After fleeing Bolivia in the wake of the coup that ousted President Evo Morales, former economic minister Luis “Lucho” Arce returned from Argentina triumphantly on Tuesday.
Hundreds of supporters of Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism Party (MAS) gathered at the airport near La Paz to greet Arce, who’s been chosen to take the mantle as the party’s candidate for president in the upcoming May election.
The supporters, many of whom were waving the multicolored “Wiphala” flag that symbolizes Bolivia’s indigenous people, chanted Arce’s name and hoisted him in the air, parading him out of the airport.
But the candidate was also greeted by agents of the right-wing, de facto interim government that swept into power following the coup.
Almost immediately after touching down on Bolivian soil, Arce was handed a court summons, informing him that he faces corruption charges.
After appearing in court Wednesday, a judge suspended the proceedings against Arce, citing procedural errors on the part of the de facto government.
But analysts have expressed concerns that the charges against Arce are part of a broader, transparent effort to discredit, demonize, and even disqualify MAS candidates ahead of the election.
MAS in the Crosshairs
After serving as president for nearly fourteen years, Morales was ousted from power by the Bolivian military in the midst of unrest stemming from contested allegations of manipulation during the October presidential election.
Two days later, little-known far-right Senator Jeanine Añez declared herself interim president and was quickly backed by the military and sworn into office.
For much of the international media, the story ended there. Morales was gone. The power vacuum was filled. New elections would be called. “Democracy” had prevailed.
“Most of the major media has just turned the page on Bolivia and just thinks there’s no more story there,” Alex Main, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, told The Globe Post.
“But arguably, the story of where the country is going is playing out right now and it’s not being reported.”
Añez said she would not seek election and vowed to serve only in a caretaker role before new polls could be held. But on Friday, the interim president pulled a U-turn and declared she would in fact be running as a candidate for president.
There is a major obstacle, however, facing Añez and her hopes to formalize her grip on power.
Even after being forced into exile, first in Mexico and now in Argentina, Morales remains the most popular political figure in the country and his MAS party commands the largest and most committed base of support.
Añez’s party received only four percent of the vote in the October election. And while the Organization of American States accused Morales of inflating his support in an effort to prevent a second round, there is no dispute that the former president won at least a plurality of the vote.
In an opinion poll published Sunday, Añez came in a distant fourth place with 12 percent, far behind the MAS, which led the field with 26 percent support.
Facing a major uphill electoral challenge, Añez and her right-wing allies have put the MAS in their crosshairs from the outset of their time in power.
“Rather than just a government with no mandate pursuing the effort to organize a new round of elections, it’s taken broad steps and persistently sought to go after the MAS,” Robert Albro, a professor at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, told The Globe Post.
Officials from the de facto government have vowed to imprison Morales if he returns to Bolivia, accusing him of crimes including “sedition” and “terrorism.”
Around 100 MAS officials face similar charges, many of whom have been forced into hiding.
The de facto government even threatened to bar the entire Chapare region – the stronghold of the MAS – from participating in the May election because of local resistance to the coup.
And on January 8, the Añez government announced that it would open a sweeping corruption probe targeting nearly 600 current and former MAS officials and release its findings about a month before the election.
“I think it confirms everybody’s fears that the intention is to go ahead with elections, but to do everything they can to prevent [the MAS] from winning,” Main said.
“They’re trying to decapitate the leadership …and are doing their best to try to destroy the reputation of the MAS by suggesting that it’s this horribly corrupt party.”
Brooks has been a leading voice in U.S. media challenging the corruption charges that landed former leftist Brazilain President Lula da Silva in prison while he was the leading candidate in the 2018 presidential election, which was ultimately won by far-right Congressman Jair Bolsonaro.
In June of 2019, the Intercept published explosive leaked messages that showed judge Sergio Moro had conspired with prosecutors to keep Lula in prison for the specific purpose of preventing him and his Workers’ Party (PT) from winning the election. Moro would go on to be appointed Justice Minister by Bolsonaro.
“What you see in Bolivia is kind of a hybrid because you had a classical coup that removed Morales, but they still want to maintain some semblance of normality. So they’re allowing elections,” Brooks told The Globe Post.
“But MAS, in real elections, will win just like Lula would’ve won the presidency in 2018. So what’s the next phase? ‘Well, corruption.’”
While Lula maintains the charges against him are entirely fabricated, there is a general understanding among observers of Latin American politics that low-level corruption is commonplace in governments throughout the region.
“There’s no doubt,” Albro said, that if an exhaustive investigation were undertaken, “there would be evidence of embezzlement or fiscal mismanagement or deal-making or quid pro quo behavior” by MAS officials during Morales’ tenure as president.
But Albro said he’s “impatient” with attempts to use that reality to delegitimize parties like the MAS.
“Do those things rise to the level of, ‘this is a corrupt government and this therefore is an illegitimate government run by crooks?’ My answer to that is no … Was the Morales government about corruption? No.”
Instead, Albro views the corruption probe as a “quite transparent,” “authoritarian” effort to “tar” the MAS and “morally overthrow their public status as a legitimate actor.”
For Añez and the Bolivian right-wing, the stakes of this gambit are high.
Though Morales’ decision to seek a fourth term was controversial, the MAS has been a political juggernaut since he became the country’s first indigenous president in 2006.
Before Morales, Bolivia had been ruled exclusively by the white descendants of the Europeans who colonized the country in the 16th Century.
Backed by Bolivia’s indigenous majority, Morales began a “de-colonizing” project that sought to destroy “the historical vestiges of second class citizenship of Bolivia’s indigenous,” Albro explained.
While winning praise from the world’s leading international economists, Morales also implemented a series of redistributive social programs that lifted more than a million Bolivians – most of whom were indigenous – from abject poverty.
Despite the apparent success of his administration, Morales’ tenure elicited a backlash among some white, more affluent Bolivians, who grew resentful that their perceived social and economic status had been diminished.
Upon being sworn in as interim president, Añez paraded a giant bible around the Presidential Palace, while other Morales opponents burned the Wiphala flag during protests calling for his ouster.
“These are precisely the people whose power was significantly diminished when Morales came into the presidency in 2006,” Albro said.
“One can imagine that they have been waiting to return to what they might no doubt understand as their rightful location running the country.”
If they are to stay in that position, Añez and her right-wing allies will have to do something they have not been able to in more than a decade – defeat the MAS at the ballot box.
And with a major deficit in the poll numbers, the lawfare campaign against the left may only intensify from here.
“We already know it’s not going to be a level playing field. The question is whether it’s going to get even worse in the next few months,” Main said.
“And I suspect it’s going to get a lot worse.”