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Friday, June 2, 2023

Why the brawl in the Bolivian Parliament reveals a complex political situation

Facts. On Tuesday, around twenty deputies fought in the Parliament of Bolivia. The scene took place during a session devoted to the fate of the political opponent Luis Fernando Camacho, in detention since December, accused of “terrorism” and of having fomented a coup against the then president in 2019, Evo Morales.

While Interior Minister Eduardo del Castillo, from the left-wing majority, came to present a report on Camacho’s imprisonment, elected opposition women held up signs in support of the imprisoned man. “There is no democracy when there are political prisoners”, could we read in particular.

In response, several female MPs from the left-leaning majority rushed to snatch the banners from their hands and the situation escalated into a fight. On the images, we can see exchanges of slaps, punches and feet, and even hear screams. After a suspension of the session, calm returned to the political arena.

Who is Luis Fernando Camacho? Luis Fernando Camacho is a 44-year-old Bolivian politician, businessman and lawyer, also a businessman. He is from the city of Santa Cruz, in the province of the same name located in the eastern part of the country, described as the “economic lung of the country”.

“It is a province that has always been in opposition for multiple reasons: the presence of agro-industrial oligarchies on the spot, a distance from the central power…”, explains Franck Poupeau, researcher at the CNRS, author of the book Altiplano, fragments of a revolution (Bolivia, 1999-2019), published in 2021.

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In 2013, Camacho, the son of an influential industrialist, became the leader of the Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee, an “elite side” civil society-type association charged with defending the interests of the city. Politically positioned on the far right, he holds a conservative and ultra-religious discourse, representing the country’s white elites. He spoke out in particular for the banning of the Wiphala, the flag of the Andean ethnic groups, erected by former President Morales as a symbol of a “plural” Bolivia.

The “coup” of 2019. To understand Camacho’s arrest, you have to go back to the period of the 2019 post-election violence in Bolivia. In October 2019, the president in power, Evo Morales once again won the presidential election, with tighter results than usual and in a deleterious context.

For several months, he has been under the fire of criticism for having forced his candidacy against what is provided for by the Constitution which he himself had voted in 2009. The opposition seizes on these political facts associated with a certain the population is fed up with the outgoing president; to mobilize the street around suspicions of electoral fraud.

The ultra-religious takes the lead in the protest and becomes a national figure. “The opposition embodied by the moderate leader Carlos Mesa was overwhelmed by the arrival on the political scene of Camacho, who personalized the mobilization while leaving the only regional opposition”deciphers the researcher, who was in Bolivia during the events.

Released from all sides, in particular by the army and the police, denouncing a coup d’etat, Morales ends up resigning and going into exile. Jeanine Añez becomes interim president, pending a new ballot, finally organized a year later, due to Covid-19. This new election consecrates Luis Arcethe candidate of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), former Minister of the Economy of Evo Morales, who has moreover returned from his exile.

A weakening opposition. After the defeat, opposition leaders must face justice for abuses committed at the time of the coup, including the government-ordered crackdown on demonstrations in Sacaba and Senkata, resulting in around 20 deaths. “Camacho, to protect himself legally, became governor of the province of Santa Cruz, which gave him some immunity,” explains Franck Poupeau.

The desire for appeasement of the new president Luis Arce also plays a time in his favor, but Camacho continues to agitate in his province. In 2022, he led a “civic strike” to demand a population census, in order to obtain more subsidies and political representation.

“It is one of the means of action of the local political and economic elites: destabilization by inflation, by shortages”, notes Franck Poupeau. But the strategy backfires. “The opposition turned out to be weak: the blocking did not work. This coupled with local internal rivalries and arrogant behavior by Camacho, there was a window to stop him,” analyzes the researcher.

The news of his arrest also led to violent demonstrations in his stronghold of Santa Cruz. “I am proud to have participated in the greatest struggle for freedom and democracy”he declared during his first appearance in court, denying having fomented a coup d’etat, evoking rather a “popular rebellion”.

Why it matters. This fight in the heart of the hemicycle of the Bolivian parliament is symbolic of a complex political situation and reveals the divisions at work in the country. If Camacho qualifies as “political prisoner” for some, he must answer for his actions for others, including arbitrary arrests and other acts committed during the post-election violence of 2019.

“The rights are badly organized and not very capable of regaining power, but they will therefore try to attack the government, in particular on the action of justice. As soon as you touch a hair of a former opposition member, they cry out for political persecution, even though there have been abuses,” emphasizes Franck Poupeau for whom “It is the rights that have taken over the democratic discourse to bring down the so-called progressive governments of the left. There is a devaluation of political speech ”.

The MAS, back in power, must also face significant internal dissension. He is notably weighed down by Evo Morales, who has strong political ambitions for 2025 and does not hesitate to openly criticize the government in place. “In Bolivia, there is always a dramatization of political life in the media, concludes the CNRS researcher. We always have the impression of running to disaster, then in the end it ends up being resolved. »

What you need to know about Bolivia

Population : 11.6 million people (81st in the world). By way of comparison, there are 68 million inhabitants in France.

Economy : 95th world economy. France is considered the 7th largest economy in the world.

Capital city : Sucre, constitutional and judicial capital; La Paz, administrative capital.

Political regime: “Hybrid regime” (between “imperfect democracy” and “authoritarian regime”), according to the democracy index of The Economist. Bolivia is a unitary presidential republic.

President : Luis Arce.

Party in power: MAS, Movement to Socialism, left-wing party.

Freedom of press : 117th out of 180 according to the Reporters Without Borders ranking.

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