Is She Bolivia’s New Divider in Chief?

Interim President of Bolivia Jeanine Añez.

Source Gaston Brito Miserocchi/Getty

Why you should care

Bolivia’s path to democracy and stability just became even more complicated.

When Jeanine Añez took office as Bolivia’s interim president following Evo Morales’ flight into exile, she vowed to unite the country — but critics of her early actions say she is having the opposite effect.

The 52-year-old conservative senator assumed power as the highest-ranking official in the constitutional line of succession once Morales resigned and left for Mexico. As Añez swore in her new Cabinet, she held aloft a huge leather-bound Bible — a gesture seen as divisive in a country that, although majority Catholic, has large indigenous communities with other religious beliefs.

Morales quit in the wake of an election on Oct. 20 when he claimed a fourth consecutive victory, only for violence to intensify when the Organization of American States said monitors had found evidence of serious irregularities. From Mexico, the former president has denied election fraud and called on his supporters to resist what he says is an illegitimate dictatorship imposed via a coup.

The only thing this government was supposed to do was calm things down and call elections, and that’s just about the only thing it has not done.

Oliver Stuenkel, Getúlio Vargas Foundation

On Nov. 18, Añez canceled a trip to her homeland in the northeastern Beni lowlands due to what her interior minister described as “a credible threat” to her life.

Other early actions by the interim government have been criticized for overstepping the mandate of a caretaker administration whose main role was to hold a fresh election. Añez’s administration has started to reshape Bolivia’s foreign policy by withdrawing from one leftist regional bloc, ALBA, and expelling hundreds of Cubans and Venezuelans who were working in the country.

Añez has quickly broken with Morales’ line on Venezuela, cutting relations with the former president’s ally Nicolás Maduro and following the United States and Brazil in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader in Caracas.

“The only thing this government was supposed to do was calm things down and call elections, and that’s just about the only thing it has not done,” says Oliver Stuenkel, an associate professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.

Añez, a lawyer and former television presenter, has also signed a decree protecting the armed forces from prosecution for actions they commit in the name of restoring public order. The decree “sends a very dangerous message to the military that they have carte blanche to commit abuses,” says José Miguel Vivanco, a lawyer and head of Human Rights Watch in New York.

Meanwhile, the violent protests of recent weeks appear set to continue. On Nov. 15, nine people were shot dead in clashes between security forces and Morales supporters in Sacaba near the city of Cochabamba, according to the local ombudsman.

U.N. Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet has blamed the killings on “unnecessary or disproportionate use of force by the police and army,” adding, “I am really concerned that the situation in Bolivia could spin out of control if the authorities do not handle it sensitively.”

Indigenous protesters, including the cocaleros, or coca leaf growers, who provide Morales with much of his support, have set up blockades around key cities, including Cochabamba, the eastern opposition stronghold of Santa Cruz and Bolivia’s de facto capital, La Paz. The city, high in the Andes, is suffering food and fuel shortages as Morales supporters interrupt transport links between the city and its airport.

To call fresh elections Añez needs to seek the support in Parliament of Morales’ socialist party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), which still controls two-thirds of the seats in both houses. MAS has so far refused to cooperate.

“The government is absolutely hamstrung,” says Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian professor of political science at Florida International University. “Before it can convoke elections it needs to elect a new electoral tribunal and to do that it needs a congressional majority. It needs to submit the names of judges to Congress, and Congress has to ratify those names.”

The Añez government is negotiating with MAS, and on Monday agreed to give 24 senior party members inside the Mexican Embassy safe passage to join Morales in exile.

If Añez cannot reach a deal with MAS she could try to bypass Congress and call new elections via presidential decree. It’s a risky strategy, however, and would fuel accusations that she is overriding the constitution and acting undemocratically.

The United Nations and European Union have been instrumental in pushing the two sides toward a deal. Añez met the EU’s ambassador to Bolivia, León de la Torre, on Sunday, while the U.N.’s representative, Jean Arnault — who helped oversee the disarmament of Marxist guerrillas in Colombia — has been in La Paz since mid-November.

Even if new elections are called, all sides will have to agree who can stand in them. Añez has already ruled out a bid to return by Morales, as has Carlos Mesa, who challenged Morales in last month’s election. Morales is blamed by many for precipitating the current crisis by insisting on standing for a fourth presidential term, in defiance of the constitution his government drafted a decade ago and a referendum in which voters rejected his attempt to scrap term limits.

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By Gideon Long

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