By Ingrid Hanon & Kathryn Lehman

Over the last few weeks, Bolivia has been submerged in a climate of widespread violence and impunity following the “resignation” of President Evo Morales. But was his resignation actually a coup?

Over the last few weeks, Bolivia has been submerged in a climate of widespread violence and impunity. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, since the beginning of the political and institutional crisis following the 20 October presidential election, 23 people were killed and 715 injured. On 11 November, President Evo Morales fled the country with the Vice President, and the 15 November demonstrations against the coup led to a massacre in Cochabamba where 9 people were killed and 100 injured, followed by another 6 deaths and 20 injuries in El Alto. The unconstitutionally self-proclaimed president, deputy head of the senate, Jeanine Áñez signed a decree to exempt police and military forces from any criminal liability, thus giving them total impunity from prosecution for their repression of protesters. Demonstrations against the coup continue to the present and violence across the country is escalating against Indigenous people, political activists, supporters and members of the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo), as well national and international journalists.

How did the crisis begin?

On 20 October 2019, Bolivia held presidential and parliamentary elections. Although nine candidates were running for president, only two appeared in the polls with the capacity to win. On one side, left-oriented candidate Evo Morales from the MAS Party was running for a fourth mandate. On the other side was right-oriented candidate Carlos Mesa from the CC (Comunidad Ciudadana) Party, president before Morales.

According to the Bolivian Constitution of 2009, the candidate obtaining more than 50% of the votes in the first round, or more than 40% with 10% more than the second candidate, wins the election. If no candidate has this percentage, a second round is held with the two candidates who receive the highest number of votes in the first round. With Evo Morales as favourite, only a second round gathering all opposition parties could have potentially defeated him.

On 20 October, with 83% of the votes counted, Evo Morales was leading in the first round with 45.28% of the votes, against 38.16% for Mesa. As tends to happen, there was a delay for the remaining votes from remote areas of the country more favourable to the MAS, and once they were in, the final result was declared: 47.06% for Morales and 36.52% for Mesa. With more than 40% of the votes and 10% more than his opponent, Evo Morales was declared President of Bolivia by the Supreme Election Court (Tribunal Supremo Electoral).

 The opposition claims fraud

The opposition was already angry that the Supreme Election Court had previously ruled that Morales was allowed to run for a fourth term. It did not accept the election results and claimed that the change after the last 17% of the votes were counted was suspicious. The Organisation of American States, without any evidence, backed the opposition’s claim, questioned the final results and called for a second round. These suspicions led to protests against the newly elected president, who in turn accepted the proposal of the OAS to run new elections and change the members of the Supreme Election Court.

Although Evo Morales, seeking a peaceful, democratic outcome to the crisis, acceded to the OAS demands, the opposition rejected them and incited more violence, with attacks against members of the MAS and their families, including burning their houses, and other forms of violence against union members, community radio stations and journalists, often with the involvement of paramilitary groups. Throughout these events, the police intentionally failed to maintain order and protect victims of attacks.

 On 10 November, the General Command of the Armed Forces, Williams Kaliman, and the General Command of the Police, Vladimir Yuri Calderon, advised Evo Morales to resign, supposedly in the name of the Bolivian people and for the peace and stability of the country. To avoid more violence against Bolivians and for his own safety, Evo Morales resigned, and on the following day fled the country through the support of Mexican and Argentinean authorities.

What mainstream hegemonic media call a resignation is a coup against a democratically elected president who could not complete his mandate, scheduled to end on 10 January 2020 and he was forced to seek asylum in Mexico, where he remains to this day.

The OAS, prompt to raise suspicions, and whose declarations greatly influenced the events, remained quiet when it should have offered support and protection to one of its democratically elected members, Evo Morales. After one month, it has still not released the report it promised, providing evidence of fraud.

On 12 November, disregarding constitutional law, Jeanine Áñez declared herself president of Bolivia in an almost empty Parliamentary Assembly of only 12 legislators without a quorum.

Racism behind the coup

Organisers of the protest against Evo Morales are to be found in extreme right and paramilitary groups, among others, who have resorted to violence under the leadership of Fernando Camacho, a businessman from Santa Cruz. These groups, linked to religious fundamentalists, justify their acts through discourses of hatred towards Indigenous people, symbols and cultural practices. Racism rooted in the colonial history of a country ruled for centuries by a white elite minority never eased after an Indigenous man was elected as president. A racism that has become openly violent in last few weeks.

This revived and unleashed ‘hatred of the Indian’ (odio al indio) led to burnings of the Indigenous flag (the Wiphala), which has become a continental symbol of sovereignty and hope, as well as attacks on Indigenous women in traditional dress, explicit rejection of the Plurinational State of Bolivia established in the Constitution of 2009, and calls for the “return of the Bible” to defend the country against “indigenous paganism”.

 Crimes of the President, “Sins of the Indian”

Evo Morales is guilty of becoming the first Indigenous president of a nation where 60% of the population is Indigenous. Confident that his Aymara heritage, working class coca grower background and trade-unionist activism have given him a good understanding of the Bolivian people, he called for a New Constitution that transformed Bolivia into the second Plurinational State after Ecuador, recognising the rights to self-determination for the Indigenous nations, acknowledging that their cultures and traditional practices contribute to Suma Qamaña or wellbeing, it also offers legal protection for those who protect Pachamama, Mother Earth.

Morales directed the shift of coca production from cocaine to natural products that offer a sustainable livelihood for growers and nationalised some natural resources of the country, rejecting the privatisation of water and directing government funding to education, housing and health care.

He was able to use his office to increase wages, create factories, develop cooperatives, and build schools, and to enable women to enter government at the second highest rate in the world, 51%, while encouraging Indigenous people to actively participate in politics and public affairs.

Evo Morales led a government that reduced extreme poverty from 60% to 36%, poverty from 38% to 15%, and illiteracy from 23% to 2% of the population while it also increased the life expectancy of Bolivians from 65 to 71 years during his 14 year mandate.

He allowed one of the poorest countries of Latin American to register one of the highest rates of economic growth of the region: 4.4% in 2018, a rate that remained high when other countries faced economic downturn following the World Economic Crisis and the drop in commodities prices.

He governed Bolivia, the country with the world’s largest reserve of lithium, (a crucial mineral on the international market), South America’s second largest reserve of natural gas, rich in other resources like tin, silver, antimony, boron, zinc, gold, lead, tantalum, platinum, potash, palladium, nickel, indium, iron ore, cadmium, chromium. But due to climate change, the country lacks water. For this reason, he sponsored the UN Declaration to make access to clean water a human right.

His government presided over serious and difficult debates about resource extraction and distribution of wealth and resolved them almost entirely peacefully while refusing foreign military bases in the country.

In short, Morales maintained the most peaceful, stable, and legitimate mandate in Bolivia´s national history, additionally providing a model for Chile, now calling for a Constitutional Assembly that some believe will become the world´s third plurinational state.


Economic and Social indicators of Economic Growth, Life expectancy at birth, Seats held by women in National Parliaments: and

Evidence regarding Bolivian election results:

Statistics on Poverty Reduction from the Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas de Bolivia.

On Bolivia´s role in the UN Declaration that clean water is  a human right:

Ingrid Hanon is a Doctoral Candidate in the Social Sciences department at the University of Auckland.

Kathryn Lehman is a Senior Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Studies and the co-founder of the NZ Centre for Latin American Studies at the University of Auckland. She is an expert in Latin American cultural studies.

Photo Credit: 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author(s) views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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