Virus gives Bolivia’s ‘interim’ president chance to extend rule

When Evo Morales quit the Bolivian presidency amid electoral fraud allegations and fled to Mexico last November after 14 years in power, it seemed that his replacement Jeanine Añez would be in the job for a matter of weeks — just long enough to organise fresh elections and oversee a transition.

But coronavirus and Ms Añez’s political ambitions have changed that. After repeatedly saying she had no intention of running for the presidency, she did a U-turn in January and threw her hat into the ring.

Then came the virus. The election, which had been scheduled for this weekend, was shelved. Ms Añez has free rein to rule until a new one can be organised. On Thursday parliament passed a law stating the election must be held by August 2, but Ms Añez rejected it, saying the election should be held “when the pandemic allows us to”. As Mr Morales noted ruefully in a news agency interview on April 20, the pandemic fits her plans “like a ring on a finger”.

Some have accused the rightwing former senator of exploiting the virus for her electoral advantage.

In an echo of US President Donald Trump’s “personally signed” economic stimulus cheques, she put her own name at the bottom of her government’s announcements of financial measures to combat Covid-19. On her Twitter account, she describes herself as “president” — not interim or acting president.

“My personal opinion is that the government has overstepped its bounds,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian professor of political science at Florida International University. “When talking about the virus they’re essentially in campaign mode. They’re proselytising at the same time as doing their jobs.”

In some ways it is remarkable that Ms Añez is in power at all. When Mr Morales fled, she was only fourth in line to his throne, but the three men ahead of her quit, paving the way for her ascent.

Her response to the pandemic has been forthright. She imposed a lockdown in March when there were just 24 confirmed cases. The country has registered only 1,110 cases of Covid-19 and 59 deaths — below the Latin American average — although testing has been sporadic.

A worker sprays disinfectant at a food market in El Alto, Bolivia, on April 28 © Bloomberg

Polls suggest most Bolivians like the tough approach. When she extended the lockdown 76 per cent of people approved, but that does not necessarily mean they want Ms Añez as their next president.

The last key poll before the pandemic suggested she was third in voter intentions, behind Luis Arce, Mr Morales’s longtime socialist finance minister, and Carlos Mesa, a former president and the more centrist of the three candidates.

Some polls since then have suggested Ms Añez has clawed back ground but they have all been conducted online because of the lockdown.

“In a country like Bolivia online polls can’t really be trusted because so many people, especially in rural areas, don’t have access to the internet,” said Fernando Molina, a journalist and political commentator in La Paz.

Lawyers and human rights groups have expressed concern about the government’s actions.

When the Añez administration issued a decree to extend the lockdown it warned that “individuals who . . . misinform or cause uncertainty to the population will be subject to criminal charges for crimes against public health”.

José Miguel Vivanco, director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, responded: “The Bolivian government appears to be taking advantage of the pandemic to give itself the power to punish anyone who publishes information the government deems ‘incorrect’.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists said the “vague regulations” made the government “look more concerned about its public image than about an effective response to the crisis”.

Luis Arce was named by exiled former president Evo Morales as his party’s candidate for the next presidential elections © AP

On April 15, government minister Arturo Murillo said security forces had arrested 67 “political actors” for taking part in “destabilisation and disinformation movements”. He said 37 of them had been tried, convicted and sentenced.

Amnesty International expressed concern and requested more information. Mr Murillo said the government had acted according to “the law, the constitution, and the principals and international norms of human rights”. 

“We will be delighted to explain that here there has not been one single violation of the rights of any individual,” he told the Financial Times, inviting Amnesty to come to Bolivia to investigate extrajudicial killings carried out by the Morales government and fraud in last October’s scrapped election. 

On the economic front, the government notched up a success this month when the IMF agreed to lend it $327m to deal with coronavirus — its first loan to Bolivia in 17 years. It praised a “timely, well-targeted and appropriate” response to the crisis.

The loan will help but will not be enough. Bolivia is heavily reliant on exports of natural gas and gas prices — like oil prices — have dropped as the world economy grinds to a halt. Even before Covid-19, it was showing signs of economic strain. Growth has slowed, public debt has soared and foreign exchange reserves have dropped from $13bn in 2014 to under $4bn now.

“Whatever government comes into office after the election, I don’t envy it,” Mr Gamarra said. “It’s going to be very difficult without major foreign borrowing.”