Advanced Search

Weekly Report - 16 July 2020 (WR-20-28)

Click here for printer friendly version
Click here for full report

BOLIVIA: Unrest brews as pandemic continues to bite

For all the vitriol and division that has characterised Bolivian politics in recent months, street protests had remained relatively limited, for fear of exacerbating the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19). There are signs, however, that the continued uncertainty surrounding the country’s impending election could provide the impetus for renewed unrest, following a day of demonstrations on 14 July, the largest since quarantine began back in March.

Following a call to action by the main workers’ union Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), crowds gathered in towns and cities across the country, with a march through La Paz reportedly numbering in the thousands. The objectives of this action were ill-defined, broadly protesting the interim government’s response to the pandemic, with particular criticisms of growing unemployment and a ‘virtual education’ policy that threatens to exclude poorer students. A common thread was the belief that elections can provide a solution to this malaise, and the shared concern that the interim government still hopes to delay the vote scheduled for 6 September [WR-20-25].

The government’s critics have at times contended that interim president Jeanine Áñez’s apparent preoccupation with the public health consequences of holding an election merely reflects her desire to delay the vote until she can improve her disappointing polling performance, with the pandemic reduced to a convenient justification. If there were indeed any such complacency about the scale of the threat, it would have been swiftly eliminated in the past week, as the virus spread rapidly through Áñez’s cabinet, with even the interim president herself announcing on 9 July that she had been infected.

In testing positive for the virus, Áñez followed the health minister, Eidy Roca, the minister of the presidency, Yerko Núñez, and the mining minister, Jorge Fernando Oropeza, into enforced self-isolation. Foreign Minister Karen Longaric, Justice Minister Álvaro Coimbra, Hydrocarbons Minister Víctor Hugo Zamora, and the recently appointed economy minister, Óscar Ortiz, have since brought the total of infected senior officials up to eight. Most, including Áñez, have reported no more than minor symptoms, but Núñez was hospitalised for nearly a week, and Roca was sufficiently ill that the defence minister, Fernando López, has had to temporarily take over her duties.

  • Óscar Ortiz

Óscar Ortiz was appointed as economy minister on 7 July, following the resignation of his predecessor José Luis Parada for “personal reasons”. Ortiz, previously a senator in Jeanine Áñez’s Unidad Demócrata (UD), has risen quickly through the ranks of government, having only been appointed as the minister of productive development in May – this role will now be filled by José Abel Martínez. Ortiz lacks Parada’s background in economics, but he enjoys a far higher political profile and will be at the forefront of the interim government’s efforts to launch a rapid economic recovery, which could be key to Áñez’s chances in the September election.

The opposition has not been spared either, with the senate president, Eva Copa, of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), also testing positive. In contrast to the government ministers, however, Copa was quick to insist that this wave of high-profile infections should not be used as an excuse to reopen the question of delaying the election. Áñez has now be compelled to withhold her criticisms of the rescheduled electoral calendar since reluctantly promulgating the bill in question in June, but her vice presidential candidate, Samuel Doria Medina, has taken on the mantle, insisting on 14 July that voting can only safely take place “once the pandemic stops”.

MAS spokesperson Marianela Paco denied that the party had been involved in organising protests but nonetheless warned that a further delay to voting would undoubtedly spark “social upheaval”, reminiscent of the November 2019 protests following the (subsequently annulled) initial vote [WR-19-45]. Having claimed a tentative victory in the election date debate, the MAS has turned its focus to the issue of international electoral observers. Bolivia’s electoral tribunal (TSE) became an unexpected ally in the fight to confirm an election date, but a MAS statement on 9 July rejecting the participation of the Organization of American States (OAS) as an electoral observer may serve to revive this antagonism with the TSE.

An OAS report condemning the MAS government’s “clear manipulation” of the October 2019 vote provided critical momentum for the annulment of this election, and the removal of the MAS from power. Citing a number of subsequent studies casting doubt on the OAS’s findings [WR-20-09], a 9 July statement by the MAS accused the organisation of being “complicit in the coup against democracy” and appealed for the TSE to revoke the invitation for OAS observers to return in September.

Electoral observers

The MAS statement suggested that the observation process be led by “independent specialist organisations”, or by the European Union (EU), whose observers also found evidence of localised irregularities in 2019, but did not corroborate the centralised electoral fraud reported by the OAS.