Power grab

Social unrest in Bolivia following proposed package of wide-reaching laws.

Tensions are increasing in Bolivia after transport and retail unions declared a strike to protest against a proposed new package of laws, apparently aimed at controlling money laundering and terrorist financing, but allowing the government to investigate and sanction the assets of individuals without the need for judicial intervention. The package has been widely criticised as an attempt to centralise power and seize private property.

Faced with this unexpected popular reaction, the government has offered to repeal some of the proposed laws, but this has not extinguished the protests, especially in the east of the country. Protestors continue to call for the annulment of the entire package of laws and the restitution of the norm that required a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Assembly to pass laws – a rule eliminated by the previous legislature, controlled by the Movement Toward Socialism (“MAS”) when the opposition were in power.

A former Bolivian ambassador predicted a crackdown on dissent if the protests continued, “The unrest will probably continue for the next few days, further weakening the President, but we cannot rule out the government resorting to force and the use of irregular groups of allies to suppress protests.”

“We cannot rule out that the government resorting to force and the use of irregular groups of allies to suppress protests.”

Former Ambassador, Bolivia

Unsurprisingly, a former minister of the MAS party disagreed, “The protests have nothing to do with the proposed laws, the objective is to destabilise the government and the orders are coming from the CPS in Santa Cruz.”

A Bolivian academic had a more balanced view, “Attempting to pass these laws was a strategic mistake as it resurrected the opposition that had died after the 2020 elections. President Arce’s hand was forced though, in order to keep the support of the MAS, he had to radicalise otherwise former President, Evo Morales was coming for his job. The truth is that both sides are very weak.”

The first day of the strike on 9 November 2021 was mainly concentrated in Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, La Paz, Tarija, Potosí, Oruro and Beni. In Santa Cruz, protesters clashed with supporters of the MAS ruling party. They were dispersed by the police which used tear gas and arrested 90 people. On the following day, clashes in Potosí resulted in the death of a 23 year-old man.

Arce has called on party supporters to stand up against the strike. He argued that the protests are an excuse from opposition parties to escape trials from the 2019 events which led to the fall of the then President Evo Morales, also from MAS. The former Ambassador scoffed, “This is all part of the MAS strategy and narrative to fragment their opposition. The party political system in Bolivia was successfully broken by Evo Morales and what remains is an unstructured and dispersed opposition without the capacity to be a counterweight to the authoritarian impulses of the government.”

Meanwhile, President Arce’s popularity continues to decline with some political analysts claiming he is now paralysed. One such analyst expanded, “It is not a coincidence that in recent months MAS militants have taken over the Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Supremo Electoral). We are close to a situation where Arce might agree to resign to pave the way for the return of Evo Morales.”

“We are close to a situation where Arce might agree to resign to pave the way for the return of Evo Morales.”

Political analyst, Bolivia

A former MAS minister confirmed fractures in the party, “I admit the current government doesn’t have the strength that Evo Morales had. There are internal fights, as in any political organisation, but they are weakening Arce, all social leaders within the MAS need to unite behind Arce but some are missing today.”

The near future remains uncertain as the opposition accuses Arce of plotting a legislative coup while the government is confident in controlling the strike which does not have the support of the largest union in the country, Central Obrera Boliviana. Nevertheless, clashes between the police and protesters have left more than 100 injured bringing the country closer to a social upheaval and a return of the unpredictable political consequences seen in 2019.


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