The ‘Electoral Coup’, October-November 2019

Oliver Briscoe

I often find when my friends saunter into my rooms with a story, usually tattle, flushed and scatterbrained, that it is better to seat them with a drink, and advise them to start at the start, and take it from there. So I have done thus far, lacing the irregularities of the Morales years throughout the story, but I cannot backdate the ongoing flux, and have decided that as we leave Bolivia, it is best I leave him too, neatly stopping with his flight from the country in November 2019.

I hope to exhume the exiled Morales from the martyred Pantheon in which Socialists have put him. The face of Progress obscuring his Svengali’s presence; the man who for thirteen years was both head of State and Government in Bolivia. His regime both supporting and supported by the cocaine trade. I shall recount, as I lived it then, his attempted coup, most emblematic of his time in office.

The Bolivian republican system is bicameral with a lower chamber of 130 deputies, whose head is the Vice-President (elected directly, separate to the President). Of those members, seventy face a first-past-the-post system in single member districts, with seven of those seats reserved for designated indigenous constituencies, governed by usos y costumbres laws. The remaining sixty face a closed list, party proportional system, in which parties with at least 3% of the vote get allocated seats based on the D’Hondt method, minus any single-district seats already won in that department. In the upper chamber, the nine departments of Bolivia each return four senators amounting then to thirty-six, elected proportionally in a closed list system using the D’Hondt method. Voting is compulsory for the under seventy, the electorate is about seven million people and to prevent chaos at the elections, a national prohibition is enforced in the twenty-four hours run-up. Electing everybody in one election, Bolivians were preparing to choose once again that year, on the 20th of October.

Fate, in her irony, saw that after thirteen years we should return to an October crisis, between Mesa and Morales. To avoid a second round and secure his further five year term, Morales either had to win 50% of the vote outright, or 40% with a ten point lead over the nearest opponent. The latter method of achieving electoral victory is particularly helpful, minimising the impact of the numerous smaller candidates who habitually run in Bolivia, each generally collecting around or under one percent of the vote. The result of that first round on the 20th of October was as follows; Morales, with 46%, was going to have to face Mesa, with 37%, in a second round. Of the other candidates; the camba Oscar Ortiz collected 8.78%. Hyun Chung–a Korean immigrant who finds himself as the head of the Evangelists, a growing movement in Bolivia, fuelled by the crazed, lucrative business where the tithe is directed to the pastor’s pocket–had stolen votes from Ortiz, managing to unite the overlapping evangelist vote and the Right, collecting 4.24%. Both reduced Mesa’s numbers, and brought the whole thing perilously close to another Morales victory.

As expected the numbers were controversially contested, with only one percentage-point off that ten point lead. The evening of the first round was riddled with irregularities across the country. The broadcast of the results was abruptly shut off halfway through the night and evidence of widespread fraud emerged; ballot boxes being secreted and left uncounted, major cities losing power. The rural vote, Morale’s base, was brought to the counting centres late, the boxes tampered. The confusion was not helped by Bolivia’s shoddy advanced counting system, which looks to give a result before the result. Produced by the same body which gives the official result, it is only marginally faster and serves no purpose when the margins are so close, or when they are wide, really, as they have been previously when Morales faced no effective opposition. Because of the blatant risk of fraud Almgro, the Secretary General of OAE ordered an audit, recommending the second round take place in November. A surprising decision from a man who has exculpated Ortega, Maduro, Chavez. Morales refused to fix the second round, and stayed in office.

We were back in Bristol, Liam and I, when this unfolded. Daily, under the tranquil winter sun, from his rooms to mine, we would sit, listen to the live streams, sweating with scotch by the balcony, watching inoffensive clouds stream against the crown of the Will’s building, like light summer waves against Wolf’s Rock, distant off Scilly. He would report to me and I recorded him, day by day, monitoring how Bolivia’s fate was to be decided. We would tune into Carlos Valverde’s daily broadcasts. Over November, his audience surged and has since been rehabilitated on national television and in the press. Vindicated, he continues his tireless commitment to calling out Government missteps.

Below, I note the developments through our conversations. Those tumultuous times, those final few days which strong-armed an entire nation and its peoples into a new path, a democratic path, a free path.

From the 5th of November onwards:

Mesa and Camacho, the president of El Comite Pro Santa Cruz (not a public body but a ‘civic government’ representing the interest of the region, elected by the people of Santa Cruz) gave the forty-eight hour ultimatum; Morales had to stand down for a new election or there would be civil unrest. They asked that when he stand down, he abrogate the formal order of succession for the interim presidency; Vice President, Head of the Senate, Head of the Assembly, Head of the Supreme Court (the real one not the Electoral Tribunal, Morales had instated). They wanted him to pass it straight to the Head of the Supreme Court. When Mesa succeeded Goni in 2005, Morales called for the same thing, and Mesa had acceded then.

The ultimatum closed at 7pm (Bolivian time) and a cabildo gathered by the famous cross of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Just under two million gathered, several speeches were made by community leaders from across the eastern departments, singers followed priests and evangelists. People came from everywhere, walking eight hours because the roads had been blocked. Camacho had pledged to travel to the presidential palace in La Paz, the next day [the 5th]; Bible in his right hand and Morales’ resignation letter in his left. It is any man’s right under Article 24 of the Bolivian Constitution to call for the resignation of a public official, as long as he does not do so anonymously. Camacho read out the letter and promised not to leave the Palace until he had a signature on the resignation.

Ibert the manager of the aviation authority Sabsa warned the masistas of Camacho’s arrival at El Alto airport. These followers duly gathered and Camacho was blocked from 11pm to 9am (Bolivian time) and then removed to be interrogated peacefully (not always a given there, or in England really) somewhere in that little airport. Romero, Morales’s right hand man, the minister for the Government who oversees all ministries and ministers (before Morales there were nine ministries, which he increased to twenty-two, increasing the power of central government, drawing from the regions like Santa Cruz) ordered the road to El Alto from La Paz to be blocked. Those who opposed Morales had rallied in La Paz and were set to march up to the second city to free Camacho. A rare show of solidarity, transcending the camba, colla ethnic tension, to preserve democracy.

The safety of Camacho was in the hands of the Government, as we was threatened and held hostage by militant masistas. They chanted ‘El cajon te espera!

A military task-force was eventually sent to extract Camacho. The cynosure of national politics over the past three days, unharmed, they put him on a plane back to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Confirmation of this peaceful extraction came from Camacho’s own live stream, asking on film what was going on, only to be answered by one of the men ‘a secret military operation’.

The confrontation and the unified support frightened Morales. He entered talks to pacify the miners. He gave the police a 3,000bs bonus and the Army 5,000bs (almost a year’s salary). Unsurprising in a tinpot system, the next day the Union of Policemen’s Wives came out to complain about the fact that their husband’s had received less than the soldiers. Such has been Morales’ way in the past thirteen years, paying off, and financing his supporters and the indigenous people. The latter which he turned into political power by introducing indigenous members of Congress, who were then easily convinced to follow the MAS line.

Meanwhile, Mesa was not very vocal beyond Twitter, and Ortiz did not do much either. In England, Jeremy Corbyn gave his support to Morales.

Saturday 9th of November:

The police in Oruro, Potosi, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Cochabamba and elsewhere across the country, disobeyed orders and joined protesters. The OEA finally reported that there had been ‘clear manipulations’ in the process and without going so far as to inculpate Morales, pressured him to call a new election.

Sunday 10th of November:

Morales announced fresh elections that morning, which turned out to be a front to give himself time. He fled later that day, first to Chapare, his coca fiefdom, then onwards to Mexico. Cuba had been rumoured and Venezuela too, but neither would harbour him. Argentina–although having recently returned the sympathetic left-wing, populist Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as vice-president to the moustachioed puppet Alberto Fernández–was still under the presidency of the more moderate Mauricio Macri who refused Morales haven, blocking his entry into Argentine airspace. Mexico eventually kicked him out, ostensibly over a diplomatic row, but really exacerbated when they learnt Morales had been coordinating the Cocalero to blockade and so starve Santa Cruz. He stayed for as long as he could, then, as soon as Macri stepped down, settled in Argentina, and organised the MAS conference to pick candidates for the new election.

The rest of the world looked on askance ‘another Latin regime change backed by the army’. When his plane left the runway, I was sitting in Liam’s bedroom and we knew it was not true. It was the end of a subtle tyranny, such passionate allegria uplifted in a moment; drinking, watching Morales flee, we were indeed alleviated, lighter without uncertainty. My friend was shouting, crying out, thirteen years! Liam’s entire conscious existence, liberated.

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