For almost fourteen years, Evo Morales and the MAS (Movement for Socialism) party held the presidency and a legislative majority in Bolivia. During his presidency, Morales and the MAS took advantage of high commodity prices and deep popular support to reassert the role of the state in economic distribution and provide social supports to some of the most vulnerable populations. Though not without missteps and critics — and deep ideological and political shortfalls — Morales oversaw the most politically and economically stable period in Bolivia’s history. Yet in November of 2019, in the wake of fraud allegations, annulled elections, and widespread protest, Morales resigned in the face of public pressure, a police mutiny, and military intimidation. The Bolivian right asserts the ouster is the proper counter to a fraudulent concentration of power. And though not all on the Bolivian left share this view, most leftists denounced Morales’s toppling as a concerted putsch aimed at blocking further progressive change and reclaiming power for elites. By any reasonable measure, it was a coup.
In just a few short months, everything the MAS worked toward has begun to unravel. The “interim government” established by the Bolivian right wing launched a revanchist assault on the symbols and policies of the Morales era. The regime began persecuting and imprisoning former officials and announced the possibility of reprivatizing many firms that had come under control of the state during Morales’s presidency. Though she initially stated that she would not run, interim president Jeanine Áñez declared herself a candidate for the May 2020 elections. With Morales in exile in Argentina, the MAS party candidate, former minister of economy Luis Arce, is leading the polls. Amid the public health crisis that has erupted, and increasing militarization, the elections are postponed until August at the earliest. Right-wing backers of the coup regime have suggested that they will do everything necessary to prevent the return of a MAS government.
The reforms adopted under the MAS regime helped Bolivia’s impoverished masses and marginalized indigenous populations, and its opposition had to resort to a coup to take power. Why, then, has Morales’s ouster proved so unshakable? What led us to this moment? Part of the answer lies in understanding Bolivia’s political and economic structures and their role in shifting political forces and coalitions. Beyond the shortcomings that many critics, even sympathetic ones, point out about Morales himself, it was his dependency on extractive industries (gas, soy, minerals) that consolidated elite power in the country’s East and created the conditions for the right-wing putsch. In addition to this consolidation of elite power, Bolivia’s social movements — which, when Morales was elected in late 2005, were some of the world’s most militant — became weakened, demobilized, and atomized. Under Morales, they lost their ability to push for radical change, ultimately providing the elite entrée to the state apparatus without much resistance.