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Weekly Report - 18 June 2020 (WR-20-24)

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BOLIVIA-ECUADOR: Protests in the time of Covid

There are various parallels between recent developments in Bolivia and Ecuador. Social protests erupted in both countries, albeit with different motivations, in October last year. Ecuador was hit earlier and much harder by the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, but even with a much lower caseload, there are signs Bolivia’s health services are struggling to cope, with images of dead bodies on the streets in Santa Cruz (and other cities) evoking the grim scenes in Ecuador’s own business capital Guayaquil in March. But the state of exception imposed in both countries to respond to the pandemic has been far more contentious in Bolivia. While Bolivia’s opposition-controlled legislature approved a bill on 16 June regulating the application of a state of exception on the grounds that it is being abused by the interim government led by Jeanine Áñez, indigenous and trade union movements that spearheaded Ecuador’s protests accepted President Lenín Moreno’s extension of a state of exception in the country a day earlier without demur.

Over the course of the last week Bolivia’s senate and lower chamber of congress, in both of which the left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) of former president Evo Morales (2006-2019) enjoys a majority, approved a bill regulating the imposition of a state of exception. The MAS argued that it had been misused by the Áñez government to repress dissent. The bill stipulates that the executive can issue a supreme decree declaring a state of exception in response to internal commotion, a natural disaster (including epidemics such as Covid-19), and external threats, but not to social mobilisations. The legislature would have the power to approve, by means of an absolute majority, binding modifications to the supreme decree, which would be suspended if the executive refused. The MAS president of the lower chamber, Sergio Choque, said “no government can freely use the police and armed forces for as long as it wants”.

The bill would also make the security forces and, pointedly, public servants “responsible…for the orders they pronounce, and actions they take in executing a state of exception”, spelling out possible sanctions. The MAS contended that the regulations are needed to stop misuse of a state of exception by the government and abuses by the armed forces and the police. The bill requires promulgation by Áñez. She is highly unlikely to oblige, leading to fresh tensions with the legislature. The justice minister, Álvaro Coimbra, accused the MAS of attempting to “destabilise” the government; the interior minister, Arturo Murillo, of leaving Bolivia “defenceless”. Pro-Áñez deputy Gonzalo Barrientos argued that it could lead to “confrontation, [social] convulsion, and severely punish the police and armed forces while protecting conspirators”.

Ecuador

Given the severity of the social protests in Ecuador last October, objections might have been expected to President Moreno’s executive decree on 16 June extending the state of exception introduced on 16 March for a further 60 days. But these did not transpire. That is not to say social discontent has dissolved. The trade union movement Frente Unitario de Trabajadores (FUT) has staged small protests in recent weeks directed at the recently approved ‘humanitarian support law’, which would, inter alia, permit firms impacted by Covid-19 to renegotiate the contracts of their employees. And the umbrella indigenous organisation Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas (Conaie) has threatened to revive protests. But Conaie remains concerned about the threat of Covid-19 spreading in highland provinces where healthcare services are threadbare compared with those in urban areas which have still been found wanting.

Elections

Bolivia’s interim president, Jeanine Áñez, is holding off on promulgating a bill enshrining 6 September as the date for general elections, calling on the legislature on 12 June to provide a medical and scientific report confirming that it is safe to hold them and not a threat to public health. On 16 June Áñez said elections might need to be delayed by a further “one or two months” because of Covid-19. This incensed the president of Bolivia’s senate, Eva Copa, who called on Áñez to fulfil her “sole purpose”: to call elections. The president of the supreme electoral tribunal (TSE), Salvador Romero, also stressed that “elections are crucial for Bolivia’s democratic future” and contended that the health crisis could be managed without postponing them further.