Suffocating democracy in the Andes

From Bolivia to Colombia, underhand methods are being used to erase the possibility of democracy. And the coronavirus pandemic serves as a handy excuse to justify the stifling of democratic institutions and the permanent destruction of social movements and Left political parties.

Published : Aug 21, 2020 06:50 IST

People from the city of El Alto,  Bolivia, protesting in the streets of the capital, La Paz, on November 14, 2019, demanding the resignation of interim President Jeanine Anez.

People from the city of El Alto, Bolivia, protesting in the streets of the capital, La Paz, on November 14, 2019, demanding the resignation of interim President Jeanine Anez.

In late July, United States PresidentDonald Trump casually tweeted that he might “delay” the November 3 presidential election because of the global pandemic. As polls show his support slowly declining, he has indicated that the elections might be “rigged” and “stolen”. His promotion of doubt about the outcome of the election suggests that he wants to use it either to rally his social base or to refuse to accept the results of the election. But the suggestion about delaying the election puts another layer of doubt about the entire process. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to set the date for the election; the President plays no role in this process. While Trump’s suggestion might not be taken seriously in the U.S., the idea of delaying elections has become a reality in Bolivia, which will not have had an elected government for at least a year.

But delay of elections is only one part of a broad anti-democratic strategy that has taken hold of the Andes region, particularly in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Here, parties of the far right have utilised various mechanisms—some constitutional, some unconstitutional—often to prevent popular political forces of the Left from contesting elections. The coup in Bolivia in November 2019 that removed President Evo Morales Ayma from office was followed by a deliberate attack on his political party (MAS, or Movimiento al Socialismo) and the social movements that support it. In Ecuador, former President Rafael Correa and his party (FCS, or Fuerza Compromiso Social) have been denied the right to contest the 2021 presidential election. In Peru, President Martin Vizcarra got into a dispute with the Congress of Peru, with the country now caught in both the coronavirus pandemic and a political crisis. In Colombia, over a hundred leaders of social movements have been assassinated thus far in 2020, with the far-right government of President Ivan Duque offering those responsible for these murders complete impunity. Democratic processes in the Andes have shuddered to a halt.


In November 2019, the Bolivian military, backed by the far-right political forces in the country and by the U.S. government, overthrew the democratically elected government of President Morales. He was exiled to Mexico and then Argentina. At stake was his resource socialism, which had held the country’s vast lithium reserves for the benefit of its people and not transnational corporations. The far right and the military settled on Jeanine Anez, a minor political figure, to replace Morales, and she became interim President in November 2019. Before Morales left Bolivia, the military, the police and far-right paramilitary groups began a concerted attack against the MAS’ leaders and supporters. Several well-documented massacres transpired, with Jeanine Anez showing her eagerness to give those who killed her socialist opponents immunity from prosecution. She has shown no interest in investigating these massacres; the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, however, empanelled a multiparty commission to look into them and it will deliver its report in August.

Five months after the coup, the liberal press in the U.S. acknowledged, grudgingly, that Morales had been a victim of a coup and then began gingerly to criticise Jeanine Anez for her attack on the MAS and on democratic institutions. Lucien Chauvin and Anthony Faiola of The Washington Post (March 6) noted: “Since being sworn in, the fiercely anti-socialist Anez has presided over the detention of hundreds of opponents, the muzzling of journalists and a ‘national pacification’ campaign that has left at least 31 people dead, according to the national ombudsman and human rights groups.” Anatoly Kurmanaev and Maria Silvia Trigo of The New York Times (June 7) wrote that the government of Jeanine Anez had “persecuted the former president’s supporters, stifled dissent and worked to cement its hold on power”. The Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic published a report on July 27 that plainly made the case against the violence driven by the government of Jeanine Anez: “State-sponsored violence, restrictions on free speech, and arbitrary detentions have all contributed to a climate of fear and misinformation that has undermined the rule of law as well as the prospects of fair and open elections.” “Para-state groups”, the report says, operate without check to beat and detain activists of the MAS and allied groups, particularly in areas where the socialists have political strength.

The Anez government made sure that the hugely popular Morales would not be allowed to return to Bolivia and contest the election. On December 5, 2019, she said that she would not be a candidate for the presidency but then changed her mind on January 24. She trails in the polls behind Luis Arce, the MAS candidate. Bolivia has not had an election since November 2019 and, indeed, has not had an elected government since then. Jeanine Anez, who knows that she cannot win an election, first set the election for May 3, then postponed it to September 6 and has now postponed it once more, to October 18. It is likely that it will be postponed further since the government has been incompetent in its handling of the pandemic (her Health Minister was arrested for corruption over the purchase of ventilators).


The COVID-19 pandemic has struck Peru’s 33 million people hard, with 422,000 confirmed cases at the start of August and 19,408 deaths. Despite an early lockdown, the country has struggled. Close observers of the situation suggest that this has to do with the extreme social inequality and poverty in the country; since nearly half the population has no refrigerator, people by necessity have to congregate in markets, which makes the lockdown a mockery. The country went into the pandemic with a serious constitutional crisis on hand between President Vizcarra and the Congress of Peru, which he dissolved in September 2019. The Congress retaliated by suspending Vizcarra’s presidency and appointing Vice President Mercedes Araoz as President; but, a day later she resigned. Legislative elections were held in January, which sent to Lima a parliament where no single party received more than 11 per cent of the vote.

The crisis emerged out of a popular upsurge in September 2019 over the systematic corruption of Peru’s elite. Vizcarra has tried to drive an agenda against the corruption but has faced obstacles from the entrenched parties of the elite and by their institutional capture of the system. Four of the Presidents before Vizcarra were swept from office in corruption scandals. In July, as Vizcarra campaigned to hold a referendum to end the impunity enjoyed by Presidents, Ministers and lawmakers, the Congress hastily passed a Bill that did the same thing but with loopholes. Speaking of the reform process, Vizcarra said that the Congress “has distorted it” and that “surely someone will go to the constitutional court to have it annulled. Then, the parliamentary immunity will continue.” The paralysis in Peru’s institutions remains, with democracy smothered in the process. Vizcarra is up for election next year.


Inefficient governments that adopted the austerity policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have seen the pandemic spin out of control. In Ecuador (population 17 million), for instance, the coronavirus pandemic overran the city of Guayaquil in March and April, with numbers of dead so high that their bodies were left on the streets. The situation in Quito, the capital, has become serious once more as lockdowns have eased. By early August, there were 86,232 confirmed infections and 5,736 deaths. IMF-driven cuts to public health care systems have negatively impacted Ecuador’s ability to tackle the virus. Meanwhile, President Lenin Moreno is driving an anti-democratic agenda in his country. On July 19, election officials refused to allow many parties, including former President Correa’s FCS to register for the presidential election of 2021. This manoeuvre comes alongside the National Court of Justice handing down an eight-year prison sentence for Correa on false corruption charges; this sentence bars him from electoral politics for 25 years. Each of these is an attempt to muzzle Correa, whose significant popularity in the country threatens Moreno. Moreno has used every measure—corruption, terrorism—to repress the opposition. Correa, who lives in exile, tweeted: “We are robbed of democracy again.”


Colombia (population 50 million) faces a range of problems, among them the pandemic (306,000 confirmed cases, with 10,330 deaths), an endemic economic crisis, the paralysis of the peace process largely produced by the far right and the paramilitaries, and the use of Colombia as a staging ground for the hybrid war against Venezuela. President Duque, close to Trump in his orientation, has flailed about trying to please Washington and the Colombian elites. He faced a wave of protests late last year over both the economic crisis and the failure of his party to back the peace process. The incompetence of the government to handle the pandemic has further challenged his grip on power.

It is here that the assassinations of leaders of the social movement come in. Not a day goes by without either a failed attempt at or a successful assassination, with these leaders, often Afro-Colombian and poor, facing the brunt of state and para-state violence. On December 22, 2019, three such leaders were killed: Efrain Cabal Rendon (a teacher in the Toez indigenous area), Jairo Ortiz (of the Nasa indigenous area in Huila) and Nilson Caicedo (of the Community Council for the Development of Black Communities of the Mountain Range). These are brave people whose will to improve the conditions of their communities and to give their fellow community members confidence was taken away by force. Democracy, which grows through the work of such leaders, is not being allowed to emerge in Colombia.

Senator Victoria Sandino, a leftist lawmaker, tweeted: “The state is responsible for these crimes as it has failed to guarantee the lives of those who exercise social leadership in the country. Seeing these crimes only as numbers dilutes the importance for the communities. We need to know what happened, who gave the order and to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.”

Across the Andes, from Bolivia to Colombia, different procedures have been used, from coups to assassinations, to erase the possibility of democracy. The pandemic is being used to justify most of these processes although they long predate it. The pandemic is being used as an excuse to stifle democratic institutions and permanently destroy social movements and Left political parties.

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