Bolivia's Covid-19 Election Nightmare Is a Warning

A 90-page report

The report repeatedly asserts the interim government’s complicity, including Añez herself, in ongoing paramilitary violence against opponents. Most of the victims are indigenous, an important detail considering a long history of social and political exclusion for the country’s native majority prior to Morales’s election in 2005.

The country’s lithium reserves are another complicating factor. As anthropologist Nancy Postero has written, during Morales’s time in office, the MAS sought to unify “three very different lines of struggle—for indigenous rights, economic justice, and popular democracy.” The 2009 nationalizations of the natural gas industry and telecommunications sector were explicitly justified as attending to these different struggles, which Morales insisted were not only related, but in fact different facets of the same unified struggle. With this discourse, Postero noted, the movement Morales led “managed to bring together its heterogeneous constituencies around a core agenda that might be called ‘indigenous nationalism.’”

That nationalism has increasingly been in tension with the fact that Bolivia holds a sizable chunk of the world’s lithium reserves—a natural resource whose importance will only grow as the world seeks to transition to renewable energy. “We know that Bolivia can become the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a Bolivian farmer and activist told The New York Times over a decade ago. “We are poor, but we are not stupid peasants,” he added. “The lithium may be Bolivia’s, but it is also our property.” Ownership is precisely the issue. There are nagging suspicions in Latin America and elsewhere that Morales’s ouster was engineered in part to meet the demands of powerful international corporations eager to get their hands on precious Bolivian metals. This concern resonates in a continent where such suspicions have borne out time and again in the past. When Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk was needled last week on Twitter about potential United States involvement in Morales’s ouster—Tesla, like all electric vehicle manufacturers, depends upon a steady supply of lithium batteries—his response, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it,” was widely covered in Latin American press, again stoking suspicion.

The Harvard report on human rights included six clear demands for the Bolivian government and two for the international community. Among other things, it argued the Añez administration must approve impartial investigations into abuses by state forces, sever ties with para-state groups, and hold free and fair elections. The international community, for its part, must forcefully condemn human rights violations and insist on those free and fair elections. It is unlikely the Añez government will heed these sorts of demands on its own. After all, it sees itself as an indispensable bulwark against the social, political, and economic order that MAS represents. In an ongoing political struggle with far-reaching consequences, ceding ground now would only embolden forces that the government sees as an existential threat. Añez also currently lacks any foreign incentive to modify her government’s behavior. Despite the stakes, Bolivia’s fate is unlikely to figure prominently in this year’s U.S. presidential campaign. The most progressives can hope for is to elect and pressure his foreign policy team to reckon with the Añez administration’s human rights abuses.

The current pandemic undoubtedly complicates the execution of elections. But public officials cannot be allowed to simply throw up their hands and stay in office indefinitely. One solution discussed in Brazil, a Bolivian neighbor that also has elections set for this fall, is to move the election date if necessary but not extend current terms for elected politicians. The machinery of government would continue to operate but those most invested in amassing personal power would not have an excuse to put off a national vote. It’s an option worth exploring if infection rates cannot be contained, since voting by mail risks excluding masses of impoverished voters in places like Bolivia and Brazil. The alternative—politicians with poor track records remaining in power until it is politically convenient for them to face voters—is not something democracies the world over should accept.

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