As the first wave of coronavirus infections hit Latin America, various governments across the continent began countermeasures. Yet alongside Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Bolivia instead distinguished itself for the incompetence of its response — a combination of inaction and repression. This is, perhaps, no surprise, given the disastrous political situation in the country since the military coup last November.
In the months following Evo Morales’s removal, the coup regime has expelled hundreds of Cuban doctors and medical personnel, drastically reduced the level of cooperation with Russia and China, and halted large-scale health care projects begun under Morales’s administration, such as the Unified Health System (Sistema Única de Salud). Since the coup, a number of social programs, such as the Bono Juanctio Pinto, Bono Juana Azurduy, and Renta Dignidad cash transfer schemes, have been either cut drastically or effectively discontinued.
At the same time, the regime has used the crisis to mount an authoritarian crackdown. While those who breach curfew and quarantine measures risk up to ten years’ imprisonment, the government has done nothing to guarantee financial assistance or even job security for workers. This has led to riots throughout the working-class suburbs in El Alto and Oruro, and at least 1,200 arrests. This only adds to the hundreds of social activists and militants of Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) to have been persecuted over the last few months.
This has also had an effect on the planned rerun of the presidential election. Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) — now headed by Salvador Romero, a well-known associate of the right-wing presidential candidate Carlos Mesa — has decided to postpone the contest to a yet-unidentified date in July or October. This further complicates Bolivia’s already fragmented electoral map of Bolivia, where MAS remains the leading party. In the weeks prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, most polls showed MAS candidate Luis Arce Catacora in the lead, capturing around 33 percent of the first-round vote — a more than 15 percent advantage over both Mesa and postcoup leader Jeanine Áñez.
Luis Arce Catacora, more commonly known as “Lucho,” was finance minister in Morales’s government from 2006 until the coup in November 2019 (with a brief absence due to health reasons in 2018). In this role he oversaw the nationalization of the hydrocarbon industry, the establishment of a number of social programs, the recognition of the “social-popular” sector of the economy, and the beginning of Bolivia’s industrialization program.
He sat down with Oliver Vargas in Cochabamba to discuss the current situation in the country. You can read Vargas’s full interview here.