How Bolivia’s de Facto Regime Has Taken Advantage of COVID-19 to Consolidate Its Power and Repress Political Rivals

June 03, 2020

On April 29, Bolivia’s de facto president, Jeanine Áñez, announced that the country would be moving into a “dynamic quarantine” phase on May 11. This decision was intended to alleviate the social and economic repercussions of the pandemic by loosening lockdown restrictions. However, the most heavily affected areas ― located primarily in poor communities ― were ordered to remain in full lockdown. This meant that many of those in greatest need of getting out and earning money were still unable to do so; emergency subsidies were insufficient and unevenly distributed, and many have been left on the verge of starvation, according to on-the-ground accounts. On June 1, the de facto government announced that it had lifted most of the remaining lockdown restrictions, and that it was handing over the responsibility for quarantine management to local authorities. This is a significant move in that it implies that the pandemic no longer constitutes a national emergency.

Jeanine Áñez has faced harsh national and international criticism for using the pandemic as a way of consolidating power and repressing political rivals. Protesters in Cochabamba have accused the government of leaving people without the means to feed their families. On May 10, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples sent an open letter to Áñez calling on her to provide food supplies to the indigenous communities most affected by shortages. A week and a half later, in the midst of these appeals, Bolivia’s health minister was arrested in a corruption scandal in which he is accused of paying $4.7 million to acquire COVID-19 ventilators for a contract believed to be worth $1.2 million. The minister, Marcelo Navajas, had only assumed the post six weeks before. Protests have also recently broken out in El Alto and in Cochabamba demanding new elections and an end to the privatization of natural resources and of other state companies.

The Áñez government’s response to COVID-19 has involved strict military enforcement of restrictions on movement and a series of aggressive containment measures. Meanwhile, the government has used the pandemic as an excuse to mount a full-fledged offensive against its political rivals.

The early lockdown has meant that Bolivia appears not to have experienced the rapid spread of the virus seen in neighboring countries such as Brazil, Peru, or Ecuador. As of June 3, the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center estimated Bolivia to have 10,531 confirmed cases and 343 deaths from the virus, although these numbers undoubtedly underrepresent the actual situation, given low testing rates. If in fact the government has had success in stemming the pandemic’s spread, it will have come at a high social cost, as we shall see.

Supreme Decree 4200 and Flagrant Violations of Freedom of Expression and Persecution of Political Rivals

The Bolivian government has used the pandemic as a pretext to impose decrees that criminalize dissent and severely curtail press freedom. Though international pressure forced the government to rescind some of the decrees’ most egregious measures, this was not until after a short period of harsh repression.

On April 30, The Washington Post reported that “a striking example of a crackdown during the pandemic comes from Bolivia,” and noted “the government has arrested dozens of opponents under a new decree passed last month.” José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Program, also condemned the decree, Tweeting: “The Bolivian government appears to be taking advantage of the pandemic to give itself the power to punish anyone who publishes information the government deems ‘incorrect.’”

The Post and Vivanco were both referring to Supreme Decree 4200, which the de facto government passed on March 25. Article 13.2 of this decree states: “individuals who incite non-compliance with this decree or misinform or cause uncertainly to the population will be subject to criminal charges for crimes against public health.” Those convicted of violating the decree can receive sentences of up to 10 years in prison. By mid-April, some 67 people had already been arrested for allegedly violating the decree, and, according to de facto interior minister Arturo Murillo, 37 people have already been tried, convicted, and sentenced for supposed involvement in “destabilization and disinformation movements.”

These measures drew criticism from a wide array of national and international actors, including Bolivian social organizations; international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International; the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR); Freedom House; and US Congressman Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

On May 7, just days after World Press Freedom Day, the de facto government announced another law intended to extend the scope of Supreme Decree 4200. Decree 4231 outlaws “disinformation” in print or through “artistic media.” On May 12, the IACHR sent a strongly worded warning to the Áñez government against the use of criminal law to police public expression. The most problematic provisions of Decree 4231 were removed on May 14.

Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick said:

The COVID-19 pandemic must be taken seriously, but vague regulations that criminalize ‘disinformation’ make Bolivia’s interim government look more concerned about its public image than about an effective response to the crisis. These overly broad provisions that criminalize speech open up the dangerous possibility of abuse against journalists reporting vital information and facts.

Following intense international pressure, Bolivia’s de facto government modified some of the most heavily criticized clauses of the decree in mid-May.

Áñez Overrules Bill that Would Have Ensured New Elections Within 90 Days

Bolivia’s 2020 snap elections, originally scheduled to take place May 3, were postponed indefinitely on March 22 by the country’s electoral authority as a result of the pandemic. Over a month later, former president Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) shepherded a bill through the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies obliging the de facto government to organize general elections before August 2, 2020. The law, seeking to ensure that new elections are held within the constitutional time limits for an interim presidency, was ratified in an extraordinary session in Bolivia’s senate on April 30.

As expected, Áñez vehemently opposed the bill, claiming that elections should be postponed until the pandemic has passed, and Tweeting: “Any damage to people’s health and lives caused by the folly of calling elections will be the responsibility of the MAS.” Then she went further and announced that the pandemic justified postponing the elections indefinitely.

Deciding how to handle voting during a pandemic is inherently difficult, but indefinite postponement had raised fears that the post-coup administration had little interest in giving up power, especially considering the strong lead that MAS presidential candidate and former economy minister Luis Arce has had in the polls over other candidates, including Áñez herself. The agreement reached between TSE and key political parties on June 2, states that elections will be held on September 6; this can be seen as a positive step towards easing current political tensions in Boliva.

Áñez’s Border Crisis: Closing Land Borders to Bolivian Nationals

The Áñez regime has claimed that MAS and other political rivals, including 2019 opposition presidential candidate Carlos Mesa of Comunidad Ciudadana, are undermining its response to the pandemic, and attempting to politicize the country’s dire situation.

In the same vein, Áñez’s director of migration services, Marcel Rivas, blamed the MAS for social turmoil resulting from the government’s refusal to allow Bolivians stranded on the Chilean border to reenter the country, claiming “MAS sought to break the quarantine to generate riots and chaos.” This followed an incident during the first week of April in which several hundred Bolivian nationals trying to return to Bolivia clashed with armed forces near the Bolivian town of Pisiga. The camps were heavily militarized. Many have criticized Áñez for allowing in Bolivians fortunate enough to travel by air, but blocking those coming by land, including poorer Bolivian migrants trying to return from Chile.

Evelyn Matthei, mayor of the Chilean municipality of Providencia, made a video appeal to Áñez on April 28 for the 400 Bolivians stranded on the Chilean side of the border to be allowed to return to Bolivia. Matthei pledged to meet the necessary conditions, including provision of food and shelter, to allow these Bolivians to fulfill quarantine requirements in government camps in Chile before being allowed to travel within Bolivia. On May 1, in the face of growing international pressure, Áñez finally allowed these Bolivians to return to their country.

The de facto government’s actions preventing Bolivians from returning home violated a number of national and international laws. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (and former president of Chile) Michelle Bachelet issued a statement on April 15 reminding Bolivia’s de facto president of her obligation to allow Bolivian citizens back into their own country: “Under international law, everyone has the right to return to their home country ― even during a pandemic.” Bachelet went on to say: “When migrants wish to return home voluntarily, Governments have an obligation to receive their own nationals, and to ensure that they have access to health care and other rights.”

The International Organization for Migration had been assisting other stranded Bolivians who were being held at the Tata Santiago quarantine camp in Pisiga, providing food and shelter in the absence of adequate support from Áñez’s government.

Blocking MAS Social Organizations from Providing Food Packages for Those Most in Need

During the last week of April, the military prevented MAS senate candidate Andrónico Rodríguez from distributing food in Cochabamba, accusing him of breaching government restrictions on political gatherings. Rodríguez declared that low-income Bolivians urgently need more access to food, as had Zenón Pizarro, mayor of Oruro, the first city in Bolivia to be put under lockdown. Pizarro had called for more flexible isolation measures, warning that hunger is a serious risk. With many people left without access to their savings or any kind of support, then “if the virus doesn’t kill them, hunger will,” Pizarro stated.

The Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), Bolivia’s main labor union federation, has also decried that around 80 percent of the population, largely informal workers and the unemployed, are not eligible for the subsidies the de facto government has offered to address the economic effects of the quarantine. COB leader Juan Carlos Huarachi proposed that the eight million people left without protection be paid 50 percent of the minimum wage for the next six months. Yet on April 29, the government suspended a one-off cash transfer (Bono Universal) intended to offer a lifeline to those on the brink of starvation, saying lines outside the banks were too long. This left many people without income or access to other support during the pandemic.

Territorial Isolation Policies in Chapare, Cochabamba

In some cases, the de facto government has opted for more sweeping and regionally focused repression, as in Chapare. This rural province in the department of Cochabamba has been a bastion of support for ousted president Evo Morales. It has also been the prime target for the Áñez government‘s anti-narcotics policy involving the criminalization of peasant coca growers. Áñez’s approach is reversing years of a successful counternarcotic strategy under Morales that had offered viable alternatives for small-scale coca growers to enter the formal economy. Under Áñez, these campesinos have been criminalized, labeled “narco-terrorists,” and blocked from selling certain legal and licensed coca-based goods such as shampoos, sweets, and creams on the local market. During the lockdown, security forces have arrested and detained farmers on broad, poorly defined charges, mostly tied to narcotrafficking. So far, little evidence has been provided to sustain such claims.

The US government has supported Añez’s counternarcotics policies and has kept silent about flagrant human rights violations carried out by her government. De facto interior minister Arturo Murillo, the key architect of the US-led anti-narcotics strategy, is publicly vocal about the support he has from the United States government.

On May 6, the human rights ombudsman of Cochabamba, Nelsón Cox, denounced that “detainees from the Chapare are singled out for beatings and abuse in prisons in Cochabamba.” The Andean Information Network calls this “the latest chapter in the stigmatization, discrimination and human rights violations against residents of that coca growing region.”

Cochabamba is also home to over 14,000 small fish farms, each holding around 1,500 fish. The Áñez government has restricted these farmers’ access to any fuel ― under the pretext that this could be used to fabricate cocaine ― putting the fish farms in jeopardy. Already some 11 million fish, around half the existing fish stock, have perished from lack of fuel needed to oxygenate pools. This is a tragic loss of a much-needed food stock. Observers point out that these fish could have supported campesino families during the lockdown.

Boomerang Accusations: Áñez, Not Her Political Rivals, Is Politicizing the Crisis

The widely held belief that the government’s quarantine restrictions have been unequally applied has been fueled by public scandals revealing the double standard for Áñez and other senior officials. Just in the first few weeks of May, it was revealed that Áñez had used a military plane to transport a family friend to a birthday party. During the same period, a government minister came under fire for using a state aircraft to transport a former beauty queen between cities.

Earlier in May, Áñez invited Bolivians to pray and fast together to combat COVID-19, and she has coordinated helicopter flights so that Catholic bishops can bless the Bolivian population from the sky. Áñez seems to have learned few lessons since she first marched into the Presidential Palace, having been sworn in without the required quorum in the Senate, to announce that the “Bible had returned to the Palace.” Her de facto government has repeatedly come under fire for its overtly racist policies, sparking a December 2019 OAS resolution in which 18 member states denounced its recurrent and overtly racist actions. Áñez’s response to the pandemic signals a continued uphill struggle for recognition of the basic rights of Bolivia’s massive indigenous population.

Ironically, Áñez claims that opposition to her government has politicized the pandemic, but the evidence suggests that it is Áñez’s de facto government that has been most guilty of extracting political gains ― including by repressing its critics ― in the context of the current health crisis. Beyond the controversial cultural and religious dimensions of the government’s response, there are deeper implications for civil and political rights. Áñez’s de facto government appears to be taking advantage of political opportunities afforded by COVID-19 to try to hold on to power at all costs.

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