Bolivia’s Upcoming National Elections

Bolivia’s Upcoming National Elections

A landlocked South American country with a population of 11.5 million, controlling territory the size of France and Germany combined, is holding national elections this week for its presidency, senate, and national congress. Can you guess which country? No. It isn’t Paraguay. The answer you’re looking for is: Bolivia. Or, more accurately: The Plurinational State of Bolivia.

68% of the Bolivian population identifies as Mestizo (mixed European-Indigenous), 20% as Indigenous, 5% Caucasian, 1% African, and 6% Other. In addition to its many recognized indigenous groups, including the Quechua, Aymara, and Guarani, Bolivia is home to an Arab, German, Croatian, and small Jewish community, among others. The majority of Bolivian’s practice a mixture of Christianity and indigenous animistic beliefs. While the Catholic Church has historically been dominant, evangelical movements are gaining adherents rapidly. Class distinctions are stark, with a large majority of the country’s wealth concentrated in just a few hands.

Bolivia has been plagued by historically unstable government, with a record-setting amount of coups, counter-coups, and caretaker governments since the country won its independence from Spain in 1825. During the next 100 or so years, Bolivia lost over half its original territory to neighboring countries.  Universal suffrage was introduced in 1952 and the country has been ‘democratic with hiccups’ since 1982.

Is Being Resource Rich a Blessing or a Curse?

Bolivia is extremely rich in natural resources. Historically, it was the country’s silver located in Potosi’s mines that attracted international attention. Later, it would be rubber, copper, and tin. And most recently, its natural gas and lithium deposits have been at the center of an intense internal debate. Which countries do you do business with? Which private companies? Should the Bolivian government or private Bolivian citizens’ maintain controlling interests in the development and extraction of these natural riches? Many international powers and multinational corporations are greedily looking for ways to get a piece of this valuable pie, often with little or no concern for the local population or natural environment. This has many Bolivians wondering whether being rich in natural resources is a blessing or a curse.

Evo Morales and the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) Party

Regardless of your personal viewpoint, it’s hard to find a more electorally successful politician in the first two decades of the twenty-first century than Evo Morales. Bolivia’s self-proclaimed first ‘indigenous,’ and Aymara-speaking, president has been described by his supporters as ‘a voice for the historically poor and disenfranchised’ as well as by his detractors as ‘an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian ruler.’ A former coca leaf grower, Morales made a political name for himself as a labor union organizer. He featured prominently in popular movements such as the Cochabamba ‘water wars’ in 1999-2000 and the ´gas war´ which forced former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada or ‘Goni’ from power in 2003. His personal presidential narrative reads like a Shakespearian tragedy, with slim (never say never, especially in Bolivia) chances remaining for a political comeback. In 2005, Morales was elected president with an astronomical 53.7% of the vote. This, at a time when it was uncommon for a Bolivian president to win a national election with more than 20% (‘Goni’ had won the most recent election with 22.5% of the vote in 2002). Riding this wave of extreme popularity, in 2009 Morales introduced a new and more inclusive national constitution, which passed by national referendum with 61.43% support, extending official recognition to 36 indigenous groups and putting the Quechua, Aymara, and Guarani languages on official footing with Spanish. Additionally, the official name of the country was changed from the ‘Republic of Bolivia’ to the ‘Plurinational State of Bolivia.’ The new constitution also demarcated a two-term limit for the nation’s president and instituted a new two-round system for voting in presidential elections (this was extremely important in the October 2019 elections and is already proving to be a factor again in this year’s vote).  Against this backdrop, Morales ran for re-election (for the first time under the new constitution) in 2009 and easily won with 61.36%. He then proceeded to do it once again in 2014, pummeling his opponents with 64.22% of the vote. His continued popularity was helped by an international commodity boom, which gave his government the funds required to embark on massive infrastructure projects, and show off the impressive results of ‘Evonomics’ to potential investors,which highlighted a significant rise in real GDP/capita and a decreasing poverty rate. For many Bolivians, Morales came to symbolize a better life for them and their children.  It’s during his third term (second under the new constitution), however, that things began to slowly unravel. In 2016, having already been in power for more than 10 years, Morales tried to push through a national referendum that would have allowed him and his vice-president to run for an additional five-year term. When the people (just barely) rejected his initiative 51.3% to 48.7%, he and his MAS movement petitioned Bolivia’s Plurinational constitutional court to abolish term limits, which they did by citing the American Convention on Human rights, thus nullifying the referendum results. Despite this minor setback, all appeared to be in order for Morales and his MAS party to win re-election once again in October 2019.

‘Fraud’ vs. ‘Coup’: The Unexpected Rise of Jeanine Añez

Elections were held as scheduled on October 20, 2019. The major challenger to Morales and his MAS party was from former Bolivian vice-president Carlos Mesa and his Civic Community coalition. When preliminary independent results were displayed on TV with 83% of the total votes counted, Morales was leading Mesa 45% to 38%. Therefore, Mesa appeared to be within 10% of Morales and therefore a secondround presidential run-off would be required. The results then ‘mysteriously disappeared.’ When the official results came in with 100% of the votes counted Morales had beaten Mesa 46.83% to 36.7%, a difference of just over 10% and therefore not requiring a second-round presidential run-off.  All hell broke loose. And Mesa’s supporters, as well as other anti-Morales and anti-MAS activists took to the streets for the next three weeks claiming electoral ‘fraud’ and demanding that new elections be held without Morales. Their case was given a boon when the Organization of American States (OAS), invited by Morales to investigate the election results, released their findings citing ‘significant irregularities.’ With the country at a stand-still, things got even murkier, when despite Morales’ promise of new elections, he lost support from the police, trade unions, and finally the military. So Morales resiged, along with his vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera, senate president Adriana Salvatierra, president of the national congress Victor Borda, and senate first vice-president Ruben Mendinaceli. Essentially, the entire upper echelon of the MAS party leadership appeared to step down amidst the public discontent. In a scene out of an action movie, they’re all quickly whisked away to exile in Mexico (later to be welcomed in Argentina when Alberto Fernández assumed the presidency) where they immediately decry their resignations and exile as a ‘coup.’ The mass resignations of the MAS leadership (no pun intended) paved the way for the ascendancy to the presidency of senate second vice-president, Jeanine Añez, from the opposition Democrat Social Movement political party on November 12th, 2019, and who immediately set about constructing a constitutionally valid interim government including the setting of a new date for national elections. The government which Añez headed up couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed to the previous Morales government if you tried. And just like that the left was out, and the right was in.

The Jewish Community of Bolivia and Israeli-Bolivian Relations

Currently the Jewish community of Bolivia numbers around 500 and is mainly based in the urban centers of La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba. While it is generally accepted that converted Jews (known as ‘marranos’) arrived as part of the early waves of Spanish exploration and settlement in South America during the 16th and 17th centuries, it is only at the beginning of the 20th century that a larger Ashkenazi Jewish community settled in Bolivia, reaching a peak of between 15000-20000 people at some point in the late 1940s. Recently, I visited the relatively well-maintained Jewish cemetery in Cochabamba and there are several hundred tombstones with inscriptions in both Yiddish and Hebrew. Speaking with the custodian, it would appear that the active Jewish community is very small and that there was more communal life here from the 1940s through the 1970s. There is a prominent synagogue in the city center proudly displaying the Ten Commandments that hasn’t been open since I arrived. The Chabad movement is active in La Paz (and likely Santa Cruz as well) catering to the small local Jewish community and Israeli backpackers passing through Bolivia on their post-army trip. Like in many small Jewish communities worldwide, those Bolivian Jews that care deeply about their Jewish identity will likely choose to spend time in Israel, the United States, Argentina, or another country with a larger Jewish community, while those that identify less with their Judaism will likely assimilate into the local population, sometime forming a kind of hybrid identity.

Bolivian-Israeli relations got off to a great start when Bolivia was the first country to vote in favor of the United Nations plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state in November 1947. More recently, however, relations have been much rockier. Under President Evo Morales, Bolivia pivoted away from its historically close relationship with the United States, expelling the United States ambassador in 2008 and significantly downgrading diplomatic relations. The United States’ opposition to the coca leaf (a key ingredient in cocaine) and their demand that all production be eradicated, personally offended Morales, as well as a majority of Bolivians, who view the coca leaf as a significant part of Bolivia’s cultural heritage. This rift between Bolivia and the United States, led to Bolivia increasing its commercial commitments with historic US rivals, China and Russia. Additionally, Morales and MAS see themselves as part of a group of ‘left-wing, socialist, and revolutionary movements’ in Latin America. Over the years they’ve been tied closely to Castro’s Cuba, Kirchner’s Argentina, Lula da Silva’s Brazil, and Chavez’s Venezuela. It’s my belief that Bolivian-Israeli relations were sort of ‘collateral damage’ due to this complex web of international alliances. In January 2009, during Israel’s operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Bolivia cut off diplomatic relations, and in summer 2014, during Israel’s operation Protective Edge (once again in Gaza),  Morales cancelled a 30 year old agreement allowing Israelis to visit Bolivia without a visa. Morales called Israel ‘a terrorist state’ and described its treatment of the Palestinians as a ‘genocide.’ Rumors also abound of increased Iranian and Hezbollah activity within Bolivia in recent years. Unsurprisingly, with Jeanine Añez’s ascension to the presidency, Bolivia renewed diplomatic relations with both the United States and Israel, allowing citizen’s of both countries to visit Bolivia visa-free, and specifically cited a desire for Israeli know-how in combating terrorism. Additionally, the Añez government severed relations with Cuba and Venezuela.

October 18th, 2020

The twice-postponed (due to COVID-19) Bolivian national elections taking place this Sunday will be the most participatory in Bolivia’s history with more than 7.3 million Bolivians eligible to cast a ballot, both within Bolivia, and in countries with large expatriate Bolivian populations. Voting is compulsory, and if the last elections are any indicator, then more than 90% of eligible voters are expected to turn-out on election day. Elections are being held for the president and vice-president, all 36 members of the senate, as well as the 130 members of the national congress. In order to win the presidential race in the first round, a candidate needs to receive either more than 50% of the vote, or win by more than 10% over his closest rival. As of this writing, similarly to a year earlier, nearly all major polls are predicting a Luis Arce and MAS victory, though it’s the margin of victory that’s really important. In a possible second round presidential run-off nearly anything can happen.

The four major candidates in the presidential race are:

Luis Arce – MAS-IPSP

(Movement Towards Socialism-Political Instrument for the People’s Sovereignty)

Arce, 57, from La Paz, was handpicked by Morales to be the MAS candidate for this election. He served as Morales’ finance minister for nearly 13 years during successive MAS governments and was known as the ‘architect of Evonomics’ as he presided over an economy with an average of 4.9% annual growth from 2006 through 2018. He is described by some as a ‘technocrat’ and before he entered politics he was a long time employee of Bolivia’s central bank and a  professor at numerous public and private universities. He has a Master’s degree from an English University. His running mate is David Choquehuanca who was the MAS foreign minister from 2006 to 2017 and is an Aymara indigenous rights activist.

Carlos Mesa – Civic Community

Mesa, 67, is from La Paz and is a former journalist, historian, and vice-president from 2003-2005. He is an author and TV news presenter who spent time in Madrid. In 2014, he was tapped by Morales to be the government’s international spokesperson for Bolivia’s claims against Chile at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). His priorities include strengthening Bolivia’s democratic institutions and if elected he promises to open up national debates on ‘gay marriage, abortion, and marijuana legalization.’ The civic community list includes more female candidates than any other. His running mate is Gustavo Pedraza. In the contested 2019 election Mesa’s list received 36.7% of the vote.

Luis Fernando Camacho – We Believe

Camacho, 41, from Santa Cruz, is a Catholic civic leader, businessman, and lawyer who played an instrumental role in the anti-Morales protests in October-November 2019. He believes in ‘bringing the bible back to the palace (Bolivian parliament).’

Dr. Chi Hyun Chung – Front for Victory

Chung, 50, from Santa Cruz, is a South Korean-born, evangelical pastor and president of the Bolivian Presbyterian Church who has lived in Bolivia since the age of 12. He finished in a surprising third place with 8.8% of the vote in October 2019.

About the Author
Freeman Poritz is currently traveling long-term and observing Israel from afar.
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