“What the world needs to know is that in Bolivia we don’t live in a democracy,” is one of the things Gabriel Villalba told me when we talked in a rooftop café in La Paz. From up there, there was a tranquillity that looked nothing like the streets we had just crossed to get to that destination.
Lawyer and political analyst, Gabriel is clear about the situation in the country. He has no doubt that Bolivia suffered a coup d’état in October 2019 and he narrates firmly the facts that led to that situation. “The opposition already had in mind when they were going to act. So they created a common sense that the elections would be fraudulent and they didn’t accept Evo Morales’ victory,” he said.
“Evo’s government innocently asked the OAS (Organization of American States) to issue a technical report on the occurrence of fraud and I believe this was a political mistake,” he continued.
The preliminary report issued by the OAS announced fraud in the elections. But it only analysed 0.22 per cent of Bolivia’s voting records, according to Gabriel. “There was already a climate of systematic violence because local electoral courts had been burned, they were frightening social leaders of the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS) and we went into a state of social upheaval. Chaotic, no?” he added.
With sadness, he recounts the days of tension on the weeks that followed, when Evo Morales had to resign and Jeanine Áñez took over the office of the country. He mentioned the repression of social protests and the burning of the Whipala flag – which represents the indigenous peoples of Latin America and is adopted as the Plurinational state of Bolivia’s second official flag – as symbols of violence in the new government.
“It was very disheartening because you realised the difference in social classes. In the protests asking to overthrow Evo Morales’ government, where the children of the high command of the police were, there was no repression. But in the other marches, of the popular sectors, they had no constraints in repressing us,” Villalba said.
He also commented on the political persecution suffered by him and other fellow political activists. “I had, outside my house, plainclothes policemen and soldiers hanging around in cars. This is how the intelligence force of the military operates as a form of frightening. I had to be out of my house and for a week, moving from house to house of friends because I could not be in the same place. It was too dangerous. Our physical integrity was in danger,” he recalled.
But he can also see something positive in that. “I’m glad that’s happened, too. Do you know why? Because people used to say that with Evo we lived in a dictatorship when it was a democratic government. And now they realize what a dictatorship government is, with the military on the streets and war weapons shooting at civilians. That’s the real coup, isn’t it? And I believe that the young people who finally recognised this will be the hidden vote that will determine the elections,” Gabriel said, referring to the elections that were scheduled for May 3 at the time – and indicated results in favour of the MAS according to opinion polls.
Now, in a more recent commentary on what is happening in the country, which has postponed the elections indefinitely due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Villalba sees Bolivian democracy as even more fragile at the moment. “More than suspending or postponing the elections, they [the government of Áñez] fears this tendency of 40% of the votes to the MAS shown in the latest polls. So Jeanine Áñez is taking measures, taking advantage of the Coronavirus, to reverse this intention to vote,” he told Telesur network in March.
Even so, he believes that the MAS can go back to power after the pandemic. “They [Áñez administration] asked to postpone the elections without consulting the MAS, and I believe this will fall against them. They are taking authoritarian measures and the population is aware of that. They are disapproving Áñez’s de facto government actions and this has consequences on the ballot boxes, as you can see in the polls of intention to vote,” he concluded.