‘This Isn’t Cuba’: Thousands Protest Arrest of Conservative Ex-President in Bolivia

Jeanine Áñez

Thousands of Bolivians in at least seven cities took to the streets Monday night demanding the release of conservative former President Jeanine Áñez who spent her first night in prison that day after being arrested on charges of “terrorism.”

Áñez led the country for nearly a year after the resignation of 13-year socialist leader Evo Morales who fled the country along with most of his ministers and left a power vacuum in November 2019. Bolivia’s constitution provides a line of succession in the event the president and vice president are incapacitated or resign that resulted in Áñez, at the time a high-ranking senator, being at the top of the list of people in that line of succession still in the country.

Áñez vacated the presidency peacefully in October after Luis Arce, the candidate for Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, won that month’s presidential election. Áñez is now facing “terrorism” and “sedition” charges that MAS administration prosecutors say stem from her decision to assume the presidency, a constitutional duty following Morales’ resignation and flight from the country.

Thousands in La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Sucre, Oruro, Trinidad, and Áñez’s native city of Beni crowded central plazas waving Bolivian flags and holding up signs calling for the former president’s release. Police did not report any significant incidents of violence.

Many held signs reading “there was no coup; there was fraud” – a reference to prosecutors accusing Áñez of being the leader of a coup d’etat against Morales, despite Morales’ voluntary departure from the top office. Morales left after the Organization of American States (OAS) published a report finding significant evidence of electoral fraud in the October 2019 president election which Morales won despite being constitutionally ineligible to run.

“We will not give up, we will battle until we reverse this criminalization that has happened in the country,” Manuel Morales, the head an anti-socialist group called the National Committee for the Defense of Democracy (Conade), told reporters in La Paz. Conade was responsible for organizing protests against Evo Morales’ alleged election in 2019.

In Santa Cruz, protesters rallied in front of a statue of Christ the Redeemer in the town center that serves as an icon of the city.

“Mr. President, you are unfortunately a sick man, seek peace with God, seek democracy,” one of the protesters, Rómulo Calvo, said in remarks to the crowd, according to Bolivian newspaper Página Siete. “The nation is demanding health, vaccines, and economy recovery, it is not asking for persecution or infighting among Bolivians. Do not play with fire, you will get burned.”

Luis Fernando Camacho, a conservative community leader recently elected governor of Santa Cruz, also attended the rally as one of the main political characters the MAS leadership has accused of organizing the alleged “coup” against Morales. Prosecutors have not charged Camacho, though socialists have long accused him of being the “mastermind” behind Áñez. Camacho ran for president against Arce last year.

“To those in prison and those persecuted for their politics we tell you that we will not abandon you, Santa Cruz people are brave,” Camacho told the crowd Monday.

Protests against the socialists in Cochabamba ironically featured chants with the 20th-century communist slogan, “the people united will never be defeated,” as well as rallies insisting Bolivians voted against Morales. Some also chanted, “this isn’t Cuba/it isn’t Venezuela either/this is Bolivia and Bolivia commands respect,” a reference to far-left dictatorships in the region that enjoyed alliances with Morales’ government.

Opposition leaders have organized further protests for Tuesday and a summit for all opposition party leaders Thursday to discuss building a resistance front against the socialist government.

As interim president, Áñez’s primary task was to organize free and fair elections as quickly as possible. Bolivians went to the polls in October; Áñez did not run for election. Current President Luis Arce of Morales’ MAS party won the election, prompting Morales to return from exile in socialist Argentina. Arce’s government rapidly dropped charges against Morales for organizing violent mobs in the aftermath of his resignation and allegedly fathering a child with a minor.

Police arrested Áñez this weekend on charges of “terrorism” and “sedition”; prosecutors are seeking a 30-year prison sentence. The judge presiding over the case ordered her to serve at least four months of preventative detention, calling her a flight risk. Prosecutors allege Áñez was at the head of a conspiracy to stage a “coup” against Morales, citing calls from Armed Forces leader Williams Kalimán for Morales to resign.

Morales chose to resign following an Organization of American States (OAS) investigation finding significant evidence that Morales had tampered in the October 2019 presidential election, which he won despite being constitutionally ineligible to run due to term limits. Áñez’s legal team has insisted she assumed the presidency only because she had a constitutional obligation to do so and no evidence exists of any conspiracy to topple Morales.

The General Secretariat of the OAS issued a statement Tuesday in Áñez’s defense asserting, “the Bolivian justice system is not in proper conditions to offer minimum guarantees of a fair trial, impartiality, and due process, due to structural problems and particularly, its integration.” The statement concluded that an international commission was necessary to investigate accusations of “corruption” against Áñez.

The OAS demanded Áñez’s immediate release from prison and several individuals arrested along with her for allegedly aiding her rise.

Carlos Mesa, a former president and center-leftist who “lost” the 2019 presidential election against Morales, also spoke out Tuesday stating if Áñez was guilty of a conspiracy to come into power, Arce and the MAS leadership currently in power is also guilty as it benefitted from Morales’ departure. According to the prosecution’s “bizarre reasoning,” Mesa contended, “Luis Arce and [Vice President] David Choquehuanca should be prosecuted.”

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