n November 10, 2019, former Bolivian President Evo Morales was forced to resign the presidency at the request of military officials, and subsequently fled the country, eventually receiving political asylum in Mexico. The presidency is now held by Jeanine Áñez, a right-wing politician and member of the second-largest opposition party.
The current crisis has its roots in a 2017 decision by the Bolivian Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the country’s highest court, to allow Morales to run for a fourth term, voiding term limits laid out in the 2009 constitution. When the election was conducted in October 2019, initial vote counts seemed to indicate that Morales would win a plurality but would not receive the ten-point margin needed to win outright and prevent a runoff. However, the initial count was suspended, and the subsequent official count saw Morales narrowly win a ten-point lead.
The opposition, initially led by Carlos Mesa, the second-place candidate, immediately called for an audit of the results, which Morales agreed to. Nevertheless, the following weeks saw escalating street protests, eventually coming to a head as security forces refused orders to deploy.
When Jeanine Áñez took office, she sent two clear messages: first, she promised to act only as a caretaker until a new round of elections could be held, and second, Áñez, who in the past has said she dreamt of a Bolivia “free of satanic rituals,” held up an enormous bible, reinforcing her dedication to Catholicism in a nation marred by rifts between Catholics and the indigenous majority, who overwhelmingly supported Morales.
Since assuming office, Áñez has aggressively restructured the Bolivian government, despite promises to act only as a caretaker, purging officials from the Morales government and replacing them with conservative allies, in addition to threatening to arrest members of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party. Áñez’s government has drawn massive protests from supporters of the ousted Morales, to which she responded by offering immunity from prosecution to security forces, shortly following which security forces killed nine protesters in the town of Cochabamba.
At stake is not only the government of a diverse, populous, and economically dynamic nation, but also the disposition of enormous stocks of Lithium, a key component in green technologies such as electric cars and wind turbines. As Bloomberg reported in late 2018, Bolivia sits on the second-largest lithium reserves in the world – but they lie in a remote, hard to access part of the country, in a form that would require a large capital investment to render usable.
From this potential, Bolivia developed an agreement with Germany – which needs the lithium to jump-start its electric vehicle production – to extract the lithium and champion investments in the rural region of Potosi. Those plans have now been largely cancelled or suspended, in part due to the political uncertainty following Áñez’s assumption of the presidency, and in part because of opposition from local interests.
Morales has now claimed that the U.S. backed Áñez’s ascent in order to gain access to Bolivia’s lithium. While there is evidence that the U.S. leaned on the OAS to influence its review of the October election results, it’s unclear whether the U.S. had any involvement in the military’s decision to force Morales’ resignation. Nevertheless, the talking point is a persuasive message to Morales’ followers, who likely remember well U.S. interventions of the 20th century.
Áñez, who has received support from the Trump administration, will now likely be the one to decide how Bolivia’s plentiful natural resources, including the vast lithium deposits, are allocated. It still remains to be seen whether the nation will recover from this political crisis and hold free elections, or if the country will once more slide into a U.S.-backed military government, as occurred in 1964 and 1980.