Coups like the one against Evo Morales are what happen when a nation realizes that a constitution that means whatever the people in power want it to mean is the functional equivalent of no constitution at all.
At the end of my last post, I promised to next address the propensity of so many conservative pundits to rabbit on about the difference between a ‘republic’ and a ‘democracy’ instead of confronting the actual problems that prevent this form of government – and yes, both these words refer to the same thing – from existing in modern America. I would be covering that subject today if it weren’t for a sudden turn of events in Bolivia which merits some commentary, and which has also demonstrated, in action, the principle which I had devoted my last post to explaining:
Namely, that democracy can only exist when mass civil unrest follows any refusal, by the governing authorities, to acknowledge limits on their power.
A quick review of the background to the situation in Bolivia is in order. Evo Morales was elected President of Bolivia in 2005. He began his political career as leader of the coca farmers’ union, and has always been popular among the rural poor. Morales is a socialist, and he devoted much of his presidency to reducing foreign influence over Bolivia’s economy and curbing the power of multinational corporations. He nationalized several industries, such as Bolivia’s main power grid, which were previously owned by consortia of mostly-foreign investors.
Perhaps my readers would expect me, as a right-winger, to be bothered by all of this, but I’m not. I don’t believe in the right of one country’s corporations to own another country’s land and infrastructure. And electing someone like Evo Morales was a good move on the part of the Bolivian people, who wanted to do something about the fact that foreign financiers were hauling away so much of their country’s wealth.
Morales easily won re-election in 2009, getting 64 percent of the vote – more than twice as big as the share that went to the runner-up. That same year, Bolivia adopted a new constitution, under which the President was limited to two terms. But since Morales had served his first term before the change, the limit wouldn’t kick in until the end of his third term. Morales got re-elected again in 2014, by the same huge margin, and should have left office in 2019.
In 2016, two years into what was supposed to be his final term, President Morales held a referendum attempting to amend the constitution to eliminate the term limit. The amendment was voted down, 51.3% to 48.7%. Rather than accept the results, Morales did what modern politicians often do when they lose an election: ask the courts to impose the policy change they want anyways. Bolivia’s Supreme Court issued a hairbrained ruling that the term limits somehow violated the American Convention on Human Rights, and the way was cleared for Morales to run again.
In Bolivia, a presidential candidate can win on the first round in one of two ways: either by getting a majority of the vote outright, or by beating the runner-up by at least ten percentage points. Otherwise, the election goes into a runoff. In 2019, Evo Morales went into the election much weaker than before. His rivals, taken together, ended up getting a majority of the vote, but Morales with his 47 percent still beat out the top runner-up by the requisite ten points.
Morales declared himself the winner, but his victory was widely considered illegitimate: not only had the President flaunted the term limit, he was also dogged by rampant allegations of electoral fraud. Violent protests broke out across the country, and the police and military struggled to keep order as the President’s supporters and his enemies duked it out in the streets.
Then, on Sunday, 10 November – three weeks after the election – the police and the military turned against President Morales and demanded that he resign. That night, Morales, his vice president, and everyone else in the line of succession resigned their offices and fled the country, leaving Jeanine Áñez, the President of the Senate, to become Acting President.
The international reaction to these events was mixed. While many observers were glad to see Morales gone, they found it distasteful that he was ousted by a military coup. The whole thing seemed, to them, like an affront to the rule of law.
The trouble is that if the Bolivians had adhered to the modern, Western concept of the “rule of law” – which in practice is nothing more than the power of the courts to do whatever they want – Morales would never have been overthrown. He did, after all, get the Supreme Court to say that everything he was doing was legal.
If Bolivia had followed the example set by the United States, that would have been the end of the story. Here in the US, the Supreme Court always gets obeyed, no matter how nonsensical its reasoning. (The last successful resistance was in 1857, when the Taney Court’s attempt to legalize slavery nationwide backfired spectacularly). But the Bolivians are wiser than that, and they realized that a constitution that means whatever the people in power want it to mean is worse than no constitution at all.
And what of the role of the military in all this? My opinion is that they did their duty. According to the Bolivian constitution, Morales had no right to be president a fourth time, and the soldiers and police owed him no allegiance. To accept him as their commander anyway would have been an attack on the constitutional order. Military subservience to civilian authorities has outlived its usefulness if formerly honorable soldiers end up becoming henchmen to a civilian dictator simply because he is a civilian.
That, at least, is the principle that the world should have learned from what happened in Germany in the 1930s. Back then, the Wehrmacht officer corps was, for the most part, very suspicious of Nazi rule, and from Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 until the invasion of Poland in 1939, there were nearly a dozen coups plotted against him. In each case the men involved balked at the last minute, deciding that an attack on civilian authority was a more extreme measure than the situation actually called for.
History went on to show how wrong they had been.
Returning to the matter of Bolivia, it is my hope that what’s left of the government will be able to restore order in the country and that the new elections, once called, will produce a president who can earn the widespread respect of his or her countrymen in much the same way that Evo Morales once did, during his early years in office, before the power got to his head.
Meanwhile, citizens of the United States would do well to contemplate the lessons of the Bolivian coup: First, that revolutionary activity – be it of whatever nature – is necessary when the governing authorities refuse to abide by constitutional limits. And second, that a constitution that means whatever the Supreme Court says it means is the functional equivalent of no constitution at all.