Bolivia Suffers Devastating Effects of Pandemic and Political Instability

Guido Vassallo

With contagion rates reaching record highs on a daily basis, the health situation is worsening with hospitals in major cities in a state of emergency. Meanwhile, the persecution of MAS continues unabated.

The situation that Bolivia is currently undergoing after the coup d’état of November 10, 2019 continues to add new and dramatic chapters. While the health situation is worsening with a record number of cases of coronavirus infection being reported daily, hospitals in the country’s main cities are in a state of emergency and outbreaks are beginning to appear in prisons. This scenario is compounded by the confirmation that the de facto president, Jeanine Áñez, is covid-19 positive. Along with her, six ministers and several vice-ministers and directors are infected, another sign of the voracity of the pandemic. In the country, there are now 49,250 cases and a total of 1,866 deaths from coronavirus.

The social unrest and shortages are exacerbated in the midst of the quarantine, with hundreds of Bolivians taking to the streets on Tuesday. The call organized by the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB) and the Mineworkers’ Trade Union Federation (MTFWF) had its epicenter in La Paz. At the same time, the persecution of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) continues: a few days ago, the Public Prosecutor’s Office charged former president Evo Morales with “terrorism”. The party, which has former economy minister Luis Arce as its candidate, is leading in all the polls in the run-up to the Sept. 6 presidential elections. But in Bolivia’s unstable present, even that date is not assured.

“The collapse of the healthcare system can be described as a complete failure, and the tragedy represents a political option. The political option is to postpone the electoral process, and the tragedy is that to achieve this goal it is necessary to focus only on an informative reporting of figures without guidance or actions that can stop the spread of the pandemic,” said political scientist Jorge Richter in a dialogue with Página/12. “The country is experiencing a nominal and ineffective quarantine, taking thousands of Bolivians to the streets under forms of apparent control and schemes of tracking without testing for contagion solely on the basis of symptoms of those who may be infected. It’s a carefully thought-out plan to collapse the hospitals, and in this Dantean context, to find the argument for postponing the elections,” he adds.

In the meantime, high-ranking officials are questioning the election date promulgated by Jeanine Áñez after several postponements. Even Bolivia’s Health Minister Eidy Roca recently proposed that a Scientific Committee should decide when the elections should be held. The truth is that it is not known how or when this team will be formed. “Their committee of experts, to begin with, are themselves and their three health ministers who were excluded due to incapacity, corruption and, finally, contagion,” says Juan Carlos Pinto, a sociologist specializing in human rights.

The de facto government is also stirring up ghosts with its own statistics, according to which it projects 130,000 infections by September. “That’s doing futurology. Mathematical projections are just that, projections related to many other factors that have to do with the host, immunity, and climate. We know very little about the coronavirus, everything is being studied,” says health doctor Maria Rothe in an interview with this newspaper. Instead of making projections without much support, Rothe believes that the attitude of the de facto government should be different.

“They should have equipped the new hospitals, improved and strengthened the intensive therapies in the hospitals of the departmental capitals, and they should have purchased biosecurity material for health personnel, respirators and testing equipment,” says the former national director of Health Promotion in 2006. To make matters worse, when they decided to acquire respirators, they did so at a surcharge of about three million dollars for supplies that were not even suitable for intensive care. The fraudulent manoeuvre cost the former health minister, Marcelo Navajas, who is currently serving a prison sentence.

The persecution of Evo Morales

The worrying health issue in Bolivia runs parallel to the political (and judicial) alternatives. As part of a sustained campaign against the MAS leadership, the Bolivian Public Prosecutor’s Office charged former president Evo Morales with alleged terrorist crimes, and he even requested preventive detention. Morales is under investigation in the so-called Audio Case, for a telephone recording in which a voice attributed to the former president demands the blockade of cities in the midst of the social explosion that shook the country between October and November last year and led to the overthrow of Morales.

For Pinto, this persecution is the expression of a “hybrid governability based on repressive coup d’état that in apparent legal formality seeks support for the accusations against Evo Morales, such as his exiled and harassed ministers in the Mexican embassy in La Paz, the imprisoned social leaders, and the dozens of people who go out to protest the government’s failure to fulfill its commitments, for not having supplies for the pandemic, or simply because of hunger”.

“The effect of the cases being pursued with the indictment of Morales and a huge number of leaders is political rather than judicial. Beyond the final result of the trial, which could actually end in nothing, what really matters and what these actions seek to achieve is the impact that it has on the process as it advances through its different stages. In this case, to impact on the voter in a subjective way to direct his or her vote,” says Richter, a regular contributor to the newspaper La Razón.

The right, united?

The self-proclaimed president Jeanine Áñez recently assured that the only option Bolivia has in the presidential elections is to “maintain democracy. The former senator who unfortunately landed in the presidential chair is now looking to build a right-wing alliance with sufficient strength to defeat MAS. For this reason, government minister Arturo Murillo said that the president is not adverse to a possible alliance with former president Carlos Mesa, who is firing darts at both the party of former president Evo Morales and the de facto government for its handling of the health crisis.

“The space in the center, previously occupied by the MAS, was taken over by Mesa, who from that place complains and challenges both sides, capturing more support from the middle class sectors that, initially radical, now seek a return to security that the coup does not offer,” says Pinto. Mesa does not want to move from his place to turn to the right “of which he is a part without having to say so, and also in his position as the main opposition to the MAS project,” he adds.

Richter highlights the potential benefits that this alliance would bring to Áñez: “It will inevitably require having its own bench that can defend it from possible lawsuits in the next administration. In any case, the vast majority of the Bolivian people are waiting for the elections, which are indispensable to put an end to a regime that the political analyst defines as “a government of agony”, due to the three crises it is going through simultaneously: “the health crisis, the political crisis that has not been resolved since November of last year, and now the economic crisis that is causing a process of brutal recession”.