The cautious optimism that greeted the election of Luis Arce as Bolivia’s president has abruptly turned to profound concern. Arce, the socialist technocrat who came to office in the midst of dangerously inflamed political divisions last year, had vowed to “rebuild the country in unity,” including by making the judiciary independent of politics. Yet he just had Bolivia’s previous president, Jeanine Anez, along with more than a dozen former officials, arrested and imprisoned on dubious charges of “terrorism,” “conspiracy” and “sedition” connected to the ouster of her predecessor, Evo Morales.
“We will learn and we will overcome the mistakes we’ve made,” Arce had pledged on the eve of his win last October, following deadly political unrest the year before, when the firebrand Morales was removed from office by the military after a fiercely contested election that Morales’ critics said was rigged. Arce, a former economy minister under Morales, was the candidate of the Movement for Socialism, or MAS, the political vehicle for Morales’ transformative presidency from 2006 to 2019. His promise to heal an impoverished country crippled by partisan and ideological acrimony now rings hollow.
After Morales was forced out of office, Anez, a rightist senator, became Bolivia’s interim president. But she was hardly an example of conciliation and bipartisanship, as her administration was riddled with abuses and often seemed to overstep its interim mandate. She briefly ran in the 2020 election before withdrawing her candidacy. The recently unveiled prosecutions against her and her allies look more like politically motivated vengeance than the pursuit of justice. They are a disheartening and dangerous turn of events for Bolivia, and new protests have already erupted.
Knowledgeable observers have reacted with skepticism about the government’s motives. The head of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, Jose Miguel Vivanco, said the arrest warrants against Anez and her former ministers “contain no evidence whatsoever” of terrorism. Carlos Mesa, a centrist former president, wrote on Twitter that Anez’s detention was “arbitrary, illegal and a violation of her human rights.” The MAS, he said in a statement addressed to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and others, is “seeking to decapitate” the opposition.
In Washington, the Biden administration declared itself “concerned,” and said it was following the events surrounding the arrests. The acting head of the State Department’s Western Hemisphere bureau urged “our friends and neighbors in Bolivia” to uphold due process.
The Bolivian government denies that the arrests are political persecution. But when Anez tweeted Sunday that “they’re sending me to detention for four months to await trial for a ‘coup’ that never happened,” Justice Minister Ivan Lima had an ominous response: “What we’re looking for is not four months’ detention, what we’re looking for is 30 years because there were bloody massacres.” A review of the indictment by Agence France-Presse found that it called for her to be detained for six months as a “precautionary” measure.
Anez’s rise to power traces an unlikely arc. When several other members of Congress resigned after Morales was pushed out of office in November 2019, she was the senior-most parliamentarian, next in line to the presidency. Assuming the job temporarily, she vowed to hold elections promptly. The Supreme Court and Congress confirmed her place in the line of succession and the legitimacy of her presidency. The promised elections were delayed partly because of the coronavirus pandemic. But in the meantime, Anez did not act as a placeholder, instead cracking down on the left and further aggravating the country’s political divisions.
The recently unveiled prosecutions against Jeanine Anez and her allies look more like politically motivated vengeance than the pursuit of justice.
The 2019 elections that ended Morales’ lengthy rule remain deeply contentious. Victory would have given him a fourth term, despite the constitution’s explicit limit of two presidential terms. Morales ran anyway, even after holding a referendum in which Bolivians told him not to seek another term. He overcame the constitutional obstacles when his handpicked Supreme Court issued an eye-popping verdict greenlighting another presidential run by labeling the constitutional term limits a violation of Morales’ human rights.
After polls closed on Election Day, Morales was far ahead in first place, but without the margin to avoid a runoff. Then vote counting mysteriously stopped. When it resumed, he had secured a first-round victory. An audit by the Organization of American States found “intentional manipulations” and “serious irregularities” and called for new elections. Others disagreed with that conclusion, but the European Parliament joined in the call for new “transparent elections.”
The country exploded in protests. Dozens were killed by the security forces, and the military ultimately told Morales to step down. His supporters called it a coup. His critics said a coup had, in fact, been averted, by thwarting the theft of an election.
Morales, who went into exile in neighboring Argentina, later returned to a hero’s welcome in Bolivia after the MAS won last year’s elections and Arce became president. His larger-than-life figure has been an awkward presence for Arce, who promised not to bring him into his administration.
Morales remains the head of the party while Arce is the head of the government. But tensions between the two persist. The move to arrest leaders of the opposition goes against Arce’s vow to unify the country, but it may respond to other pressures. Bolivia, like much of Latin America, has been battered by COVID-19, its public health infrastructure and institutions buckling under the weight of the crisis. With a population of just 12 million, the pandemic has claimed some 12,000 lives, and more than a quarter of a million have fallen ill. A vaccination program is barely off the ground.
The economy is in a deep recession, contracting by an estimated 8 percent last year. That would be painful in any country, but in one of the poorest countries in Latin America, the recession is a matter of life and death for many. By some measures, this is the worst economic crisis in Bolivia in nearly seven decades.
When Bolivians went to the polls for local elections last weekend, the MAS’ performance was disappointing. While it is true that Morales is the party leader, and some of the blame for that poor showing lies with him, the current crisis is undoubtedly at least partly to blame, too.
Arce’s decision to detain Anez and other opposition leaders may well be an effort to cover his left flank—to show the MAS faithful he can stand up to the right, even as the country is still struggling under his presidency. Whether or not the move pleased members of his own party, there is little doubt that it torpedoed his pledge of unity. Instead, Bolivia is back on the perilous path toward more division and acrimony.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.