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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 16-11-2019 12:50

Bolivia boils over

Argentina’s economic situation is extremely difficult. But the national conversation is now about the wider region. Out on the streets, everybody is an expert on Bolivia’s Constitution.

A coup, triggered by a police mutiny in the middle of a revolt over fraud allegations in the presidential election, has forced the resignation of Bolivia’s leftist president Evo Morales, who has been in power since 2006.

You can delve deeper into the crisis all you like but the angle here is that the toppling of a leader in Bolivia, a little landlocked country riddled with a history of dictatorships and enjoying a period of relative boom, catches neighbouring Argentina in the middle of a transition. Alberto Fernández, the winner of the presidential elections on October 27 after defeating the now outgoing centre-right president, Mauricio Macri, is scheduled to take office on December 10.

The crisis in Bolivia prompted a debate here over whether what took place was effectively a “coup.” Macri fell short of calling it such and said that an institutional transition had started once Morales quit and flew to take asylum in Mexico.

Fernández’s stance was radically different. Morales, according to Argentina’s president-elect, was the victim of a cynical coup that harks back to the brutal dictatorships (often supported by the United States) that Latin American countries endured in the last century. The Frente de Todos leader pulled no punches. He was fiercely critical of US President Donald Trump’s celebratory statement congratulating the Bolivian Armed Forces for not siding personally with Morales.

Bolivia has a history of poverty and struggles. But it is rich in lithium and natural gas. Trump is watching the Bolivian crisis from Washington and, to him, it looks like this: “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. We are now one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous, and free Western Hemisphere.”

The Argentine public is watching it from closer up and the question is how it will process the blood-curdling scenes beamed from Bolivia of police officers and generals showing a democratically-elected president the door, in this case Morales after an electoral crisis.

Argentina has many problems. But in 1983, when the Radical progressive Raúl Alfonsín was elected president after seven years of bloody incompetent military rule, the country established democratic principles which have held fast. Is Macri, by not calling what went on in Bolivia a coup, implicitly challenging those principles? The Bolivian crisis, with the Police and the Army defying the democratically-elected commander-in-chief, sets a precedent in the region. What if something similar happens in the future in another country? Argentina’s new government could face street demonstrations (Macri won 10 million votes in October) if things don’t go well.

Macri is still in charge of the Executive for now, but is he in charge of his own coalition? Many leaders with the Radical party – a key member of Macri’s centre-right coalition – condemned the coup against Evo Morales. The president has planned a big farewell demonstration for December 7 and sees himself as the future leader of the opposition. But already many Radicals are speaking their own mind. It could be another sign that the centre-right coalition is disintegrating.

Perhaps more urgently, Bolivia now poses huge diplomatic challenges for Alberto Fernández and his bid to lead a united Peronist coalition that includes Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as vice-president. There is no rift in his coalition about Bolivia. But the question is whether Fernández’s decision to openly contradict Trump will impact future relations. Trump recently congratulated the Frente de Todos leader for his victory and reportedly offered help in Argentina’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The dividing lines have been drawn. The United States and Brazil have recognised the new Bolivian government, headed by a Bible-brandishing conservative senator who proclaimed herself head of state in a scantily-populated parliamentary session. Macri, even when he has refused to talk about a coup, has issued no such official recognition.

Alberto Fernández, once president, will be at issue over Bolivia both with the United States and with Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s right-wing president. But he is not in charge just yet and possibly these regional issues will be placed under an umbrella when the time comes for diplomatic talks with Trump and Bolsonaro in a power of responsibility. All eyes could be on Argentina’s new foreign minister come December 10. The job will reportedly go to former Buenos Aires Governor Felipe Solá, a moderate Peronist of vast experience.

The president-elect had previously irked Bolsonaro by championing the liberation of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former left-wing Brazilian president accused of corruption. The iconic leader has since been released, adding a new ingredient to a Latin American pot that was reaching boiling point. The street demonstrations in neoliberal Chile have not died down. Sebastián Piñera, the country’s centre-right president, is struggling to deal with the revolt and has announced a plan to beef up the police in an effort to control the situation.

Argentina’s economic situation is extremely difficult. But due to the massive developments in neighbouring countries the national conversation is now about the wider region. Out on the streets, everybody is an expert on Bolivia’s Constitution.

Public opinion in Argentina is divided between those who call what happened in Bolivia a coup and those who don’t. Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, is an icon for progressives in Latin America. He has been ousted in the middle of yet another re-election bid. The first-round election result was questioned and it came under the scrutiny of the Organisation of American States (OAS). Critics claim that Evo Morales had tried to perpetuate himself in power by bending democratic rules and was undone by a crisis stemming from that ambition.

This country doesn’t have that problem right now. Fernández de Kirchner dramatically altered the political landscape in May when she relinquished the chance of running for president and instead tapped her former cabinet chief to be the Peronist presidential candidate. Popular leaders here have tried to stay in charge in the past. But the vice-president-elect took a different role, delegating power to a successor according to the rules laid down in 1983. It looks like Argentina is in another place.

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Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta

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