In La Paz, Bolivia, protesters carried the “Wiphala,” a flag representing the nation’s 36 recognized indigenous groups, through the capital city recently as they called for the interim president, Jeanine Áñez, to step down.
“Áñez, murderer, we want your resignation!” they chanted.
The protest followed the lowering of the Wiphala from its perch in front of the national Legislative Assembly — a gesture that speaks to the nation’s growing racial tensions that played a role in the country’s presidential election last month and the ensuing political turmoil.
Evo Morales — the first indigenous president of Bolivia who served for more than a decade — won reelection in October, but was immediately met with accusations of fraud and defying constitutional term limits. In protests that followed, at least 32 people died and more than 700 were injured.
In the backlash against Morales, some Bolivians — and Áñez supporters — have used the moment to express anti-indigenous sentiments. “Fuera Indios,” or “out with Indians,” has been spray-painted across walls of universities and highway divides.
Bolivia’s indigenous people commonly face prejudice due to their social status tied to poverty and ethnicity. Sixty percent of Bolivians identify as Quechua or Aymara, ethnicities native to the Andes region.
Morales, his vice president and other socialist party leaders resigned on Nov. 10 amid pressure from top military officials who claimed Morales had tampered with the vote tally during the country’s presidential elections during a 24-hour blackout of early polling results.
The Organization of American States, an alliance of nations that includes the United States, determined that the election was illegitimate in an audit, which pointed to major polling booths being burned down during protests and electronic count failures. The audit conclusions sparked another wave of demonstrations, driving Morales to flee to Mexico earlier this month, while promising to return soon “with strength.”
Áñez was fifth in the line of succession to be president. She declared herself interim president because the officials who ranked above her resigned the same day as Morales out of solidarity. She was sworn in with a Christian bible, which The Guardian described as an “explicit rebuke” of Morales, since Morales had banned using a bible in the palace. Since then, Áñez has called for a new election in 90 days, but her record has already heightened Bolivia’s divisions.
Áñez has been accused of having an anti-indigenous bias. Critics have rehashed a disputed 2013 tweet in which she reportedly wrote: “I want a Bolivia free of satanic indigenous rituals. The city is not for the indigenous. They should go to the mountains or plains.” Áñez also called Morales a “poor Indian” in another tweet earlier this year.
Áñez, a fiercely anti-socialist politician, has denied writing “ill-intentioned” tweets.
“I’ve seen a couple of tweets that I never wrote and that we already stated were false,” Áñez stated during a Nov. 15 press conference, without pointing to any specific tweets.
In the last two weeks, Áñez has encouraged using police force to repress demonstrators who support Morales, mostly indigenous. “To those who have caused damage or committed any crime, God and justice will judge you,” Áñez said days after taking office.
Maya Ajchura Chipana, a Quechua author and organizer, worries that Áñez’s anti-indigenous rhetoric will fuel hate crimes aimed at her community.
“She publicly says that she’s against indigenous people and now she’s in power,” Chipana said. “My main concern is how this has opened the flood gates to racism and discrimination.”
Áñez is the face of opposition protests, according to Danny Shaw, a Latin American history professor at the City University of New York. She has represented “a counterrevolution that has burned the Wiphala and persecuted local and national leaders of the MAS movement,” Shaw told the PBS NewsHour.
Morales identifies as Aymara, an ethnic group descendant from the Incas and native to the Andes region. He was elected to Congress in 1997 and established Movement for Socialism, or MAS, a socialist political party.
“There’s been a great deal of racism, a great deal of polarization, a great deal of hatred, aimed at indigenous communities because of this election,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a human rights nonprofit in Cochabamba. “It’s been a problem since Morales first won in 2006, but now there’s a reason to raise the issue.”
As president, Morales “did good things for this country in terms of indigenous representation,” Ledebur said. “It’s been a growing pie contributing to the improved lives of rural people, low-income people.”
Although Morales opened channels for indigenous engagement in politics, some Bolivians are simply happy for new leadership. They’ve said Morales had been in power for too long and that he’s lost the trust of the people.
“Fourteen years of government and he wanted to extend it for another five. The people are tired,” said Mauricio Ramirez Parra, a resident of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city.
Áñez told members of the national assembly she “will do everything necessary to pacify the country,” but Morales’ supporters worry her politics will escalate discrimination against indigenous communities.
Who is Evo Morales?
Morales, who became the longest-serving president in the Americas, broke into politics by rising through the ranks of the campesino, or rural laborer, union. He protested the government’s war on coca, a crop used in traditional Andean medicine and a crucial export to the Bolivian economy. Since assuming the presidency in 2006, Morales has prioritized improving rural education, poverty and opportunity.
“For the first time, there were policies that put the last first. He prioritized the pueblo and the indigenous, which really helped many climb out of poverty,” said Shaw.
Morales spearheaded social programs like “Yes, I Can,” which eradicated illiteracy in 2014. Poverty in the country was nearly halved from 60 percent in 2006, the year Morales took power, to 34 percent in 2017 and extreme poverty dropped from 38 to 15 percent over the same period. Bolivia, the poorest country in Latin America, has also enjoyed stable economic growth under Morales’ leadership.
Through his tenure, Morales elevated the status of indigenous Bolivians in politics. 2006 was the first year that indigenous academics and activists assumed majority in the highest government roles, including 14 of the 16 executive cabinet seats. His political party, MAS, won a majority in the National Assembly, which paved the way for indigenous people to assume local and national offices.
One of his most significant accomplishments was reforming the Bolivian constitution to create a plurinational state that officially recognized the 36 indigenous languages. The constitution pays respect to Pachamama, the Andean mother Earth, and the national emblem for the first time flew the multicolored Wiphala. In his inaugural address, Morales predicted there would be 500 years of indigenous rule.
But over 14 years, Morales gradually lost voter support. In 2009, Morales won 64 percent of votes; in 2013, he got 60 percent, and allegedly 47 percent in the latest election.
When Áñez assumed power, indigenous people lost the representation they had in the Cabinet. Out of 11 Cabinet members she appointed, none are Native.
Bolivia said no
“Bolivia dice no.” It’s a slogan handwritten on poster-board signs seen hovering above crowds in street protests that have been happening throughout the country for over a month. The slogan, which means that the people of Bolivia “say no” to the latest election results, evolved into a political campaign that worked to remove Morales.
The movement against him began to gain traction after he proposed a public referendum in 2016 to abolish presidential term limits in the constitution, so that he could run for a controversial fourth term.
Bolivians narrowly voted against the referendum 51 to 49 percent in February of that year. But Morales’ political party appealed to the Supreme Court. In November 2017, the high court ruled that term limits violated a candidate’s human right to run for leadership, which cleared Morales’ way to run again.
“The court’s decision, which was very much in favor of MAS, added to the tensions and distrust leading into this election,” said John Walsh, Andes Director at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It’s also just hard to be in power for that long and not lose popularity.”
The U.S. State Department expressed deep concern after the 2017 Supreme Court decision and urged the Morales administration to abide by the “voice of the people.”
Many Bolivians lost trust in Morales after he ignored the results of the popular vote in 2016, and thus suspected fraud in the latest election had swayed the results in his favor. Members on the electoral tribunal, the official government body that first declared Morales the winner, have since been removed and will likely be replaced in the December vote.
The U.S. supported the results of the OAS report, which laid the foundation to remove Morales from power. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo applauded the interim president in a statement on Nov. 13, saying that the U.S. looks forward to working with the OAS to stage “free and fair elections” later this year.
Áñez has barred Morales from entering the upcoming presidential race and it’s unclear at this point who will be elected in December. Áñez has not yet said if she’s considered a bid. Carlos Mesa, the runner-up in the latest election and a former president of Bolivia from 2003 to 2005, is expected to run again.