Protests have raged through Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador in the latter half of 2019, sending South America into a frenzy all too familiar in the continent’s history. Whether it was a presidential run in violation of the Constitution, an increase in metro fares, or a slash in gas subsidies, respectively, citizens throughout the countries are taking their voices to the streets, protesting for weeks, even months, in hopes of bringing change.
While the protests are all separate in their grievances, hints of the same issues ring throughout the protests: government distrust, inefficiency, and bureaucratic entitlements. South Americans are growing tired of institutions that are often dated, they are unhappy with low income and low employment levels, and they have lost faith in their once valiant leadership.
Bolivia: The End of Evo Morales' Fourteen Year Reign
On November 10th, 2019, former President Evo Morales resigned from the presidency of the Plurinational State of Bolivia.1 Following accusations of fraudulent elections and over two weeks of violent protests that saw at least 17 people dead in major Bolivian cities such as Santa Cruz, La Paz, and Cochabamba, the armed forces turned their backs on Morales and formally requested his resignation. Morales, vice-president Alvaro García, and Senate president Adriana Salvatierra, all members of Morales’ Movimiento para el Socialismo (MAS), also resigned.
Next in succession according to Bolivia rule is Jeanine Áñez of the opposition Movimiento Demócrata Social, the second vice-president of the Senate, who assumed the presidency following Morales’ resignation. As of 2001, Bolivian law states that presidential operations must not be suspended, so that whomever is next in succession assumes the presidency ipso facto, that is without the need to have a quorum, but they also must call elections within 90 days.2 Bolivia must also elect new members of the Electoral Supreme Court, as the previous members had been arrested and accused of fraud. On November 20th, 2019, the interim government began the first phase of the process to call new elections by sending a proposal to Parliament.
Áñez promised Bolivia would have a new government by January 22, 2020, a federal holiday and the day Bolivia celebrates the anniversary of officially becoming a plurinational state, yet this proved complicated and polemic. Controversy with Áñez emerged with her interim government on issues such as bringing religion into politics, alleged arrest of political enemies, and Áñez presenting herself as candidate for president.
Shortly after she began the process to call elections for a new president, Áñez presented herself as a candidate for election, a decision with which many disagreed. Áñez made this decision based on her feelings that no other candidate can unify the country against the MAS party, as MAS still retains the legislative majority.
However, many claim this violates the transitional process and that elections would no longer be neutral.3 Unrest with Áñez and the opposition built up, leading to more violent protests erupting in the streets. The protests showed no political allegiance, as this time they called for Áñez’ resignation. Presidential elections will be held in Bolivia on May 3, 2020, marking the first election in almost 20 years in which Evo Morales is not a candidate.4
The Rise and Fall of Evo Morales
In 2006, Morales became the first indigenous president of a country in which the population is over 60% indigenous, giving hope to a previously neglected population. During his first term, he altered the constitution to allow for a president to run for a second term.5 This was passed in 2009, the same year in which he won his second term and governed until 2014. Morales then stated in 2014 that he would not run for reelection in what would have been his third term. However, he did so and won after he filed an appeal claiming he should be able to run because his first term did not count given that it was under the previous constitution. During this third term, he held a referendum in 2016 appealing to Bolivians for a chance to run for a fourth consecutive term, a referendum which he narrowly lost.6 At the time, he claimed he would respect the results, but in October 2019 he showed otherwise, running for office for a fourth time.
Morales claimed victory despite not legally being able to run for office. Allegations of fraud and false counts emerged on the night of the election, and protestors took to the streets as a reaction. To win the presidency in Bolivia, a candidate must either receive 50% of the vote or 40% of the vote and have a 10-point lead. Bolivia runs on a two-count system: there is a quick count, which has no legal bearing, and then an overall count when all the votes are tallied. The Organization of American States (OAS), a regional body comprised of the countries of the Americas (except Cuba) and representatives, sent an electoral mission to monitor the election, as they do with many elections in the region. What they found, however, were several irregularities, according to a report.7 After this initial report, Morales invited a team of OAS auditors to audit the election results. They found irregularities in both the voter count and technical systems of the election, issuing a report claiming: "flawed transmission systems for preliminary elections results and the final count" and "forged signatures and alteration of tally sheets". This led to increased protests and violence in the streets.
Following this report and days of protests, both the police and armed forces of Bolivia turned their backs on Morales. Following this dramatic shift in loyalty, the commander of the military, Williams Kaliman, publicly suggested that Morales step down, which Morales did shortly after.
What does this mean for Bolivia's future?
An official source, who requested anonymity, claimed that Bolivia was a polarized country under Morales. "[When you arrive in Bolivia], the external perception is confirmed. MAS has control of practically everything, all the state agencies, the executive, the assembly, the judicial power, and the electoral power. They abide by the law when it’s convenient. There’s pressure on those who are critical of the government. There’s no censorship like there is with Chavismo [Hugo Chavez, former president of Venezuela], but there are other indirect forms of pressure. There’s pressure against the political opposition".8
Given this, it is no surprise that many people were upset with Evo claiming victory, but it is also important to note that a large proportion of Bolivians still support him, and it will be hard to change their minds. The future of the Bolivian presidency, as well as the polarization it brings, will be determined in 2020. Elections have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic; the proposed timeline is between June 28th and September 27th, 2020.9
Bolivia is currently under a full, strict quarantine given the rise of COVID-19 in the country. Borders are closed, citizens can only leave their homes during certain hours and they can only leave once a week to purchase groceries and other needs; the military has been brought into some cities to force quarantine measures.10
Chile: Youth Call for Changes to Dictatorship-Era Constitution and Institutions
For years now, Chile earned the label of poster child for Latin American countries, both politically and economically, largely due to the period of growth started under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. During this time, Milton Friedman and other economists from the University of Chicago jumpstarted Chile’s economic growth the country still enjoyed today. Yet as protests in recent months have shown, this economic growth has not been enough to satisfy all Chileans, and they are bringing their feelings to the streets.
A proposed increase in metro fees in October 2019 was the last straw for many Chileans who struggle to make ends meet with the wages they currently earn. After accounting for taxes and essentials such as healthcare, education, and transportation, the average Chilean is left with a small percentage of their paycheck.
Another area in which the country has not seen growth, or change, since the dictatorship era is its institutions. The grievances with which Chileans have issues include the healthcare, education, and transportation systems. Whether public or private, these fees can dig into a minimum wage paycheck. Transportation alone can be up to 20% of their take-home pay. Protestors are also upset with the pension system in Chile, the privatized water system, and increasing prices of electricity.11 Wages have not grown proportionally to the economic growth in the country, and the population has felt the effects.
Another issue which protesters have brought attention to is the constitution. The constitution was written in 1982, under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Many Chileans claim that the Constitution and the institutions are outdated, written and established during a time of horror in the country, and need to be changed. Protestors have called for the writing of a new constitution, a problem in itself when it comes to bringing parties to the table to write a new document.12 Nonetheless, the Chilean government has proposed a plebiscite to take place in April 2020 to decide on the writing of a new constitution; if this passes, during the months following and into 2021, those who will rewrite the Constitution will be elected by Chilean citizens and rewrite a document to be voted on in the months following, also by Chilean citizens.13
The protestors have taken to the streets countrywide, in a unified form, to protest against multiple grievances. Many of the protesters are young, often university-age students, who seek a better future through government changes. However, their means have sometimes been questionable: they range from signs and chants, to the banging of pots and pans, known throughout Latin America as cacerolazos, to the burning of buses, metro stations, and other public spaces.
Thousands of protestors, most seemingly between 16 and 30 years old, congregate in the streets with Chilean flags and signs with messages ranging from "Fuera Piñera" (Pinera Out), "#Chile Despierta" (Chile’s Awake), "No Estamos en Guerra" (We are not at war), "Educacion Libre y Digna" (Free and Worthy Education), "No Son $30, Son 30 Anos, #NuevaConstitución" (It’s not 30 [Chilean] pesos [$0.04 USD], it’s 30 years, #NewConstitution), referring to the Chilean Constitution of 1980. Signs also calling for Piñera to step down fly throughout the city as well; protestors say they will not stop until he steps down.
However, the government has been slow to respond. Sebastian Piñera, the millionaire president in his second non-consecutive elected term (the constitution of 1982 does not permit consecutive terms), has slowly made changes, including requesting the resignation of his entire cabinet, yet this has not been enough for protesters’ demands.
The nationwide protests have been met with violence from the Chilean police and military. Hundreds of Chilean protesters have lost vision and been badly injured, met with violence, tear gas, and rubber bullets in the streets. Often scenes of army tanks strolling through the streets populate both local and international media, with scenes of up to 4 army tanks on one street. Piñera also has sent the army tanks to patrol the streets for anyone who violates the curfew, an image that haunts Chileans with the memory of the military dictatorship that created economic growth at the cost of roughly 3,000 human lives.
From 1973 to 1990, Augusto Pinochet ruled over Chile, at the height of the Cold War, following a US-assisted military coup of Salvador Allende. Under Pinochet, thousands of Chileans were kidnapped, tortured and killed, a memory that still plagues the country today. The present-day brutality is a memory that has been nothing short of traumatic for Chileans who remember the dictatorship well, or at least know the stories they have been told.
At the time of writing, the protests seemed to have calmed down, and Chileans await the plebiscite of the rewriting of a new constitution in April 2020. Yet the vote on the new constitution has been delayed given the rise of COVID-19 in Chile. Chile’s response to the virus was slow, and the country does not have a unified quarantine strategy. The borders are closed, but Piñera, among others such as Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, has been accused of focusing more on the health of the economy than of the Chilean people.
Ecuador: Lenin Moreno's Battle with Ecuador's Indigenous Population
In Ecuador, the tune does not ring as far back as the legacy of a dictator or a president in power for nearly 14 consecutive years. However, in Ecuador, the enemy was two-fold, and one more common than the other: the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Indeed, the region has found itself at odds for quite some time with the DC-based institution. The relationship between the IMF and several countries’ governments over the last 30 years has been nothing short of tumultuous. From Argentina to Brazil and now Ecuador, the institution has brokered deals for the lending of large sums of money in exchange for fiscal reforms and strict austerity measures. However, Ecuador was one country in which the deal collapsed even before it started.
Following an announcement by Ecuadorian president Lenin Moreno regarding the elimination of fuel subsidies as part of a potential economic assistance package to be accepted by the IMF, Ecuador, one of two members of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) in the Americas, saw a shift in its social scene it had not for nearly 20 years.14 Protests led by indigenous groups took to the streets against the elimination of subsidies. In the midst of the protests, Moreno turned away the reform package and cut the deal with the IMF. However, it was not before protests rang through the streets for weeks, leading to the death of seven, more than 1,100 arrests, and 1,340 injured.15
Following weeks of protests in the country, mainly in the capital city of Quito, the government and the indigenous groups entered into a dialogue to quell the violence and exchange ideas. An agreement was reached on October 14, 2019, which repealed the law that was to eliminate fuel subsidies among other parts of the agreement, and the violence and protests in Ecuador calmed.16 At time of writing, no further protests in Ecuador have occurred surrounding the fuel subsidies. Citizens resumed their normal lives, and there have not been protests since.
However, Ecuador finds itself as one of the worst victims of COVID-19 in Latin America. In Guayaquil, a city with a similar-sized population to Quito and the business capital of Ecuador, bodies have been left in streets as an effect of the damage COVID-19 has ravaged on Ecuador. The country is currently under quarantine, with borders closed, as it continues to combat the virus.
Where do Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador go from here?
Given the rise of COVID-19 in the region, the Bolivian government is focused on confronting the virus, choosing to militarize some of its larger cities; Chile is seemingly more focused on the economy as it was slow to close its borders in comparison with its regional neighbors; Ecuador, the country most hard hit by the virus in Latin America, is struggling to find the balance between economy and health. The region overall is expected to see an economic contraction, and is ill-prepared with supplies, testing kits and other items necessary to combat the virus.
Prior to COVID-19, the three countries had seen many different conclusions to the issues. The protests in Ecuador calmed, and people were able to return to their normal ways of life. In Bolivia, the tension between political parties remained, and elections were slated to take place in May, with the interim president presenting herself as a candidate, despite many questioning her intentions. Chile was slated to begin the voting process in creating its new constitution in April 2020 but has been forced to postpone this. Nevertheless, the tension between citizens and government remains, with many still calling for Piñera’s resignation. Yet what the protests all throughout the region show are common themes. South Americans are growing tired of institutions that are often dated, they are unhappy with low income and low employment levels, and they have lost faith in their once valiant leadership.
1 ‘Plurinational’ refers to the existence of multiple ethnic groups recognized by the Bolivian government.
2 "Tribunal Constitucional avala a Jeanine Añez como presidenta interina de Bolivia", El Universal, November 12, 2019, link.
3 Daniel Ramos, "Bolivia's Anez Sparks Fierce Backlash with Election Bid", Reuters, January 27, 2020, link.
4 "Elecciones en Bolivia: anuncian nuevos comicios presidenciales para el 3 de mayo", BBC News Mundo, sec. América Latina, January 4, 2020, link.
5 "Evo Morales: Bolivian Leader's Turbulent Presidency", BBC News, November 10, 2019, link.
7 Secretariat for Strengthening of Democracy (SSD), Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation (DECO), "Electoral Integrity Analysis: General Elections in the Plurinational State of Bolivia", Organization of American States, October 20, 2019.
8 Translated from Spanish.
9 Gloria Carrasco, "Gobierno de Bolivia extiende la cuarentena total hasta el 10 de mayo y luego la flexibilizará", CNN En Español, April 29, 2020, link.
10 "Bolivia Ajusta Nuevamente Fechas Probables de Elecciones Por Coronavirus", Infobae, April 24, 2020, link.
11 Elizabeth Miles and Robbie Gramer, "Why Chileans Are Still Protesting Despite Reform Promises", Foreign Policy, October 23, 2019, link.
12 Mar Pichel, "Protestas en Chile: por qué es tan polémica la Constitución de Chile que ahora buscan cambiar", BBC News Mundo, sec. América Latina, November 11, 2019, link.
13 Gobierno de Chile, "Plebiscito 2020", Accessed January 31, 2020, link.
14 Venezuela, with the largest proven oil reserves in the world, is the other member in the Americas.
15 "Las violentas manifestaciones en Ecuador suman 7 muertos y más de mil detenidos", Univision, October 13, 2019, link.
16 "Presidente Moreno Ratifica Los Acuerdos Con Indígenas Al Derogar Decreto 883", El Comercio, October 14, 2019, link.