of the democratic process, the Bolivian people took matters into their own hands, encountering notable obstacles. In the city of Sacaba 11 protestors were killed after police fired on them [10]; Añez, however, had signed a decree granting police immunity from legal responsibility for harming protestors. [11] On August 3rd, 2020, indigenous groups and unions announced a general strike, fearing that the Añez government was attempting to delay elections and retain power. [12] Highways and cities in Bolivia were blockaded by striking protesters, forcing the government to commit to an election in October 2020. 

In the end, the Bolivian people made a clear decision. In an election with turnout nearing 90%, 55% of voters chose the MAS candidate Luis Arce, whose vote total was greater than all of his major opponents’ combined. Observers from the OAS and elsewhere found no examples of fraud. Arce’s victory represents the return of an inclusive, plurinational government in a hemisphere where such a thing is hard to come by. It additionally represents a return to the principles of equitable economic development, where resources are used for the benefit of the whole population, rather than a select few well-connected businessmen. The movement that delivered Arce’s victory has global implications, as well. Democracy, whether it is in Bolivia or the United States is never a given. The pursuit of democracy must therefore involve, at all levels and at all times, the participation of the people it is its responsibility to represent. 

[1] Dominguez, Claudia. (2020, November 8th). Bolivia’s Luis Arce sworn in as president as socialists return to power. CNN. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/08/americas/bolivia-luis-arce-inauguration-intl/index.html.

[2] Arauz, A., Weisbrot, M., Bunker, A., & Johnston, J. (2019, October). Bolivia’s Economic Transformation: Macroeconomic Policies, Institutional Changes, and Results. 23. From https://cepr.net/images/stories/reports/bolivia-macro-2019-10.pdf.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Organization of American States. (2020, March 10). Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/organization-american-states.

[5] Organization of American States. Electoral-Integrity-Analysis-Bolivia2019.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2020, from http://www.oas.org/documents/eng/press/Electoral-Integrity-Analysis-Bolivia2019.pdf

[6] Bristow, M., & Quigley. (2019, November 11). Senator Brandishing Giant Bible Assumes Bolivia Presidency. Bloomberg.Com. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-11-11/bolivia-faces-power-vacuum-and-more-chaos-after-morales-quits

[7] Estes, N (2019, November 14). What the coup against Evo Morales means to indigenous people like me | Nick Estes. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/14/what-the-coup-against-evo-morales-means-to-indigenous-people-like-me

[8] Curiel, J., & Williams, J. R. (n.d.). Analysis | Bolivia dismissed its October elections as fraudulent. Our research found no reason to suspect fraud. Washington Post. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/02/26/bolivia-dismissed-its-october-elections-fraudulent-our-research-found-no-reason-suspect-fraud/

[9] Pompeo, M. (2019, October 27). United States Responds to Irregularities in Bolivia’s Presidential Election. United States Department of State. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.state.gov/united-states-responds-to-irregularities-in-bolivias-presidential-election/

[10] Phillips, T. (2019, November 20). “What happened was a massacre”: Grief and rage in Bolivia after day of deadly violence. (2019, November 20). The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/20/bolivia-el-alto-violence-death-protest

[11] Amnesty International. Jeanine Añez must repeal decree giving impunity to Bolivia’s Armed Forces. (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/11/bolivia-derogar-norma-impunidad-fuerzas-armadas/[12] General Strike & Blockade in Bolivia Enter Day 11 as Protesters Condemn Delayed Vote by Coup Gov’t. (n.d.). Democracy Now! Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.democracynow.org/2020/8/13/bolivia_general_strike_ollie_vargas

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canciller_Andr%C3%A9s_Allamand_participa_del_saludo_protocolar_al_Presidente_de_Bolivia,_Luis_Arce,_y_al_Vicepresidente,_David_Choquehuanca_02.jpg