BOLIVIA: ‘Civil society, like political society, is deeply divided’

CIVICUS speaks about the 2019 protests and elections in Bolivia with Eliana Quiroz, Executive Director of Fundación Internet Bolivia (Bolivia Internet Foundation), an organisation dedicated to strengthening free and secure access to the web. In its work to defend online human rights against censorship, surveillance, manipulation, extortion and other harmful practices, the Bolivia Internet Foundation focuses its actions on capacity strengthening among vulnerable publics, the promotion of open discussion spaces and the development of knowledge and technology-based strategies.
The latest Bolivian elections were engulfed in scandal long before the vote count. Could you tell us about the process that led to Evo Morales’ nomination for a new mandate, and the discontent that it unleashed?
The most recent chain of events began with the results of the constitutional referendum held on 21 February 2016, which asked citizens whether they supported a change of an article of the Political Constitution of Bolivia, which would allow Evo Morales and Álvaro García Linera to run again as candidates for president and vice president. Both were prevented from doing so because the Constitution only permitted two consecutive constitutional periods for elective authorities. If that article was reformed, the 2019 elections would bring the possibility of a third term, or a fourth one, according to some interpretations, depending on whether or not Morales’ first period counts, as it was completed under the previous Constitution.

Bolivia-Protests (2).jpgIn any case, Morales and García Linera lost the referendum, since 51 per cent of voters rejected the reform. However, they did not quit and instead began to look for other options to run again. They finally found one, through a ruling issued by the Constitutional Court in November 2017, which invoked the human right to elect and be elected, enshrined in the Pact of San José (the American Convention on Human Rights).

In reaction to this, social mobilisations and national strikes were organised under the 21F banner, in reference to the date of the referendum. Using the slogan ‘Bolivia Said No’, people demanded respect for the popular vote. Participants in the protests included both people legitimately annoyed with this manipulation and opposition activists who perceived a legitimacy crisis and tried to take advantage. These were mobilisations of the urban middle classes, which found themselves in a position opposed to that of many social movements of Indigenous and rural populations, among others, who backed the re-election of Morales and García Linera.
In October 2018, two spots became available in the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), as one judge resigned because “internal decision-making processes were stalled” and another quit for health reasons. Consequently, two alternates were appointed in their stead, and María Eugenia Choque became the TSE president. These events damaged the legitimacy of the TSE, and would turn out to have crucial consequences during the political crisis in late 2019.
The national elections were held on 20 October 2019. On that day, the rapid counting system – which only provides preliminary and unofficial data, since the official results are announced days later, once the ballots have been physically checked – stopped at 7:40 p.m. When it stopped working, 
with 84 per cent of the votes entered, it was giving an advantage to the Movement for Socialism (MAS), the ruling party, but not one big enough for it to win in the first round. The system was down for 23 hours.
From then on, mobilisations began against the TSE and its departmental offices, several of which were taken over and burned amid clashes between MAS supporters and opponents. The Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union and the governments of several countries expressed concern about the violence and the legitimacy crisis. Several voices called for a second election, while others denounced that a coup d’état was being prepared. On 24 October, when official results were announced that showed Evo Morales as the winner in the first round, the legitimacy crisis had become unstoppable. So Morales called for a new election and invited the OAS to conduct a binding audit.
How did the protests against the alleged fraud lead to President Morales’ resignation?
The stability of the government was precarious; it was hanging by a thread, pending the outcome of the OAS audit, which would be binding. Civil society groups and academics prepared and submitted studies to the audit mission that substantiated claims of electoral fraud. Vigils were held in several cities, particularly in Santa Cruz, which held a strike for 21 days to demand Morales’ resignation. At that time the civic leader of Santa Cruz, Luis Fernando Camacho, took a leading role. He said he would go to La Paz to deliver a letter requesting the resignation of Evo Morales. Meanwhile, his father – as Camacho's own statements would later reveal – made a deal with the police and the military. Several groups from other cities around the country, who were headed to La Paz to support citizen mobilisations against Morales, were violently repressed. There were violent street clashes between groups that supported Morales and groups that claimed fraud. MAS campaign offices and public buildings were burned down. The authorities were also pressured to obtain their resignation. To that end, the residences of public officials in Oruro were burned down.  The government repressed the protests against the MAS and there were three fatal victims: one in Cochabamba and two in Montero.
The mobilisations reached a turning point when the Bolivian Police mutinied. Although this mutiny was also motivated by specific police demands, it echoed the demands from mobilised groups for Evo Morales’ resignation and new elections. Police units began to mutiny on 8 November, arguing they could not repress their own people. In the early hours of 10 November, two days before it was expected, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro presented the Electoral Observation Mission’s Preliminary Report, which documented electoral irregularities, and asserted that fraud had been committed, although the preliminary report contained little evidence of that. In response, Morales called for new elections under a new TSE. But it was too late: at a press conference, the General Commander of the Armed Forces – who had made it clear that he would not use force against the people – accompanied by the commanders of the forces, suggested the president should resign. Morales submitted his resignation at noon on that same day and obtained asylum in Mexico; a few weeks later he sought refuge in Argentina.
It appears that protests continued on both sides of the political divide. What were protesters’ demands? Have different protests faced different responses from the security forces?
The power vacuum created with Morales' resignation lasted until 12 November, when Senator Jeanine Áñez took over as interim president, making use of a legal mechanism that was as supported as it was criticised. In that period the urban population of the cities of Cochabamba, El Alto and La Paz lived in a state of terror. The police were mutinying and offered limited security on the streets. Civilian groups of MAS supporters clashed with groups that celebrated Morales’ resignation. The homes of MAS opponents and public service buses were set on fire, houses in residential areas were threatened with invasion, barricades were set up in most neighbourhoods and vigils were held to protect private property from the attacks of groups of MAS supporters and criminals. The police requested the support of the armed forces because they were overwhelmed.
The police and military repression against protesters who supported the MAS, as well as the reaction by MAS supporters, led to 33 deaths by 10 November alone. Then the main peaks of violence occurred in Sacaba, Cochabamba, on 15 November and in Senkata, El Alto, on 19 November.
It was reported that before 10 November the police repressed citizens demonstrating against Evo Morales, and that after that date they went on to repress those who demonstrated in favour of the former president. The military was not active in the streets when Morales was president but came out after his resignation, and violently repressed groups of MAS supporters. The interim president even issued a decree that gave them impunity for their actions, although she had to roll it back in response to pressure. For instance, before Morales's resignation, on 31 October, miners and police defended Plaza Murillo: The police opened the way for miners to use dynamite against people who were protesting despite the fact that the use of dynamite in protests is banned by decree. After Morales resigned, the police went on to protect citizen groups opposed to the MAS and even to coordinate actions with some of them, such as La Resistencia.
In the meantime, irregular civilian groups emerged that took up some police functions, calling themselves The Resistance. It has been reported that they are armed, although there is no evidence of this. Recently they were recorded evicting Indigenous people from Cochabamba Square claiming they were ruining the flags they had placed there. Resistance groups have emerged in Santa Cruz, where the Cruceñista Youth Union was already in place, as well as in La Paz, Oruro and Sucre. These civilian groups claim they provide security, hold vigils in front of embassies and the residences of former MAS authorities to prevent them from fleeing the country, organise collections to provide funds to the police, and give information to and have links with people in the intelligence community.
There are still demonstrations for and against Evo Morales and his legitimacy as a political actor. Some want to see him excluded while others want him to return to Bolivia. Politics continue revolving around his figure.
Can you describe the extent of the violations of civic freedoms that occurred during this period?
The Bolivia Internet Foundation has prepared a report to submit to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in which we have documented human rights violations and abuses on the internet, so I will refer particularly to the situation of digital rights, and more generally to other rights. Three phases can be identified: the first extends from the national elections on 20 October 2019 to the resignation of Evo Morales on 10 November; the second from this date until mid-December; and the third from mid-December to the present.
The first phase, under the MAS government, was characterised by repression of opposition groups that organised street protests and went to La Paz to support the protests. Government actors and civilian groups of MAS supporters sought to prevent opponents from reaching the seat of government, including by firing guns. The TSE and the homes of MAS authorities were burned down.
In this period we found 19 incidents of temporary restriction and blockages of media pages on Facebook and Twitter, but they were likely more numerous. This phenomenon occurred mainly on the day after the elections, 21 October, and affected those media that denounced electoral fraud. Some journalists reported the confiscation of their equipment by protesters, and some protesters stated that the content of their smartphones had been accessed without their consent. On 5 November, the civic leader of Santa Cruz was at El Alto International Airport trying to get to La Paz to deliver a letter demanding Morales’s resignation; several journalists claimed that protesters had stripped them of their devices while they were recording what was happening outside the airport to erase the videos or photographs taken, or were denied the right to circulate material.
The second phase, once the government led by Jeanine Áñez was in office, was characterised by high violence on several fronts and an attempt to pacify the country. While the seat of power was vacant on the night of 10 November, the violent repression of groups related to the MAS led to several deaths. MAS-related groups ransacked stores, burned down the houses of opponents, businesses, police precincts and a fleet of more than 60 buses, surrounded Cochabamba, El Alto and La Paz to prevent food and fuel from coming in and blew up the perimeter wall of the Senkata hydrocarbons plant. On 12 November, as violence peaked, citizens took to the streets to defend them and banned social media as part of their defence strategy. In addition to prohibiting photos and videos, neighbours checked the backpacks and cell phones of people who appeared not to belong to the neighbourhood. The most heated moments in this period were the episodes of repression in El Alto and Sacaba.
In this phase there were also media outlets that reported attacks against their social media accounts. The new government’s minister of communications issued a public statement in which she threatened legal action against journalists who committed sedition and insisted that she had identified those journalists who had done this. Two days later, on 16 November, journalist Carlos Valverde, who broadcasts his programme on Facebook Live, announced that his Facebook page had been blocked. Foreign media and journalists were harassed and accused of reporting in favour of the version that a coup d’état had taken place while local ones were accused of reporting against it – in both cases as a result of bias, according to their detractors.
But censorship did not only originate from the government. People organised through Telegram and in secret Facebook groups reported social media accounts and had them shut down to prevent the spread of content for or against the previous government. An example of this was the establishment of a group with the purpose of closing down accounts of people with high public profiles.
Other actions created social tension and increased polarisation, such as the issuing of unsubstantiated statements by the authorities and the spread of fake news that armed Bolivian and foreign groups were operating in the country and that protesters had weapons stolen from the police, in addition to baseless accusations against MAS activists or supporters that were disseminated on social media.
There were also attempts by the government to influence public opinion by propagating a pro-government narrative through public media. For example, on 21 November numerous customers of the state-owned telephone company commented on social media that they had received a text message with a link that, as was later verified, led to a video of a call between Morales and the coca grower leader Faustino Yucra, which had been presented by the government at a press conference a few hours earlier. Although no viruses or malware were found alongside the video, this case of mass spam made use of the state company's lines, meaning that its databases were used to disseminate material that reinforced the government's narrative. According to statistics provided by Dropbox, which hosted this video, until 5 pm on 24 November at least 80,000 people had accessed it.
In a context in which numerous civilians sought to document abuses committed by police and military officers while policing the protests, messages were circulated on social media to urge citizens not to film the military or police when they carried out operations for the interim government.
In this phase there were also cases of confiscation of equipment and unconsented access to smartphones. A serious case was documented in the Senkata area on 19 November 2019, when a public media journalist was beaten and his video camera burned. From early November vilification and political persecution increased on social media, and especially on WhatsApp, directed mainly against people affiliated with the MAS. Digital violence targeted women and young politicians disproportionately. The strategies used focused on the dissemination of unconsented personal information (known as doxing), harassment, threats and the dissemination of intimate images without consent. The dissemination of this kind of information on social media causes the people involved to receive insults or intimidation; as a result, several people affected had to close their accounts or change their phone numbers.
In the third phase, roughly since 10 December, the country has calmed down. Although tensions have persisted, there have been no confrontations or violent repression. However, there have been political persecutions and violations of due process against MAS activists and supporters apprehended under sedition, terrorism and other charges.
We have verified that several of the practices that characterised earlier phases have continued to happen, but now we see clear violations of international treaties, national laws and human rights abuses not so much in digital matters but particularly outside the web. Examples of this have been the arrests of two former officials of the MAS government (who were later released) despite having safe-conducts provided by the transition government, the closure of more than 50 community radio stations without any clear reason, and people being detained in prison for alleged crimes without any respect for due process guarantees.
How have civil society organisations responded?
Civil society, like political society, is deeply divided, as an expression of the extreme polarisation we live in. Even human rights organisations have adopted contrasting positions. Some support the actions of the transitional government and do not report on human rights violations, while others speak up timidly against rights violations and abuses. There is even a new organisation that has emerged as a result of the confluence of civil society groups and individuals.
Journalists have ignored the new rulers’ previous actions and statements (which they had criticised when they first happened). The press coverage focuses on the mistakes made by the MAS during its 14 years in government, supporting the construction of a narrative that favours the transition government.
Various civil society groups remain trapped in polarising narratives on one side or the other, and no one seems to have the ability to diminish their negative effects on social cohesion.
Civic space in Bolivia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Fundación Internet Bolivia through its website and follow @e_liana on Twitter.