Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has doubled down this week on calling the recent ouster of Bolivia’s now-former President Evo Morales a “coup,” but few other U.S. lawmakers or candidates followed suit.
The ongoing debate on whether constitutional order was maintained during and after the transition has echoed a larger divide in global politics. Sanders’s view is shared among the global left, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who granted asylum to Morales upon his exit from Bolivia.
But the Trump administration — and opponents of the Latin American populist left embodied by Morales and López Obrador — saw the end of the Morales government as a boon to democracy in the region.
“I oppose the intervention of Bolivia’s security forces in the democratic process and their repression of Indigenous protesters. When the military intervened and asked President Evo Morales to leave, in my view, that’s called a coup,” wrote Sanders on Twitter Monday evening.
The distinction is important in the U.S. because a coup would require withdrawal of all assistance to the country.
At the center of the controversy is a damning report from the Organization of American States (OAS) on Bolivia’s October election that precipitated Morales’s resignation earlier this month.
OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who served as foreign minister under former Uruguayan President José Mújica — a hero of the Latin American left — said last week at an extraordinary session of the OAS Permanent Council that “in Bolivia there was a coup d’etat on Oct. 20 when Evo Morales committed electoral fraud.”
Morales, who was in power from 2006 to 2019, sought a fourth presidential term this year despite narrowly losing a midterm referendum in 2016 on whether he should run again.
The Bolivian constitution only allows presidents to seek reelection once; Morales successfully argued that his initial 2006-2009 presidential term did not count under that rule, as his administration successfully enacted the country’s seventeenth constitution in 2009.
The events leading up to Morales’s resignation have generated a debate over the nature of Bolivia’s transition throughout Latin America and beyond.
On Oct. 20, Bolivia held national elections. Early results seemed to favor a second round, as Morales wasn’t predicted to surpass 50 percent of the vote or have a lead of at least 10 percentage points over his top opponent, former President Carlos Mesa.
With more than 80 percent of votes counted, the country’s electoral authorities stopped updating the numbers for hours — when the count came back online, Morales led by more than 10 points, vacating the need for a second round.
The OAS published its scathing report on the election, and on Nov. 10, Morales resigned and sought asylum in Mexico, amid violent protests where members of the opposition allegedly broke into the homes of government officials and threatened further violence.
Morales’s supporters say he was pressured by members of the military to resign. Opponents say his position was untenable and the army declined orders to suppress protesters.
The State Department was quick to recognize Morales’s resignation as legitimate and based on the OAS report of electoral fraud.
“The person who called the army to get involved was Evo Morales. Evo Morales called on the army to suppress the protests across the country,” said Juan Carlos Hidalgo, a Latin American political analyst and commentator.
“The moment the army says no, you have a very uncomfortable situation there, because the army is ignoring the order from what is supposed to be the commander in chief,” added Hidalgo, who denied the resignation amounts to a coup.
The debate over the transition’s nomenclature — a deep and divisive debate in Latin America — does not seem to be carrying over to the United States, despite the support of figures like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.
Presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a staunch progressive who is consistently ranked among the top three candidates in the race, called for elections in the country Monday, but avoided characterizing Morales’s exit.
“The Bolivian people deserve free and fair elections, as soon as possible. Bolivia’s interim leadership must limit itself to preparing for an early, legitimate election. Bolivia’s security forces must protect demonstrators, not commit violence against them,” said Warren.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a prominent member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the debate is irrelevant, as long as the Bolivian government under interim President Jeanine Áñez follows through on her promise to call new elections within 90 days.
“What matters is the outcome and what you’re calling for the outcome should be closely monitored fair elections without military involvement,” Khanna told The Hill.
Even some progressives who admire Morales’s tenure agree that the debate isn’t constructive.
Rep. Jesús García (D-Ill.) stopped short of calling the transition a coup, but said he is “concerned about the pressures that were exerted on [Morales], especially the quote unquote suggestion of a top general that he should resign.”
And Guatemalan-born Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), a former prominent member of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, flatly denied Morales’s resignation could be called a coup.
Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) agreed it’s irrelevant what the transition is called, as long as elections are called.
“There’s been a change in government and leadership, whether it’s a formal coup or not a formal coup. The interim president or whatever her title is says that she’s there to set up elections, so I’ll take her at her word,” said Shalala.
Republicans and members of the Trump administration have been more blunt in their assessment.
Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said “no independent analysis of what took place could claim that it’s a coup.”
“There was no coup. There was no armed action against Morales. What happened is that the military said to Morales, ‘we’re not going to kill Bolivians.’ And so then he said, ‘all right, I’m out of here,’ ” said Díaz-Balart.