BOLIVIA: ‘The pandemic became a justification for tightening information control’

CIVICUS speaks about the Bolivian political landscape and upcoming elections in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic with Cristian León, programme director of Asuntos del Sur and coordinator of Public Innovation 360, a project focused on strengthening democracy at the subnational level which is currently being implemented in three Latin American countries. Asuntos del Sur is a regional civil society organisation (CSO) based in Argentina that designs and implements political innovations to develop democracies that are inclusive, participatory and based on gender parity. Cristian León is also a founder and current collaborator of InternetBolivia.org, which promotes digital rights in Bolivia.

ChristianLeon

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, elections were at the centre of conflict in Bolivian politics. How has the political scene evolved since the current provisional government was established in November 2019?

Bolivia is deep into a political abyss from which it will not be able to emerge through the upcoming elections. This abyss has been deepening since 2016, when then-president Evo Morales lost the referendum he had called to enable another re-election. From that moment on, we have had a highly polarised scenario and we have lived through a continuous electoral campaign with no end.

This deepening chasm is the rsult of a social fracture and a racialisation of politics, which have intensified after the electoral crisis of October 2019, combined with the lack of intermediation mechanisms. The current scenario is based on the ethno-racial construction of the ‘other’ and on class confrontation.

In this sense, the project of a plurinational Bolivia under the leadership of a popular leader, which had resulted in the relative displacement of several elites, has had clear consequences. During the time that this project lasted – for Morales’ 14 years in office – ethnic and racial discrimination came to be perceived as politically incorrect and were legally punished, since a law was passed against all forms of discrimination and racism. However, this formal change did not consolidate as part of the political culture. During the Morales administration, displaced elites, several of them from the urban upper classes, had to migrate or go into exile – in some cases due to political persecution – and promoted their political projects from the margins, since they had no real opportunity to regain state power. But as soon as the Movement for Socialism (MAS) weakened, all that dormant structure was soon reassembled, bringing back the remnants of all discourses.

Out of the many examples of racialisation I will mention two. In November 2019, during post-election confrontations, various WhatsApp groups referred to MAS sympathisers as “hordes of savages.” Although there was a lot of violence between groups and at some point common criminals also played a role, the construction of the other as a ‘savage’ sought to justify the reaction of hatred and even violent repression, as was the case with the repression that took place in Sacaba and Senkata, where more than 30 people died in ways that have not yet been clarified. Another example is the campaign of some politicians to take legislative seats away from rural areas, alleging that they are overrepresented, that they take away opportunities from urban areas and that they operate in favour of MAS, whose vote is mostly rural. However, well-founded studies have shown that this is not the case, and that such changes would also affect departments that favour right-wing parties, such as Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija. In other words, this is just an attack against rural populations.

On the other hand, the lack of intermediation mechanisms is the consequence of failed institutionalisation. Bolivian parties are not strong, not even MAS, which continues to be a corporatist structure of popular movements with a single, very strong leader. The consequence of this is the absence of debate about ideas and the lack of renewal of leadership. If MAS had generated a new leadership for the 2019 elections, its project would have probably continued as strongly as in 2014 and would not have been worn down along with Morales’ attempts to secure a new term.

But the other parties have the same problem. The candidates who competed in the 2019 election were basically the same who had competed in 2004, before Morales’ first term. The lack of institutionalisation is often conducive to radicalism and polarisation. It also turns parties into catch-all parties, and as a result progressive and ultra-conservative ideologies, right-wing policies and left-wing world views, coexist within the same party. Politics ceases to be a competition among alternative projects to lead the government and becomes a confrontation with an ‘other’ that, as I mentioned, is a racial construct.

In short, the scenario has not really evolved, but has instead become more extreme. Elections, whether held in September, October, or next year, will not solve the problem or ease polarisation. We will continue in a state of transition until a wide and renewed political force emerges, hopefully characterised by a more acute political intelligence than current contenders have exhibited this time around.

The provisional government’s main mission was supposed to be to call new elections as soon as possible, but it has prolonged its stay. Have there been conflicts or disagreements regarding the scheduling of the election?

The election date has already been moved twice, and at the time of this interview it is still not set in stone. Of course, the elections became the cause of great conflict, and can become the focus of an even stronger crisis than the pandemic itself. This is mainly due to the fact that as Bolivians, we tend to think that the electoral arena can be key to resolving the current confrontation. The electoral route is of course better than open and stark political conflict, glimpses of which we caught last November, which led to more than 34 deaths and hundreds of people wounded. But at the same time, it is hard to believe that whoever gets elected will be even moderately effective.

I would say that there are three factors affecting the organisation of the elections and putting more pressure on them. First, there is the pandemic and its side effects. As has become clear, this situation cannot be managed by a transitional government with so little legitimacy and political and social support. The transitional government led by Interim President Jeanine Añez has managed the crisis in a very questionable way: it has shown ignorance regarding how the state apparatus works as well as a lack of technical capacity, and it has produced cases of corruption. Its failures are not limited to the area of health, but are visible in other areas as well, such as education. The transitional government has been unable to produce a policy for online education or play a coordination role among schools, teachers and parents to adapt the educational system to the situation. Additionally, the economic crisis that will result from the pandemic will require a government with greater legitimacy, and for this, elections are urgently needed.

The second factor is the double figure of Añez as both transitional president and candidate. It is definitely not possible to manage a crisis of the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic if you are simultaneously running a campaign. This is because any action taken by the transitional government is viewed as electorally motivated, whether it inaugurates a hospital or pressures for the election date to change. Some ridiculous things happened during the pandemic, such as the decision to change the colour of the facade of a hospital, from blue, the MAS colour, to green, the colour of the transitional president’s party. That action alone delayed the beginning of its operations to take care of people sick with COVID-19 by more than a week.

The third factor is that setting a date hurts some and benefits others. In March, two months ahead of the first date set for the election, MAS was polling at almost 40 per cent, while the runner-up, Carlos Mesa, had a projected vote of less than 30 per cent, which made it possible for MAS to win in the first round of elections. Now that lead is gone and the first and second runners are much closer, almost level. It seems to me that Añez hopes that, once the pandemic crisis is over, the situation will play in her favour through a narrative of victory over the virus and that citizens will forget all her mistakes.

Have additional restrictions on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression been introduced in the context of the pandemic?

After the October 2019 crisis, well before the pandemic, control of information in Bolivia became stronger, and this has affected the space for participation, and with it, democracy itself.

From the very beginning there was strong intimidation of the media, with journalists who committed ‘sedition’ publicly threatened by Añez’s then-Minister of Communication, Roxana Lizárraga. Even more worrying, there were confiscations of cameras and checks on phones and conversations, among other acts of intimidation and direct attacks on journalists. Several of these cases have been included in the Annual Report of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), published in February 2020.

This kind of information blockade meant that, for instance, it was not possible to investigate the events that took place in Sacaba and Senkata in November 2019. Two independent investigators appointed by the IACHR were vetoed by the government, and as a result they had to leave Bolivia. Several international human rights organisations repudiated this occurrence, but this was not echoed by the Bolivian media.

The pandemic then became a justification for tightening information control through decrees No. 4199, 4200 and 4231. Although they were focused on the fight against the pandemic, these decrees included articles that criminalised disinformation; the IACHR and international CSOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch viewed these as attacks against the fundamental rights to the freedoms of expression and information. One of the biggest problems is that these articles sought to typify a crime that did not exist in Bolivia: the crime of misinforming. And they tried to do it by modifying a law through a decree, a legal inconsistency, leaving everything for the transitional government to interpret.

The controversial articles were repealed as a result of pressure from different flanks, including civil society, human rights activists, the journalists’ union and multilateral organisations. For example, 43 organisations and 95 activists from 17 countries signed a public petition drafted by the InternetBolivia.org Foundation to urge respect for human rights.

On top of the decrees, there were public statements by the Minister of Government, Arturo Murillo, to the effect that the police were carrying out ‘cyber patrols’ in order to identify the people who were allegedly disseminating misinformation. This action would not only imply a measure of vigilance and monitoring of civil society, which is unconstitutional and illegal, but would also be an act of political intimidation. In fact, an informant told me that some of my tweets, which criticised certain government actions, were transcribed and mentioned in a ministerial situation analysis meeting, supposedly as an example of unfavourable public opinion that was being promoted by a group of tweeters.

Although those articles were repealed and e-patrolling was never mentioned publicly again, at least 68 people were arrested and 37 of them were subjected to abbreviated trials lacking any transparency. The government publicly stated that the people arrested were political activists who sympathised with the previous government and were committing ‘sedition.’ This strengthened the perception of some kind of political persecution.

Another well-known journalist, Junior Arias, also had to cease his activities for a couple of weeks after he reported being threatened by the government. That threat was motivated by an investigation he was conducting in connection with the purchase of overpriced teargas canisters.

All these situations add to the context of information control. The InternetBolivia.org Foundation has expressed concern about this, by campaigning against the decrees and contributing to the investigation of restrictions. We released a report on the human rights situation during the pandemic, in which we analysed some of these events, and we are carrying out another research project about the scope of cyber patrolling and the situation of the 68 people arrested for ‘sedition’ and ‘spreading misinformation’.

If democracy depends on guaranteeing the free flow of and access to information and the possibility of demonstrating freely, then the actions that the transitional government has been carrying out are highly undemocratic.

Even if the health situation improves by the time the elections take place, the electoral campaign will still take place in the context of the pandemic. What changes are taking place in this regard?

There is obviously greater use of digital tools for gaining visibility and campaigning. This is something that we saw a long time coming, and it worries us for various reasons. Since 2016, politics in Bolivia has taken a turn towards digital platforms, with all that this entails. Parties opposed to MAS particularly sought to take advantage of the digital space because those who inhabit it are mostly unconvinced voters, typically young. The investment they have made to reach out to them better is noteworthy.

However, the digital campaign is not a clean one, nor is it just about marketing and visibility. Ahead of the 2016 referendum, which Morales lost, the growing phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ surfaced, and things happened that were never clarified. Since then, MAS has tried to have more control over the digital space through so-called ‘cybertrops’ – that is, organised groups dedicated to distort the conversation and manipulate public opinion on social media -, although it could be said that it has failed.

Either way, much of party politics today has gone digital, especially through WhatsApp groups. Through these, as the InternetBolivia.org Foundation has been able to verify, citizens are mobilised and issues are brought onto the agenda, and a large amount of ‘fake news’ is disseminated. In 2018, for example, out of 38 self-organised citizen groups that we managed to gain access to, we found that 36 were controlled by the same people, who played an activation role. After tracing the contacts of the group organisers, we were able to identify a person who worked as an assistant to one of the politicians most vocally against Morales.

So, its limited digital outreach has become MAS’ greatest weakness in the face of current campaigns. MAS is more dependent on work on the ground, which under current circumstances is completely inaccessible. However, what balances the electoral chances are loyal voters. Unlike other parties, MAS has a high percentage of loyal voters, whom it does not need to reach either through grassroots action or digital means, since they will vote for the party anyway.

Have steps been taken so that the elections can be held in this context?

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), made up of professionals recognised for their high professional integrity and responsibility, is taking all necessary measures. I do not doubt that the TSE will be well prepared and we will have all the required biosecurity measures.

However, elections depend on factors beyond the measures taken. For instance, there is the conviction factor. There is a good percentage of voters who are not convinced of any option, and in the face of a flare-up of the pandemic, they will have no incentive to get out to vote, and will instead prefer to prioritise their health. I would even say that there are urban sectors who will hardly go out to vote for fear of contagion, even though they have decided their vote.

We also have to take into account that many rural populations are disconnected and difficult to access. Given the paralysis of a large part of transportation and communications services, these populations will probably not vote. Something similar happens with Bolivians abroad. These people, as indicated by the electoral authorities, will not be able to exercise their vote in these elections. Although rural populations and migrants represent small percentages, they could be decisive for the final result in a context of high polarisation if the race is close, as already happened in last October’s elections and as some surveys are now predicting again.

Which are expected to be the main campaign issues? Are questions about post-pandemic recovery being debated?

Unfortunately, the electoral debate revolves around the pro-MAS vs. anti-MAS dichotomy. Under discussion is the continuity or discontinuity of the sociocultural and political MAS project, strongly identified with the image of Morales, as opposed to a novel project that is liberal in its economic approach and conservative in its cultural outlook.

From the moment she was inaugurated, Añez based her search for legitimacy on open confrontation with the previous government, promoting the anti-MAS narrative rather than the construction of new political pacts to deescalate political and social conflict. Thus, many of her speeches and actions sought to project the image that she was ‘cleaning up the house’ after what she claimed had been 14 years of mismanagement. At the same time, her ministers and supporters were meticulous in persecuting former officials and Morales supporters, which resulted in controversial and unclear episodes such as the surrounding of the Mexican embassy in La Paz, where some former ministers had sought refuge.

So it is highly possible for candidates who do not necessarily share the same political views to end up joining together just to prevent the return of MAS.

Beyond political polarisation, another topic of debate will be the economy. The pandemic will have a profound impact and will have consequences on those sectors that are highly precarious. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean has predicted a negative growth of at least five per cent, with an increase in poverty of around four per cent, equivalent to almost half a million Bolivians, in addition to a fiscal deficit of about 10 per cent. For a country that had already been hard hit by decreasing demand for commodities and the collapse in oil prices, our main exports, this is the worst scenario imaginable.

Bolivia does not have a fiscal standing allowing it to respond to such situation, so it will have to resort to loans and a massive reduction in public spending. The next government will have to choose an exit strategy that is either more liberal or more socially oriented: the reactivation of the financial and business sector, or the establishment of a universal basic income, for example. Either way, someone will have to pay the bill for the crisis. A high-intensity conflict is looming over how to generate redistributive policy without widening all gaps and social inequalities.

This is probably not the debate that will take place ahead of the elections, but it will have to over the following years. I only hope that, as a society, we are able to understand that leaving behind the precarious sectors of the economy, which comprise the vast majority, will do nothing but reproduce our developmental lag.

Civic space in Bolivia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Asuntos del Sur through its website or Facebook page, and follow @AsuntosDelSur on Twitter.

Get in touch with the InternetBolivia.org Foundation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @InternetBo_org on Twitter.

 

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