Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).
For much of last week, Argentine politicians and their camp-followers spent their waking hours pondering the question: had Bolivia just seen a straightforward coup d’état, or did Evo Morales lose his grip on power for reasons that were a bit more complicated? Parliamentarians discussed the matter with their habitual wisdom; the majority finally agreed that it had indeed been a “coup,” though some Radicals who supported the winning motion stressed that the elections Evo allegedly won had been heavily rigged and, in any case, on constitutional grounds, he should not have been allowed to run. For Mauricio Macri and Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie, who preferred a nuanced interpretation of events, the final decision, with the Cambiemos coalition abstaining, was a setback, but not a very serious one.
Rather more disturbing from their point of view was Alberto Fernández’s willingness to make the most of a chance to accuse the United States of reverting to coup-mongering, as it did half a century ago. On hearing the news from La Paz, Donald Trump said “the United States applauds the Bolivian people for demanding freedom and the Bolivian military for abiding by its oath to protect not just a single person, but Bolivia’s Constitution.” But, Fernández can ask, if protecting the Constitution means letting an Army general “suggest” – as according to Bolivia, he is entitled to do – that the president step aside, does that not mean he is guilty of carrying out a coup d’état by constitutional means?
The exercise in hermeneutics which local politicians are happily indulging in may be almost as abstruse as the ones that kept their counterparts busy in the floating island of Laputa Gulliver visited on his travels, but it was revealing. Opinions reflected the ideological leanings of the people voicing them. Individuals such as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who days earlier, along with the usual academics from other parts of the world, had been attacking Chile’s Sebastián Piñera and Ecuador’s Lenín Moreno for sending the Army into the streets to clear them of rioters, blamed Evo’s downfall on the refusal by the military to obey his order to do the sam e. In other words, using force – even extreme force – against protesters who are running amok is OK when they are seeking to demolish a regime regarded as “progressive,” but it is anything but when what they are trying to do is overthrow one they think is “right-wing” and therefore “neoliberal.”
Fernández has yet to take office, but he has already made it clear that his foreign policy will be very different from Mauricio Macri’s. He sees himself as the natural leader of a “progressive” Latin American bloc hostile to Donald Trump and the Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro in which, had he remained in power, Evo would have been a useful member along with Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador and, should he win the upcoming election, Uruguay’s Daniel Martínez. No doubt Cristina would dearly like to see her Venezuelan friend, Nicolás Maduro, included in the line-up, but for understandable reasons all but the most fervent believers in what Hugo Chávez called “21st-century socialism” are aware that what has happened to his unfortunate country does not help their cause.
A few weeks ago, Fernández insisted that he would do his best to get on with other countries and their governments without discriminating between those which shared his current views and those which did not, but that was then. Perhaps Cristina told him she disapproved of such a disgraceful way of thinking. That would be why he has already started to squabble with Trump and Bolsonaro, the men who run the show in the two countries, Brazil and the United States, whose backing Argentina will most need in her efforts to keep the markets at bay.
If Fernández has a soft spot for Evo, it will be because of all the region’s left-wing, progressive or “Bolivarian” leaders he was by far the most successful. If nothing else, the example he gave showed that the election of a “populist” (like Fernández himself) does not necessarily spell disaster for the country he gets to rule. Under Evo, Bolivia, which is still among the least developed and poorest nations in Latin America, grew at a spanking rate, in large measure because he took what may be regarded as a Communist Chinese approach towards economic affairs; while talking like a revolutionary, he had little interest in defying capitalist logic. He also did much to overcome the many ethnic divisions which have always plagued his country.
Had he contented himself with two terms in office and then stepped down as the Constitution demanded, he would have earned a place in history as the best president Bolivia had ever had but, like far too many others in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere, he wanted to remain where he was until biology obliged him to call it a day. So instead of grooming a successor to carry on the work he had started, he devoted himself to fiddling with the Constitution, removing clauses that would have prevented him from running yet again, on the basis that doing so would amount to an intolerable abuse of his human rights, and, when even such stratagems failed to do the trick, resorting to outright electoral fraud.
Though Evo still has a large number of supporters, there are no longer enough of them to form a clear majority, and many who rather like him are unwilling to let him keep on flouting the democratic rules with impunity. Even so, his sudden departure from the scene left a big hole in the centre of Bolivian politics which his would-be replacements, people like the fervently Christian Jeanine Áñez, who assumed as “provisional president,” and her soul-mate, Luis Fernando Camacho, who want to do away with all that indigenous Pachamama stuff Evo encouraged, will find desperately hard to fill.
Before Evo came to power in 2006, many thought Bolivia was such a divided country it could easily break up into half a dozen pieces or more, what with the relatively wealthy eastern lowlands around Santa Cruz, where a separatist movement has always been active, going one way and the mountainous regions to the west, with a diverse population speaking different languages as well as Spanish, going in another. This is why people are nervous when they hear Evo’s partisans say they are more than ready to wage a civil war aimed at restoring him to office and do not believe him when he says he wants to return home soon not as a presidential candidate, but as a peacemaker.