This week in Miami a federal appeals court heard about Bolivia’s brutal past. But the oral arguments also offered a glimpse into how brutal Bolivia’s future could be – that is, if folks like right-wing interim President Jeanine Añez come to rule the South American country again.
On Tuesday a group of mostly indigenous Bolivian plaintiffs asked the Miami appellate panel to reinstate a verdict against former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and his former defense minister, José Sánchez Berzain. Last year, in a groundbreaking U.S. federal civil trial in Fort Lauderdale, a jury found the men responsible for ordering the 2003 military massacre of some 60 civilians in Bolivia amid anti-government protests. But the judge in the case overturned the verdict for what he called insufficient evidence.
Sánchez de Lozada resigned after the 2003 killings, and he and Sánchez Berzain – like so many Latin American honchos wanted for alleged crimes in their countries – fled to exile in South Florida. They were brought to trial here under a U.S. human rights law, the Torture Victim Protection Act. It lets foreigners sue figures, like the former Bolivian leaders, who now live here.
Whether or not the appellate justices reverse the Fort Lauderdale judge’s ruling – they may since Bolivian military personnel have testified the government ordered the attacks – what’s also striking about the case is its relevance to what’s happening in Bolivia at this moment.
Last week, left-wing President Evo Morales, who’d ruled Bolivia for 13 years, resigned and went into exile in Mexico. Morales bolted because Bolivia’s streets were aflame with protests against his own government after he allegedly tried to steal last month’s presidential election. It was an election he shouldn’t even have taken part in since the country’s constitution barred him from seeking another term. (Two years ago he got his lapdog supreme court to rule, laughably, that term limits violated his human rights.)
But it’s important to remember that the 2003 massacre, and the outrage it provoked, started Morales’ stunning political ascent. Two years later he was elected Bolivia’s first indigenous president – an Aymara Indian like Eloy Rojas Mamani, the lead plaintiff in last year’s suit, whose 8-year-old daughter Marlene was killed in the attacks.
“We’re very indignant not to have justice in this case yet,” Mamani, who flew to Miami for the appeal, told WLRN.
Whatever you think of Morales’ presidency, you have to applaud him for giving indigenous Bolivians like Mamani – a community largely trampled on for five centuries – a new, stronger sense of political and economic empowerment. Morales’ downfall may be tragically deserved; but it would be tragically criminal if Bolivia's conservative forces revive the kind of bigoted violence against indigenous citizens we saw 16 years ago.
Which Jeanine Añez is alarmingly close to doing right now.
Morales’ vice president and the head of Bolivia’s senate resigned with him. So Añez, the senate vice president and conservative opposition leader, was constitutionally next in line to replace Morales until a new presidential election can be held in January. It’s debatable whether she took the oath of office legally since Morales’ socialist party, the majority in the legislature, refused to provide a quorum.
But that’s the least of the fears Añez is raising. For starters, there’s her astonishingly racist Twitter history. In one tweet this month, Añez questions whether a group of Aymara in a photo can really be indigenous because they’re wearing shoes. In another she hurls the serious slur of “pobre indio” – poor Indian – at Morales. In one from 2013 she calls the indigenous summer solstice celebration “satanic” and accuses the Aymara of trying to “replace God!” A particularly charming Twitter insult from New Year’s 2016 calls Bolivia’s Aymara “drunkards.”
Muy presidencial, señora.
Not surprisingly, Añez has appointed no indigenous persons to her interim cabinet. She has, however, made a dramatic display of “returning the Bible” to Bolivia’s presidential palace after all those years of apparently satanic governance under an Aymara head of state.
More troubling still is the violence against indigenous protesters human rights groups say Bolivia’s security forces have unleashed under Añez. At least 14 people have been killed since Friday.
Granted, Messianic Morales isn’t exactly calming Bolivia’s turbulence with his remarks from Mexico, calling Añez’s administration a “treasonous” dictatorship. But Añez has done her reckless best to re-open Bolivia’s centuries-long wounds.
As if she doesn’t remember what happened in 2003. Or doesn't really care.