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Bolivia: Two candidates, one party

The Movement Toward Socialism ruling party is now divided by competing candidates who want to lead the South American country in 2025.
A lawmaker from the MAS party of former President Evo Morales holds a sign that reads in Spanish: "Bolivia wants judicial elections" during a protest against the extension of the mandate for elected judges, who ruled against Morales' re-election late the previous year in La Paz, Bolivia, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. Bolivia's constitution allows only one consecutive re-election, which Morales used when he was re-elected in 2015. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

A sign says "Bolivia wants judicial elections" during a protest in La Paz, Bolivia, in January. Photo: The Associated Press

Bolivia is a landlocked country in South America that has been experiencing political unrest that began after the ousting of former President Evo Morales in 2019, amidst allegations of electoral fraud. An interim government was instituted.

In 2020 Morales’ party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) or Movement Toward Socialism, returned to power with the election of Luis Arce, an economist and banker who was credited with economic transformation during Morales’ presidency, which renationalized Bolivia’s thriving hydrocarbons industry, redistributed agricultural land, increased taxes on the wealthy, and lifted many members of the country’s Indigenous population out of poverty.

After Arce came to power, a bitter fight ensued with Morales, who has since become his rival. The rift threatens to split MAS. Now, Morales has vowed to run against Arce in the 2025 presidential elections furthering widening the political rift within the MAS.

John Twichell, lecturer and director of Latin American Studies at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, explains more about Bolivia’s present state.

What are the economic challenges the country has faced?

Bolivia currently faces major economic challenges that originate in its still contested late-20th-century methods of neoliberal reform which oversaw marketization and privatization of its productive sectors to the benefit of elites and foreign capital, but to the detriment of most of the Bolivian people. In addition to the disputed privatization of such utilities as water underscored by the Cochabamba Water War of 2000, the natural gas sector stands out for its market-driven expansion by means of foreign investment followed by its nationalization under President Evo Morales by way of decree in 2005. For the next 10 years, Bolivia’s increasingly natural gas export revenue-dependent economy benefitted greatly from resource nationalism as a development strategy thanks to a commodities boom in international markets driven by China’s industrialization indicated by steady GDP growth. Natural gas export revenue windfalls generated a fiscal surplus and foreign currency reserves surplus that grew to $15 billion by 2014, funding MAS’ generous redistribution policies and social sector expansion.

By then heavily reliant on imports to provision the bulk of the economy, a fixed exchange rate of 6.96 bolivianos to the U.S. dollar was adopted in 2011 to maintain price stability. Since its peak in 2014, this model has grown increasingly difficult for the government to maintain, due in large part to precipitous declines in natural gas resources combined with deferred investment and an extended period of relatively lower international prices. The result is observable in a balance of payments deficit. U.S. dollar reserves have declined to dangerously low levels of a few hundred million, the Bolivian Central Bank is now imposing currency controls, domestic businesses are not able to access U.S. dollars to pay for goods they need to import, and there is a growing consensus among financiers and the general public who are lining up at banks to withdraw dollars that Bolivia can no longer maintain its fixed exchange rate, prompting fears of currency devaluation, inflation, and perhaps even a return to its bleak history of hyperinflation. In response, the Arce government has stepped up efforts to develop its lithium export sector through foreign investment mainly by China while it also expands natural gas exploration into once environmentally protected spaces, some of which are home to indigenous peoples. 

What is the present political climate in Bolivia right now?

The present day political climate in Bolivia is defined by extremism, polarization, and turbulence, due partly to the economic situation noted above, yet due even more so to fallout still surrounding the October 2019 presidential elections when the incumbent at the time Evo Moraleswho ignored 2016 referendum results in which Bolivians rejected his efforts to run for reelection to a fourth term—and MAS in general faced immediate charges of electoral fraud by the opposition which unleashed widespread protests. The Organization of American States also questioned the integrity of the October 2019 election. In subsequent days, political maneuvering by the opposition, a conspicuous absence of MAS faithful willing to defend Morales out in the streets, along with military and police desertion of Morales himself, ultimately led Morales, at the suggestion of the military, to resign as president and flee Bolivia into exile in Argentina, immediately declaring himself the victim of a coup. 

In the midst of institutional chaos, conservative outlier Jeanine Áñez, a senator from the department of Beni, emerged from obscurity to declare herself next in line to lead a transitional government as de facto president. Overshadowed by continuing violent protest in its early days which she was convicted of brutally repressing, Áñez’s transitionary term coincided with the onset of the pandemic and an ensuing failure to address its effects. Nonetheless, Áñez declared herself a candidate for the 2020 special presidential election, which she lost to Luis Arce of MAS, Morales’ former economy minister.

Also important, Bolivia’s political climate is greatly influenced by its unitary form of government and a stark geographical political-economic divide between the federal capital of La Paz and the pro-market agro-industrial stronghold department of Santa Cruz with its capital of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia’s most populated city, which has experienced significant economic and population growth over the past decade. In response, business and government leaders of Santa Cruz are leveraging that growth to demand a greater share of distribution of federal tax revenues, which culminated in protests, strikes, and roadway blockades—a common political tactic in Bolivia—after the Arce government sought to delay the 10-year census due in 2023; but then, by legislative mandate, it ultimately acquiesced to by carrying out the census this past March with the highly anticipated results expected to be released in September. 

What has happened to the MAS party of former president Morales and what role do they play in today’s government?

Since the 2020 special election and the return of MAS to the role of executive under Arce, Morales came out of exile back to Bolivia and resumed his role as party leader and main conspirator which has pitted the two former allies and their respective faithful against each other—the evistas versus the arcistas—and led to an incredible rupture within MAS.

A 1990s political movement with its origins in reaction to the detrimental impacts of neoliberalism, and widely considered to be more of a “big tent” encompassing social movement that gained its momentum and strength by drawing together a variety of interest groups and social movements representative of Bolivia’s range of geographical, urban-rural, and identity-based cleavages, MAS is revealing itself to be resistant to party discipline. This, even though, it has achieved ostensible single party rule. Morales’ declaration of himself as challenger to Arce as MAS candidate in the 2025 presidential election, followed by the Constitutional Court’s December 2023 decision prohibiting Morales from running as a candidate—reversing a prior court’s ruling that reelection is a fundamental human right—has only exacerbated the MAS rift, with some of its most important interest group supporters now siding with Morales against Arce in the ongoing leadership dispute. In summary, division and fragmentation within MAS suggest it will go into the 2025 election weakened and at a political disadvantage against the opposition, especially if economic conditions continue to worsen.

What kind of human rights abuses have been carried out by the government since 2019?

Human rights abuses, accusations of them and charges and convictions related to them point back to the presidential election of October 2019 and ensuing weeks and months, when as many as 36 were killed and many others were injured during mass protests in the first days of Áñez’s government. Accusations came to light and charges of terrorism were brought forth by the Arce government in the “Golpe I” case against both Áñez and Luis Fernando Camacho, governor of Santa Cruz. 

Áñez has since been convicted and was sentenced to 10 years in prison while Camacho, ever since his shocking Dec. 28, 2022 arrest, has been held in pretrial detention inside the notoriously harsh Chonchocoro prison located in the highlands outside of La Paz. Camacho, a candidate in the 2020 presidential election, is widely considered to be the main leader of the political opposition and its leading presidential candidate to represent the right-wing Creemos party in the 2025 election. Camacho’s supporters have protested his arrest and refer to it as “kidnapping” intended to instill fear in the opposition.

Notably, Human Rights Watch, in its “Bolivia: Events of 2023” report, after reviewing the charging documents of both Áñez and Camacho, declared “the terrorism charge unsubstantiated and grossly disproportionate” in the former, and found “no supporting evidence for the terrorism charge” in the latter case. In summary, the dangerously polarized nature of politics in Bolivia appears to have overshadowed the protection of basic human rights irrespective of political alignment. 

Why is Bolivia characterized as a country where political interference in the justice system is common?

Political interference in Bolivia’s judiciary is widely acknowledged and not bound to any political party, with many judges and prosecutors in temporary positions. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, following a 2023 on-site observation of its judicial processes and institutions, declared Bolivia’s judiciary to operate subservient to the “interests of the ruling political power,” also referred to by political scientists as the tactic of “lawfare” or legal warfare. 

In that vein, accusations have been made by the opposition that Áñez, Camacho, and more than one hundred other political, military, and police leaders are being held as political prisoners in connection with the events of late-2019. Meanwhile, the current Minister of Justice Ivan Lima dismisses such claims and defends the government’s obligation to pursue justice for the victims killed in the protests mentioned above. 

Still, setting aside the cases tied to late-2019, it seems hard to defend a system that holds more than half of its detainees in pretrial detention against a judicial backdrop that lacks independence. Repeated delays in the scheduling of elections of judges to the high courts—delays being imposed by MAS while it lacks the two-thirds majority in Congress needed to unilaterally select candidates—casts further doubt on the impartiality of this branch of the federal government in Bolivia.