Bolivia’s Interim President Jeanine Áñez Is Waging a War on Women

Cindy Forster
Self-proclaimed “interim president” Jeanine Añez, with a bible in hand on November 12, 2019.

Jeanine Áñez is a woman president in a world with very few of them. She has exercised national power in Bolivia for eight months as the de-facto chief of state following the coup d’état against Indigenous president Evo Morales.

Under the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, she instituted a strict lockdown with fanfare but she ordered no real prevention measures to accompany it. To date, very little testing is being done, and treatment is substandard. Curfew lasted from noon through dawn. One day a week, adults were permitted to leave home to buy food, and no one was allowed to leave the house over the weekend. Legions of soldiers, police, and ten-year prison sentences threatened the non-compliant.

In this menacing climate, adequate support was not delivered to 80% of Bolivians who labor in the informal economy, or millions who live by their earnings day-by-day. On June 1, the quarantine became less draconian, but all borders remain shut.

The pandemic hit Latin America like a stroke of good fortune for Áñez, allowing her to cancel elections scheduled for May 3. A new date was just set for September 6 after extensive negotiations among eight political parties mediated by the new electoral tribunal, that was put in place after the coup. The head of Bolivia’s electoral tribunal, Salvador Romero, was appointed by Áñez, who finally conceded to the new date, still argues for postponing elections, saying she must protect the health of the Bolivian people. Two of the eight parties, both of them ultra-right, will likely do everything in their power to stall the return to an elected presidency.

In the interest of accuracy, and to challenge the inherent misogyny of dismissing Añez as a doll or a creature of her handlers, it is necessary to ask: What difference does it make that a woman has presided over the coup regime in Bolivia since November of last year?

What is the portent of her abrupt shift from an interim president who promised to leave office as soon as possible, to her repackaging as a presidential candidate? What does the fact she is taking third or fourth place according to the most recent presidential polls, tell us about the meanings of women in political office in Latin America?

Jeanine Áñez usurped the presidency from Evo Morales, an Aymara campesino who secured ample rights for the Indigenous and for women. Áñez is an ultra-conservative Catholic senator from the thinly populated department of Beni in the Amazon. Her home region is renowned for its original peoples of the lowlands who first pushed forward the demand for a constituent assembly in the 1990s. But Áñez is no ally of Indigenous Bolivians. She believes Indigenous spirituality is a sign of Satan, and upon seizing power in the days after November 10, she declared the national government at last free of paganism. Her partisans trampled and burned the Wiphala — the banner of Indigenous unity. Their defilement of the Wiphala brought tens of thousands of Indigenous protesters into the streets.

The Bolivian right and its allies

Áñez’s actions have a broader context. In recent years, class hatred among Bolivian conservatives has turned very ugly, and has come to resemble that of the protest mobs or guarimbas in Venezuela that in 2017 killed over 120 people, a number of whom were set on fire. Conservatives in Venezuela claimed their violent protests proved the socialist government’s ineptitude. The Bolivian Right, for their part, has made constant threats to burn people alive, and targeted the relatives of high-level officials from the former leftist government.

For more than 25 years, Washington has been trying to destroy the forces that cohered in the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) under the leadership of Evo Morales Ayma. Morales has repeatedly been a target of their assassination plans. The dirty war of the United States reaches into every corner of Bolivia.

Long before the elections of October 20 last year, right-wing political parties had been sowing lies about the MAS government. It is a matter of record that the most egregious narco-traffickers are closely tied to the oligarchy, but the Right claims that MAS is a gang of drug lords. Similarly, Bolivia’s neoliberals are tremendously corrupt, yet they pin charges of corruption on MAS. According to the United States and their affluent Bolivian allies, the heroes of democracy are “civic committees” created by the right-wing, that train middle-class and elite youth to attack the poor.

Áñez’s political party, the Movimiento Demócrata Social, is called center-right, but the party is the voice of lowland business magnates who promoted the division of the country, which most would define as an act of treason. Their desires are often enforced by paramilitary groups of long standing with open fascist sympathies. In the last elections before the coup, Áñez won the party’s only senate seat (out of 36 senators in total), and the party won four house seats (out of 130 in total). The party unites and disunites with other right-wing parties. In the 2014 presidential elections they supported the neoliberal politician and tycoon Samuel Doria Medina, a perennial presidential candidate, who is now Áñez’s vice presidential running mate and brings to her fold the Unidad Demócrata party.

The Morales-led government of 2006 to 2019 did more to defend and create new rights for women than any other presidency, yet conservatives seem blind to these achievements. Over the past several years, there have been several incidents of right-wing attacks against Indigenous women, wherein assailants have used their fists, poles, bats with barbed wire wrapped around them and homemade bazookas to attack women wearing Indigenous clothing.

Millions of women are also fierce adherents of the Right. Seen through the lens of history, women in Bolivia who have identified as more European have been loyal allies of their menfolk for five centuries. They have upheld cruel labor systems and extracted inordinate privileges. It was this arrangement that MAS shattered when it came to power in 2006.

The first days of a lady coup president

Jeanine Áñez played her part perfectly, as arranged in advance by various political bosses of the Right.[1] First, when Evo Morales won the elections of October 20 last year, the United States refused to recognize his victory. Conservative candidates gave the signal to paramilitaries they had organized and funded, lodged within the civic committees, and they escalated the burning of campaign headquarters and electoral tribunals. MAS leaders were targeted across the country. During all this, the Organization of American States (OAS) promoted the lie of the Right, claiming that fraud had been committed.

The outcome was sealed by the treason of the security forces. In less than three weeks, the police and military chiefs had accepted bribes from the U.S. embassy. After trying to kill president Evo Morales in various ways, the army forced him to resign on November 10. He conceded, demanding in return that the army, police and paramilitaries stop killing the poor.

On numerous counts, the Constitution was violated in order to install Áñez in the presidency, supposedly on a temporary basis. She was never in the line of presidential succession.[2] As a senator of many years, Áñez is aware of this fact. She and the corporate media successfully confused the public on this score.

Áñez represents the cattle-ranching elite of Beni, in the Amazon, which historically is deeply immersed in drug-trafficking. She has a law degree but has mostly worked as a local television personality. Her first husband was mayor of Beni’s capital and had a number of corruption charges leveled against him (he died at the end of January 2020).

The interim president’s current husband, Héctor Hernando Hincapié Carvajal, is a far more ominous figure. A failed politician from Colombia, he is nonetheless a high-level political operator in the country of his birth. Like Áñez, he comes from a rural area that is associated with the narcotics trade. He has been a member of four political parties that are “very well-known in Colombia for their ties to paramilitaries (narcotraffickers) and corruption.” He describes himself as a partisan of Álvaro Uribe, the Latin American leader of the ultra-right and two-time president of Colombia. Even so, Hernando Hincapié roundly criticized Uribe for not being sufficiently right-wing, since as president, Uribe failed to “renovate the Supreme Court and left us a cancer.”[3]

When they drove out the president, the army ordered the entire country to be blockaded. Áñez said she would mobilize the official fleet of helicopters to bring all parliamentarians to La Paz, the center of governance in Bolivia, but the helicopters only brought the right-wing politicians to the Plurinational Legislative Assembly.

The coup-makers prevented MAS legislators, who held a two-thirds majority of seats, from returning; they were instead forced to come by land and so faced paramilitary aggression. At coup-regime checkpoints they were interrogated, their possessions inspected, and their “intimacy searched,” as reported on teleSUR. MAS legislators had to literally fight their way into the Assembly, as their offices were being ransacked.

Áñez’s lies continued to multiply: an agreement between MAS and pro-coup legislators was made to convene parliament. In that agreement, the pro-coup people inserted a false statement saying that both sides had accepted Áñez as interim president. Anti-MAS media published the lie everywhere. Even though MAS denounced it, they were drowned out by the corporate broadcasts.

In her ideas about freedom of expression, Áñez’s presidency is reminiscent of the era of modern dictatorship in Bolivia that lasted from the 1960s into the early 1980s. Censorship of progressive media began with paramilitary attacks preceding the coup and escalated onward, with some 50 community radio stations attacked, as well as popular print media. Áñez has banned the MAS digital library, an impressive project of the MAS vice president and renowned intellectual Álvaro García Linera. At the same time, journalists were killed, tortured, and driven underground. Áñez nonetheless asserts that under her rule, Bolivia has passed from dictatorship to a thriving democracy.

In a similar vein, Áñez created special privileges for state security forces that hark back to the era of the dictators. Her Presidential Decree 4078 was issued just two days after the coup. It awarded protections to police and military forces from any legal consequences, should they commit violence in pursuit of what Áñez terms a recovery of “civilized” society.

With that decree in force, on November 15 she ordered the first massacre in a place called Sacaba, targeting a protest march from the countryside to the city of Cochabamba. Clearly, the coup regime was looking for the opportunity. Security forces shot from the ground and from helicopters at campesinos pouring in from the coca region of Chapare, the base of Evo Morales’ struggle from the time he was a young union leader. The coca farmers under Evo’s leadership generated the policies that most effectively lowered coca cultivation that is dedicated to cocaine production, as compared to the rest of the continent.

Another massacre took place four days later at the Senkata gas plant in El Alto, an Indigenous city that gave more than sixty lives to bring down a neoliberal president in 2003. Áñez paints the people of El Alto, of Chapare, and of the countryside in general, as “savage hordes.”

The victims of the Senkata massacre say that bodies were sequestered by authorities so as not to be counted, including those of a peasant woman and a young girl. Again, the interim president denied the government hurt anyone.

Under Áñez’s presidency so far, thirty-six demonstrators and innocent bystanders have been killed by soldiers and police. But Áñez swears the security forces have not fired a single bullet. She claims that the massacre victims were shot by their peers or by foreign agents. It is an open secret that a team of CIA and State Department personnel advise the interim president’s every move.

A preference for terror

Áñez decorated the military men who committed the massacres of Senkata and Sacaba. That action was also a message to her civilian base who, like the coup president, are deeply opposed to democracy for the Indigenous. On November 15, she increased military spending by more than U.S. $5 million to buy the loyalty of her henchmen. These gestures, it seems fair to suggest, are also designed to incite reactions among the families of those imprisoned by the hundreds, injured, and killed.

On March 5, the thirty-five-year anniversary of the city of El Alto was used for similar provocations. Right-wing politicians arrived to declare themselves the country’s saviors. Áñez was surrounded and escorted by a phalanx of police and soldiers, and apparently, she and her advisors were hoping for more bloodshed, because they had mobilized ambulances and firefighters to be on hand.

That day, cameraman René Guarachi filmed the reaction of the security forces to El Alto inhabitants, when the latter protested the presence of Áñez. They had just held a mass to honor the massacre victims who died in the neighborhood of Senkata. The footage shows uniformed forces firing tear gas on residents while gases poured into a school, causing terror. The crying children were met with police aggression.

Guarachi works with the media outlet of the Bartolina Sisa Confederation, an enormous network of Indigenous and campesina women. He streamed the footage of the repression live on their website and the views climbed from 55,000 in the first minutes to 355,000 in just a few hours, then to 800,000. For transgressing the de facto state censorship, Guarachi was tortured.[4]

Another act of terror was also a personal message to Evo Morales and followed a MAS meeting in Argentina with the exiled president. The meeting planned an electoral strategy to return the poor to power. Marcial Escalante, the vice president of MAS in Yapacani, was kidnapped on December 20 after returning home from the meeting with Evo. Yapacani is a stronghold of MAS resistance in the right-wing department of Santa Cruz, located in the lowlands. Like many MAS cadre, Escalante had not lived in his home since the coup repression started. But that night, he visited. The kidnappers wore civilian clothes. They beat his wife as they seized him. Strangely, he ended up in police custody. He was released because they could not pin any charges on him.

Áñez, when she proclaimed herself president in La Paz, had long since given her blessing to paramilitaries or “shock groups” across the country. Under her rule, these armed bands attacked mothers and wives who wished to present their testimonies of the Senkata massacre to representatives of the United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Countless attacks have occurred against Indigenous women who were guilty of nothing but wearing their traditional dress, the pollera.

In the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, the paramilitaries are mounted on motorcycles, carrying homemade explosives and weapons with which they attack working-class women and anyone who looks uncommitted to Miami values. Áñez praised their efforts and made them a gift of fifteen additional motorcycles.

In a more complicated act of hypocrisy, Áñez has tried to position herself as a protector of women who are victims of violence. She claims to be the key player against femicide, even though it was MAS who launched an extraordinary campaign to halt violence against women – a campaign cut short by the coup regime.

For many, the pain induced by Áñez’s peculiar promotion of womanhood is reflected in the coup government’s decision to release from prison a group of elite young men – among them the scions of oligarchical families of the lowland region of Santa Cruz – who, shortly before the coup, had been tried and sentenced for the gang rape of a young woman they knew personally. Such impunity is standard in countries ruled by the rich, but the vile pattern was changing in Evo’s Bolivia. The young men’s parents are adherents of the most violent faction of the paramilitary right, and probably its richest sector. The victim was hospitalized in agony for weeks, her genital region destroyed, before she died. Áñez stands with the country’s elites, who place blame on the young woman for going out with the rapists.

Those who question Áñez’s claims to represent women face violence. One woman, a graduate student in feminist studies, who voiced her opinions on social media, was subject to death threats. She escaped an attempted gang rape and was forced to go into hiding. Conservative women celebrate her attackers.

All the while, Áñez and the far-right leaders who rule the lowlands have given a hero’s welcome to elite terrorists and murderers. One politician they released from jail was serving time for the massacre of thirteen campesinos. A number of fugitives returning to Bolivia are politicians who fled the country to avoid corruption charges. Others worked hand in glove with the U.S. embassy to stoke civil war and plot magnicide between 2008 and 2009. For the right, they are freedom fighters, recovering the lost paradise of Bolivia’s neoliberal elites.

The axe of Áñez

Quality health care that is free of charge for all – an elusive dream in a rich country like the United States – had just been instituted by MAS before the coup. It is being dismantled by the current government, unconstitutionally. In concert with U.S. designs, Áñez falsely accused, imprisoned and harassed Cuban doctors, then broke relations with Cuba unilaterally. The doctors were flown home to the island to protect their physical safety. Their absence, together with the defunding of government-provided health care, wrought devastation even before the pandemic. After some 700 Cubans were evacuated, and in language uncommonly harsh for Cuban diplomacy, their foreign minister called Áñez “a liar, a coup-maker and a self-proclaimed president.”

Food for nursing mothers and young children, subsidies toward the goal of free universal education, and dietary support for the elderly were all critical MAS policies for many years, embraced by women. Áñez axed the program for mothers and their small children, abandoned elders to their fate, and put education programs on the chopping block. She formed programs with very similar names, but people are protesting for want of food. Hunger has driven some to suicide. Áñez recommended prayer and fasting during the quarantine, and distributed face masks with her party logo.

Axing MAS programs is neither legal nor constitutional. The sole mandate of the interim government was to hold elections as soon as possible. Unlawfully and unconscionably, Áñez is privatizing the entities that funded massive social programs, low-cost credit for farmers and the poor, subsidized housing construction and free gas hook-ups, and systematic infrastructural projects for campesino agriculture.

In the February 8 Peace and Civility Accords proposed by Evo Morales, who is campaign manager for MAS, women’s rights were again central. The MAS proposal has been ignored by the Right. The accords would seek to “eradicate hate speech entirely, and racism and all forms of discrimination.” They would “eradicate fake news” and instead, encourage “debate of ideas and political programs” such as health care and education.

The Peace and Civility Accords would “disarticulate all paramilitary and shock groups” and agree not to attack political campaign headquarters, the Wiphala, the ballots, or the people transporting and counting votes in the upcoming elections. Oddly, the opponents of MAS act like the proposal does not exist.

This vision of MAS is echoed in CARICOM’s (the Caribbean Community’s) call on December 18 for an end to racist violence perpetrated against the Indigenous in Bolivia, which the Caribbean nations managed to get passed in the belly of the monster itself, the Organization of American States.

In Bolivia, marchers against the coup constantly mention the name Túpak Katari, the Indigenous Aymara leader who, alongside his wife, Bartolina Sisa, and his sister Gregoria Apaza, almost brought down the Spanish regime in 1781. To that point in time, it was the most massive revolution in the colonial realms (ten years before the start of the Haitians’ successful revolution). They were campesinos and walked as traders to buy and sell coca leaves. For ten years before the uprising, Túpak Katari traversed the high country and subtropical regions, persuading campesinos of the necessity to take up arms. Their descendants share a collective conscience that is impenetrable to their class enemies. The two women were commanders and critical negotiators who built Indigenous unity: Gregoria united the Quechua and the Aymara.

The descendants of Sisa and Apaza

One of the most striking aspects of Áñez’s unconstitutional presidency is the ability of the poor, who are mostly Indigenous, to roll back the coup regime’s plans. The Indigenous streamed into the cities by the tens of thousands to protest the stolen elections of October and the outrages of the coup regime. Women spoke with rage and passion and continue to do so, knowing that they can be taken prisoner at any moment, to be beaten, tortured, and raped in detention. Such outrages are common and systematic, according to the poor.

Tens of thousands of marchers, together with the MAS majority in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, relentlessly pressured Áñez to overturn Decree 4078, the free-fire permission given to soldiers and police that assures no criminal prosecution for the killing or injuring of civilians. Under tremendous pressure from campesinos and the urban poor, the coup president agreed to remove the military from the streets.

The demobilization of the military was soon reversed by Áñez. In anticipation of the closing date of her interim presidency, January 22, Áñez sent some seventy thousand soldiers to cities and towns all over the nation, attempting to prevent the public from gathering to hear the broadcast of Morales’s speech, organized by MAS, that marked the constitutional end of his presidency.

Her message was clear: that the people who wanted to listen to the words of Evo Morales were terrorists. The women who lead the Six Federations of the Tropics in the Chapare, for their part, called on their leader Segundina Orellana to inform Áñez that her allegations they were terrorists were profoundly insulting.

At times, the humiliations dealt out by Áñez descend into the realm of the absurd. After months of coup-regime forces brutalizing women in polleras in public, Áñez called for a new law that would recognize Indigenous women as part of the national patrimony.

In the second week of March, Áñez faced another setback. MAS legislators forced the removal of her defense minister Fernando López Julio — an extraordinary feat. López had refused to appear before the Plurinational Legislative Assembly despite constitutionally sanctioned requests from that body. The legislators had wanted to question López minutely about the massacres over which he presided. He stepped down. Nonetheless, almost immediately, in a gesture contrary to all democratic logic, Áñez reappointed López to the same post.

MAS legislators had declared their intention to question López, interior minister Arturo Murillo, and then Áñez herself, to demand they answer for their crimes against humanity since November.

On May 21, in an action widely described as “unprecedented,” all the branches of the armed forces gave a chilling ultimatum to the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. It was delivered by the country’s top commanders, who arrived in parliament, uninvited, and in full combat uniform. They informed the legislators that they were deeply insulted by MAS.

The commanders said they would jail MAS legislators seven days from that date, if MAS failed to accept promotions in rank that were mandated by Áñez. De-facto interior minister Murillo and Áñez publicly concurred with that strategy. The MAS legislators replied – and most all the leadership were women — that the Constitution requires them to consider such promotions carefully and according to their own timeframe. Seven days later, the deadline passed without incident.

Fearless voices of conscience against the coup regime are many. The Bartolina Sisa Confederation of Indigenous and campesina women are one of the largest grassroots organizations, in a country that is famous for its social movements. “The Bartolinas,”as they are commonly called, emerged in 1980, helping to found MAS in the 1990s, and have never faltered in their commitments to “land and dignity” for the majority of women. On December 20, they declared they absolutely will not allow U.S. intervention in Bolivia.

Their leadership gave an ultimatum to the national police at a time when the highest coup authorities were threatening to invade the zone of Chapare, where coca farmers have built a seamless unity, and where Evo Morales helped give birth to the struggle as a young union leader. In Chapare, homemade barricades closed off all the roads to protect against Áñez’s security forces.

Áñez claims to believe that every cocalero is a terrorist, even though she is part of the right-wing that massively profited from cocaine in the decades before Evo. By contrast, the cocaleros associated with MAS have led the country in creating solutions based on grassroots control of the enormous legal market for coca leaves, a medicinal, nutritional and spiritual foundation of Andean society. They trucked tons of their tropical fruit, during the quarantine, to people on the edge of starvation outside the Chapare, facing arrest and imprisonment for that solidarity.

In the recent period of curfew, which was enforced by roaring platoons of police on motorcycles and soldiers with assault rifles, negotiations were held that achieved the return of the police to Chapare in exchange for the Áñez government agreeing to reopen banks and gas stations that had been shut and blockaded by the de facto regime.

Characteristic of the battle unfolding between elite and Indigenous women, the Bartolina Sisas had told the police they would be allowed to re-enter Chapare if and when they asked forgiveness of the people for the deaths and injuries they had caused the day of the Sacaba massacre.

Today, Bolivia’s health system is in shambles, and the country has among the lowest rates of testing for the COVID-19 virus anywhere in the Americas. Áñez’s home department of Beni is a COVID disaster zone. There are practically no doctors who are not in quarantine in Beni. Laboratories in the main cities of the country have collapsed. Doctors who voted for the Right are now marching in the streets to demand promised protective gear. Even the president of the Council of Bishops of the Catholic church, Monseñor Ricardo Centellas, criticized Áñez for her trail of broken promises in the fight against the virus.

Her erstwhile right-wing allies have joined the poor majorities in demanding that Áñez allow elections to take place. The only party besides that of Áñez that is trying to avoid elections is the creation of the very rich, corrupt and violent Santa Cruz civic leader Luis Camacho. He is sowing lies in the minds of his party faithful as regards electoral regulations.

MAS leads in the polls, even though the polltakers have never really reached into the Bolivian countryside, which is the heartland of MAS.

When asked if she expected Áñez to start killing them again if MAS won the presidential vote, a campesina woman in the Andean highlands responded, “Yes, of course. But we’re trained,” to resist collectively, and “we’re conscious.” She added what millions of people have been saying in one way or another since November, dozens of them to television cameras: “If they steal the elections again, all of us will take the streets, peacefully. Vast numbers of people are willing to die for this process of change, and we will prevail.”

Cindy Forster is an activist and is part of the Comité en Apoyo al Pueblo de Chiapas. She is a historian at Scripps College and the chair of Latin American Studies department.

Originally published by Jacobin, this version is reedited with new material. 

[1] Juan Carlos Marañón, “Entrevista al Piojo: El Piojo Cabrón es un activista digital que reveló varios hechos cuestionados,” La Razón, Sección Sala de Prensa, Animal Político, 22 de mayo de 2020, 3e.

[2] https://videos.telesurtv.net/…/cruce-de-palabras-803220/  In an interview with Luis Hernandez Navarro of La Jornada on the program “Cruce de Palabras,” the vice president of Evo Morales explains the constitutional line of succession in the absence of the president: first the vice president, then the head of the senate, and lastly, the head of the chamber of deputies, November 16, 2019, 15:30 horas, “García Linera: Áñez ha pisoteada la Constitución de Bolivia.”

[3] https://www.aporrea.org/internacionales/a284488.html and https://markaabyayala.wordpress.com/2020/01/28/el-clan-anez-hincapie-la-conexion-colombiana-del-gobierno-de-facto-de-bolivia/