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Latin America Is Too Polarized to Help Stabilize Bolivia

Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra (right) shakes hands with his Bolivian counterpart, Evo Morales, during their fifth joint staff meeting in Peru on June 25. CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP via Getty Images

Rather than jointly addressing the crisis in Bolivia following President Evo Morales’s resignation this week, Latin American leaders from both sides of the ideological spectrum used events in La Paz to mobilize their hard-line supporters at home.

Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, along with other left-wing leaders, denounced what he called a military coup and suggested that the United States may have been involved. The sentiment that Morales’s ouster was illegitimate was echoed by other left-wing governments in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Cuba, as well as Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernández, who criticized Bolivia’s armed forces for publicly asking Morales to leave office. Right-wing leaders, on the other hand, celebrated Morales’s ouster as a victory for democracy. Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo tweeted that no coup had taken place in Bolivia, affirming that Brazil was ready to support the “democratic transition.”

In short, the political crisis in La Paz has become yet another episode in which Latin America’s deep political polarization has undermined its capacity to effectively deal with challenges that affect the region as a whole, including the Venezuelan refugee crisis, lack of infrastructure across the region, or increasingly powerful transnational crime. In this case, the incapacity to help stabilize Bolivia increases the risk of political chaos and economic crisis in the Andean country, potentially affecting trade relations and Bolivia’s capacity to secure the borders it shares with Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, and Peru.

The demonstrations that forced Morales’s departure follow recent mass protests in Chile and Ecuador. Leading Ecuadorian and Chilean officials suggested that Cuban and Venezuelan operatives were partly to blame for the riots in both countries, a position even embraced by Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States. Yet even if a small number of Venezuelans and Cubans had in fact helped stoke tensions in Chile and Ecuador—Ecuador’s interior minister announced that a group of Venezuelans had recently been detained at the airport in Quito—such help was unlikely to be decisive. Rather, Chileans and Ecuadorians themselves drove the events: Chileans in protest of the high cost of living and mediocre public services, among other issues, and Ecuadorians in anger about austerity measures.

But complex local situations don’t stop the right from seeing international socialists behind every protest nor the left from labeling movements against left-wing governments as imperialist plots. Tensions between the two groups are such that Brazil’s right-wing president even refused to congratulate Argentina’s Fernández, whom he has called a “leftist bandit.” The two are not on speaking terms, and Bolsonaro has declined to attend Fernández’s inauguration in December. Under Bolsonaro, Brazil, which often played a constructive role in mediating regional conflicts, has completely lost its capacity to lead in regional debates: Witness the outright cancellation of a meeting between the heads of state of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and South American presidents over Bolsonaro’s insistence that Juan Guaidó—whom none of the other BRICS countries recognize as Venezuela’s president—attend. This rise in tensions is worrisome because almost all of the region’s challenges, such as managing the crisis in Bolivia, cannot be solved by one country alone.

So why are Latin American leaders so quick to turn regional crises into partisan battlegrounds? In Brazil in particular, embracing a radical anti-leftist agenda and promoting the narrative that the country is surrounded by socialist governments at least temporarily take attention away from domestic economic issues. The suggestions from the governments of Chile and Ecuador about international leftist conspiracies, and Morales and Maduro’s rhetoric about international right-wing conspiracies, show that Bolsonaro is not the only Latin American leader eager to find external scapegoats to blame for popular discontent in his country, even if there is little evidence to back up such claims.

It was not always like this. In August 2000, then-Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso organized the first summit of South American presidents in history, leading two days of debates between the continent’s 12 heads of state, as well as the presidents of the Inter-American Development Bank and the Andean Development Corp. and observers from Mexico. Despite ideological differences, the participants came to the talks with a common understanding that regional cooperation would be crucial to successfully address regional challenges, such as the need to consolidate multiparty democracy, defend human rights, better connect the region’s infrastructure, reduce trade barriers, and combat transnational crime.

Looking back, this was the brief high point of regional integration. Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, Latin American governments had built a sophisticated collection of rules and norms—such as the Santiago Commitment to Democracy (1991), the Declaration of Managua (1993), Mercosur’s democratic clause (1998), and the Inter-American Democratic Charter (2001)—that promoted dialogue between governments and created a healthy peer pressure to avoid democratic ruptures. In 1995, the regional heads of state played a crucial role in negotiating a peace treaty after a brief war between Peru and Ecuador. A year later, the new framework helped avoid a military coup in Paraguay. In 2002, after a coup attempt against Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Brazil and others pressured both Chávez and the opposition to restart a dialogue.

Considering the deep roots of the concepts of nonintervention and respect for sovereignty in Latin American history, such cooperation was truly remarkable, symbolizing a significant normative change. It also aligned with self-interest. The new norms were viable because they specifically focused on protecting elected governments from the military, something that was seen as beneficial for the presidents who had witnessed the transition to democracy. Helped by a commodity boom, the region also experienced remarkable growth and political stability during the first decade of the 21st century.

Yet the problem with these mechanisms to protect democracy was that they were largely designed to protect elected governments against military coups. However, as became clear in the early 2000s, the greatest risk to Latin American democracies did not come from the barracks but from democratically elected presidents who sought to undermine the rules of the game little by little—as seen in Venezuela, Bolivia, and other countries where democracies died a slow death. A slow but steady slide to autocracy—threatening independent journalists one month, changing the retirement rules for judges on the electoral court the next, and so on—generally went below the radar of international observers. While it was clear for years to even casual observers that Bolivia’s democracy was at risk, the region lacked mechanisms to respond because there was no coup—just a steady deadline in certain freedoms.

Together, extreme polarization and outmoded regional mechanisms explain why there is little chance of a joint regional effort to help stabilize Bolivia. With Morales in exile in Mexico, Bolivia will struggle enormously to overcome the legacy of the president’s authoritarian turn and systematic interference in the judiciary, a fraught election, and the destruction committed by both sides during the past weeks. Morales suppressed the emergence of young leaders who could one day succeed him, and his party will struggle to find a strong replacement immediately. The opposition, at the same time, is likely to win the next election, but it will face difficulties governing as many Morales supporters will question its legitimacy.

In better circumstances, Morales supporters and the opposition might sit down for internationally mediated negotiations. If they did, political actors would feel a greater incentive to agree on a set of basic principles and act responsibly to increase the chances of a swift return to political stability. But in the current climate, Bolivia could be set for prolonged chaos that threatens to undo the precious economic progress made over the past years. And instead of seeking to help Bolivia, the region, dangerously rudderless and at war with itself, could make things worse.

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