Today the future of democracy is teetering on a sharper edge in Bolivia than anywhere else in the world. The United States helped set off this crisis and cheered the collapse of Bolivia’s government in November, but within a few days, inevitably, most Americans forgot that anything happened there. Our consuming debates over impeachment and threatened conflagration in the Middle East leave little room for continuing concern about seemingly remote places like Bolivia. Yet in the coming months, the fate of this Andean nation may be decisively reshaped. One of the most successful social projects in modern Latin American history, the raising up of a long-oppressed indigenous majority, is under serious threat. While Americans look away, Bolivia faces a turning point — with the Trump administration determined to help shape the outcome.
The Bolivian leader who resigned on Nov. 10, Evo Morales, was the first president in his country’s history to come from the indigenous majority. In office he was an outspoken leftist and embraced the anti-American governments of Cuba and Venezuela. That put him on Washington’s hit list. In 2008 he expelled the American ambassador, whom he accused of working to destabilize his government. The next year, an academic study found that US-sponsored “democracy promotion” programs in Bolivia had been “reconfigured to undermine the rise of Evo Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) through ‘hard’ tactics.” The United States poured millions of dollars into those programs. Much was funneled through the National Endowment for Democracy, one of whose co-founders said in 1991 that “a lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” This long project has now borne fruit. Morales is in exile. The victorious white elite seems ready to do whatever necessary to assure victory in elections scheduled for May 3. Washington, feeling equally triumphant, is likely to ignore all irregularities. A new chapter in America’s history of regime change may be unfolding.
The genocidal feudalism of Spanish rule shaped Bolivia, where today 11 million people are spread across a territory twice the size of Texas in the landlocked heart of South America. In the 1950s, Bolivians elected socialist governments that nationalized the mining industry and sought to free their country from Washington’s orbit. Then came a period of rule by US-backed military dictators, one of whom, Rene Barrientos, became a footnote to history in 1967 by ordering the execution of Che Guevara, who had vainly sought to rouse indigenous Bolivians to revolution.
That revolution finally came peacefully, with the election of Morales in 2006. He assaulted the old power structure and imposed sweeping social programs to benefit the middle class and indigenous people. During his presidency, levels of poverty and unemployment fell dramatically. “Thirteen years after his Movement for Socialism won at the ballot box, it’s indisputable that Bolivians are healthier, wealthier, better educated, living longer and more equal than at any time in this South American nation’s history,” the Washington Post reported just days before the disputed Oct. 20 election.
Conflict over control of rich gas and lithium deposits widened the deep cultural, political, and economic chasms between Morales and his enemies. Finally he gave them the tool they needed to bring him down. Ignoring pleas from some inside his own party, he refused to step aside for a successor and insisted on reconfiguring laws so he could run for re-election beyond constitutional limits. That set off the torrent of events that led to his downfall. The little-known evangelical legislator who emerged as provisional president, Jeanine Añez, pledged to stay in office only until elections could be organized but now says she will run for a full term. Like many in her political caste, she openly scorns indigenous Bolivians and said she dreams of “a Bolivia without satanic indigenous rituals.” Arguably more frightening is the emergence of a fiery far-right populist, Luis Fernando Camacho, who has been compared to the Amazon-burning autocrat President Jair Bolsonaro in neighboring Brazil.
Soon after Morales was deposed, the State Department announced that the United States would re-establish full diplomatic relations with Bolivia, and predicted that the two countries would now “strengthen our relationship and mutual understanding.” Long-suspended American aid to the Bolivian government began flowing after a presidential certification that it is “vital to the national interests of the United States.” At least some of this aid is likely to be used — as “democracy promotion” programs have been used in Bolivia for years — to strengthen pro-American political factions and weaken those considered sympathetic to socialism.
Washington is gloating over its evident victory in Bolivia. Now, having helped to consolidate an anti-leftist and anti-indigenous regime, it is loath to give up what it has won. Bolivia’s new ruling group is moving on various fronts to assure that the forthcoming election deals a decisive blow to indigenous political power. If the United States endorses this fraud, it will contribute to destabilizing Bolivia, just as it did in Honduras by endorsing electoral fraud there after a pro-American coup a decade ago.
More than a century of interfering in Latin America has trapped the United States into self-destructive habits. By insisting on shaping Bolivian politics to our liking, we promote resentment and social conflict that threatens our long-term security. We also mock the righteous indignation with which we reject foreign interference in our own elections.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.