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Bolivia’s Covid-19 Election Nightmare Is a Warning

The world should be paying close attention to the country’s decision to postpone the vote.

Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty Images
Bolivian interim President Jeanine Añez wears a face mask while attending a procession.

Asked this past spring whether the November 3 presidential election might need to be rescheduled due to the coronavirus, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner replied, “I’m not sure I can commit one way or the other.” The response didn’t inspire confidence: Given President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and attitude, there has already been considerable hand-wringing about whether he would accept the results of the election if he loses and how the pandemic might exacerbate chaos and uncertainty this November. In fact, Covid-19 election nightmare scenarios are already playing out in other countries around the world. And perhaps nowhere are the stakes higher than in Bolivia.

Last week, Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal postponed the country’s presidential election—for the third time. In November 2019, leftist President Evo Morales was forced out of the country by armed forces after domestic opponents and influential international observers alleged he stole an election for an unprecedented fourth term the month before. Jeanine Añez, a far-right evangelical who had served as the vice president of the Bolivian Senate, took over. Almost immediately, the government cracked down harshly on Morales supporters in Movement for Socialism, or MAS, the party he helped build into a national political powerhouse advocating for indigenous rights, the nationalization of key industries, and wealth redistribution. Even those who celebrated Morales’s ouster were dismayed: “Faced with the genuinely hard challenge of countering Morales’s incitement to violence, she has also resorted to brutality,” Yascha Mounk wrote in The Atlantic of Añez. “Since she promised security forces immunity for actions they take to reestablish order, about 30 people have been killed in clashes between the government and Morales’s supporters.”

While Añez’s legitimacy is questionable at best—The New York Times refers to her as a “caretaker leader”—she will be in power until further notice. After announcing it would not be right for her to run for president in elections initially scheduled for May 2020, she reneged in January. After postponing the May elections due to the rising threat of Covid-19, she reluctantly signed a bill setting a new date of September 6. When the electoral tribunal last week announced the rather nonsensical move to October 18—a delay, but probably not enough time to make the election perfectly safe from a public health perspective, if that is the goal—Añez tweeted that “whatever the date, the government calls for promoting economic revival, the fight against the virus and the consolidation of democracy.” Añez herself tested positive for Covid-19 in early July but now says she has recovered.

The opposition, led by MAS candidate Luis Arce and Morales from abroad, sees the delay differently. The current president polls a distant third behind Arce and conservative Carlos Mesa, who governed Bolivia from 2003 to 2005 and finished second in the 2019 race. With Arce far ahead of Añez, MAS has suggested the government is waiting for a more propitious moment to hear from voters. “The coup was carried out in the name of democracy,” Arce put it recently, “but eight months have passed and Bolivia is without democracy.” There is, of course, actual cause for concern about a September election: As of July 21, Bolivia had 60,991 confirmed coronavirus infections and 2,218 deaths, with the peak of the virus expected in the last week of August or first week of September. But this kernel of a legitimate fear has also offered plausible deniability for any underhanded motivation—an excuse for the government to forestall the possibility of handing power back to Morales’s party.

Aside from being a potential harbinger of Covid-driven Democratic crises, two other factors make Bolivia’s situation particularly concerning from an international perspective. One is Bolivia’s ongoing human rights crisis since Morales’s ouster, with indigenous communities specifically being targeted. The other is Bolivia’s position as a crucial country in the international lithium supply chain, which powers batteries of all kinds, including those needed for renewable energy as the world transitions off fossil fuels.

A 90-page report entitled “‘They Shot Us Like Animals’: Black November & Bolivia’s Interim Government,” released July 27 by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the University Network for Human Rights, summed up the events since Morales’s ouster in chilling detail. “State-sponsored violence, restrictions on free speech, and arbitrary detentions have all contributed to a climate of fear and misinformation that has undermined the rule of law as well as the prospects of fair and open elections,” the authors wrote, noting multiple instances of state forces opening fire on nonviolent indigenous protesters, “para-state groups” beating and detaining people in neighborhoods near the protests, and a case in which police tortured children in their custody. Police even charged an artist with sedition for carrying fliers with messages like, “Flowers for the oligarchy, and bullets for the people” and “We are the people.”

The report repeatedly asserts the interim government’s complicity, including Añez herself, in ongoing paramilitary violence against opponents. Most of the victims are indigenous, an important detail considering a long history of social and political exclusion for the country’s native majority prior to Morales’s election in 2005.

The country’s lithium reserves are another complicating factor. As anthropologist Nancy Postero has written, during Morales’s time in office, the MAS sought to unify “three very different lines of struggle—for indigenous rights, economic justice, and popular democracy.” The 2009 nationalizations of the natural gas industry and telecommunications sector were explicitly justified as attending to these different struggles, which Morales insisted were not only related, but in fact different facets of the same unified struggle. With this discourse, Postero noted, the movement Morales led “managed to bring together its heterogeneous constituencies around a core agenda that might be called ‘indigenous nationalism.’”

That nationalism has increasingly been in tension with the fact that Bolivia holds a sizable chunk of the world’s lithium reserves—a natural resource whose importance will only grow as the world seeks to transition to renewable energy. “We know that Bolivia can become the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a Bolivian farmer and activist told The New York Times over a decade ago. “We are poor, but we are not stupid peasants,” he added. “The lithium may be Bolivia’s, but it is also our property.” Ownership is precisely the issue. There are nagging suspicions in Latin America and elsewhere that Morales’s ouster was engineered in part to meet the demands of powerful international corporations eager to get their hands on precious Bolivian metals. This concern resonates in a continent where such suspicions have borne out time and again in the past. When Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk was needled last week on Twitter about potential United States involvement in Morales’s ouster—Tesla, like all electric vehicle manufacturers, depends upon a steady supply of lithium batteries—his response, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it,” was widely covered in Latin American press, again stoking suspicion.

The Harvard report on human rights included six clear demands for the Bolivian government and two for the international community. Among other things, it argued the Añez administration must approve impartial investigations into abuses by state forces, sever ties with para-state groups, and hold free and fair elections. The international community, for its part, must forcefully condemn human rights violations and insist on those free and fair elections. It is unlikely the Añez government will heed these sorts of demands on its own. After all, it sees itself as an indispensable bulwark against the social, political, and economic order that MAS represents. In an ongoing political struggle with far-reaching consequences, ceding ground now would only embolden forces that the government sees as an existential threat. Añez also currently lacks any foreign incentive to modify her government’s behavior. Despite the stakes, Bolivia’s fate is unlikely to figure prominently in this year’s U.S. presidential campaign. The most progressives can hope for is to elect Joe Biden and pressure his foreign policy team to reckon with the Añez administration’s human rights abuses.

The current pandemic undoubtedly complicates the execution of elections. But public officials cannot be allowed to simply throw up their hands and stay in office indefinitely. One solution discussed in Brazil, a Bolivian neighbor that also has elections set for this fall, is to move the election date if necessary but not extend current terms for elected politicians. The machinery of government would continue to operate but those most invested in amassing personal power would not have an excuse to put off a national vote. It’s an option worth exploring if infection rates cannot be contained, since voting by mail risks excluding masses of impoverished voters in places like Bolivia and Brazil. The alternative—politicians with poor track records remaining in power until it is politically convenient for them to face voters—is not something democracies the world over should accept.