‘There is a risk that demonstrations will turn violent at short notice. You should avoid large crowds or public demonstrations and do not attempt to cross blockades.’ read the Gov. UK website, in the ‘Safety and Security’ section for Bolivia. I read all the guides several times, making sure to prepare for any eventuality, and felt ready: I’d check the tread depth of tyres before getting on buses, would religiously update myself on the weather forecast, as if doing so could prevent sudden landscldes, and I knew that I’d always, always avoid big protests, even if they seemed valuable or exciting.
I didn’t really think, however, that I’d go to bed hearing shots from the explosions of petardos in the plaza just a ten minute walk from my house; or that my friend would have to wait for an hour, trapped in the Languages School where she was teaching, before being escorted by police back to safety; or that we’d wind up effectively on house arrest. Or that people would be killed.
A good deal of my shock is due, of course, to my upbringing in a safe, wealthy, Western European democracy, where the worst protests experienced in my lifetime were the short-lived Tottenham Riots of 2011. Here all is tinged with a sense of violent uncertainty. La Paz saw one of the largest protests in years, with one Reuters witness estimating the crowd at 100,000; in Sucre and Tarija, protesters set fire to ballot boxes; and in Santa Cruz, the centre for government opposition, there are plans for a general strike. Now citizens are rushing to empty supermarkets and ATMs (which is also what we’re about to go and do now…)
The developing crisis in Bolivia has been covered by several news outlets, including (in English) the BBC, the FT, and AFP, but if you haven’t been following the events – and most people won’t have, given that Bolivia largely falls under the radar of the international community – here’s a quick summary:
Evo Morales has held the Premiership for 13 years and 9 months, and critics have accused him of having illegally extended his democratic mandate, when he ignored a defeat in a 2016 referendum on whether he should be allowed to seek an unprecedented fourth term. Criticism increased recently over his management of the devastating fires in the Bolivian Amazon.
The election of the 20th October saw him go head to head with his main political opponent, Carlos Mesa of the Revolutionary Leftist Party (FRI). Mesa is more popular with wealthier cities and particularly in the oil-rich South. After the near-silent period of purdah on election day – curfew of 9pm on the 19th, all transport banned, cessation of all commerical activity, outright ban on the sale of alcohol, so that people can’t vote while under the influence – protests broke out as soon as the ballots stopped being counted at 83%.
It is unclear why this happened; Morales claimed it was due to the remaining ballots being from very rural areas. Fair enough: Bolivia is a sparsely populated country, and people live in areas as rural as the jungle, the mountains, and the almost empty altiplano. But this should not have happened – the international Supreme Electoral Tribunal was organising the counting, precisely in order to avoid any manipulation or ambiguity. Protesters have highlighted poor handling of the ballots: papers abandoned on a street in La Paz, and boxes left uncounted in Tarija.
At 83% of the votes counted, it seemed likely that the two will continue into a segunda vuelta, as they were neck-and-neck in the vote counts: yet after the vote was quickly updated, after a 24-hour period of silence, it was reported that Morales had gained a 10.1% lead, enough to qualify him for the Presidency. Claims of corruption and fraud surged, across all levels of power: the OAS electoral mission called the change “drastic and hard to explain”, Mesa declared in Santa Cruz that “We are not going to recognise those results that are part of a shameful, consummated fraud that is putting Bolivian society in a situation of unnecessary tension.”, and Michael Kozak, the top US diplomat for Latin America, tweeted that there had been “attempts to subvert Bolivia’s democracy”.
Early Wednesday morning Morales declared a state of emergency. We took this as a cue to buy food and take out money, and it was strange to see the peace and calm of the outside world as we wandered down to the Hipermaxi, just metres away from the vast and dangerous protests of the previous night. Living in a country in crisis as a temporary resident is strange: I have my return flights booked, and beyond cultural interest in the country, have no attachments to keep me here. And yet uninvested as I am, the developments here are still profoundly worrying to me.
Firstly, the crisis demonstrates how fragile the institutions democracy can be. I’d always imagined the scale of democracy to be, essentially, an opposition of Stalin vs. Sweden: total control and dictatorship in contrast to total openness and civic understanding. I realise now just how simplistic this is, and note that Bolivia rates only 5.70 on The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. This indicates it is run with a ‘hybrid regime’ a cross between an ‘Authoritarian Regime’ and a ‘Flawed Democracy’. For comparison, Britain sits at a reassuring 8.53 (‘Full Democracy’) and Chad at 1.61.
Secondly, Bolivia remains, for all its economic growth of the past decade, a country wracked by poverty and slow development. Scarcity increases desperation, encourages movement towards radical politics, and resulting political strikes exacerbate the financial difficulties of ordinary families here. As cities such as Santa Cruz and Sucre, and areas such as the Zona de Sur in La Paz, grow in wealth and prosperity, social tensions grown with the increasing economic disparities with industrial and poorer areas such as Uyuni (where strikes I experienced earlier trapped 10,000 tourists in the September blockades), Potosí, Oruro, and El Alto.
It is an alien politics to me, one of violence, grief, and hatred. Brexit Britain is nothing in comparison to this: ours is a nation that still organises peaceful manifestations, and whose leaders, however flawed, are able to sit around the table with their counterparts. Here, parents say goodnight to their children before going to protest at night, with instructions on what to do should they never return. My ticket home is worth more in any currency than many Bolivians would make in a year, and it will be hard to leave this country that has been so welcoming to me, in the knowledge that life is only going to become harder in the next few months: already, the phrase ‘guerra civil’ comes quickly to conversation, and fear spreads as fast as the anger.