Accidental president or coup-plotter? Trial lays bare Bolivia’s polarisation

Show caption Jeanine Áñez, speaks from the balcony of the Quemado Palace in La Paz on 12 November 2019 after proclaiming herself the country’s new interim president. Photograph: Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty Images Bolivia Accidental president or coup-plotter? Trial lays bare Bolivia’s polarisation Jeanine Áñez assumed power after President Evo Morales was driven from office – now she is facing up to 15 years in prison Thomas Graham in La Paz Thu 5 May 2022 10.10 BST Share on Facebook

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With its sterile setting and staff in scrubs, it looks like the video feed of a hospital waiting room – but the scene captured on screen is the virtual trial of Jeanine Áñez, Bolivia’s former president, who is beaming in to the sessions from prison.

Áñez stands accused of assuming the presidency by unconstitutional means, and could face up to 15 years in prison. But the trial is unfolding amid accusations that the governing Movimiento al Socialismo (Mas) is pursuing its opponents through the justice system.

The current case examines three tumultuous days between the resignation of President Evo Morales on 10 November 2019 and the swearing-in of Áñez.

Three weeks earlier, Morales had won a fourth consecutive term, despite a previous pledge to leave at the end of his third term as stipulated by Bolivia’s 2009 constitution. Disputed allegations of electoral fraud then sparked nationwide protests. Eventually the police mutinied, and the military suggested Morales leave power.

Bolivia was without a president for two days, until Áñez, a little-known senator from a minor rightwing party, assumed the position.

A protester hold a sign that reads ‘Prison for Áñez’ at a vigil in the vicinity of the Miraflores women’s penitentiary in La Paz last month. Photograph: Martin Alipaz/EPA

She promised new elections, which eventually took place in October 2020. The Mas, led by Luis Arce, the former finance minister, came back to power in a landslide.

Áñez was arrested in March last year and has been in pre-trial detention since.

The current trial focuses on how Áñez vaulted from second vice-president of the senate to president, a path which opened up when the vice-president and the leaders of the two chambers followed Morales in resigning. Separately, the government intends to try Áñez over two massacres committed by security forces during her presidency, in Senkata and Sacaba.

The prosecution claims that Añez’s succession was unconstitutional – and that she had support from the security forces. Numerous generals are on trial with her.

Áñez’s defence claims that there was a power vacuum and the presidency fell to her. “I was the product or the consequence of this situation,” she said in her oral testimony. “That was my crime: bringing peace to the country, assuming power by constitutional succession.”

Áñez attends a hearing at Miraflores women’s penitentiary, where she has been held for more than a year. Photograph: Martin Alipaz/EPA

The prosecution has said it expects sentences to be passed shortly, but few expect the verdict to bring an end to Bolivia’s stark political polarisation.

Mas and its supporters believe there was a coup, while the opposition argue Áñez was fulfilling her duty – and that this trial is both illegitimate and political, designed to cover up electoral fraud in the 2019 election.

The situation has been exacerbated by the apparent lack of due process.

In Bolivia, former presidents should in theory face a “trial of responsibilities”, authorised by a two-thirds majority in the legislative assembly. But the prosecution opted to try Áñez as a citizen, since the trial concerns events before she became president.

Other doubts over the trial include Áñez’s extensive pre-trial detention, the lack of care she has received for medical problems, and the fact that the case has been heard virtually, rather than in-person – even though in-person trials resumed in Bolivia months ago.

The process has taken a toll on Áñez, who appeared to have an anxiety attack and faint during the first days of the trial. Áñez’s daughter and her lawyers have given tearful press conferences to argue that her treatment is inhumane, even sharing her blood pressure readings.

These doubts are contested, but they have nonetheless undermined the trial in the eyes of many.

“The government is under a magnifying glass, and they should be doing this perfectly,” said Thomas Becker, a lawyer working with the victims of the Senkata and Sacaba massacres. “And I think there have been procedural problems.”

More broadly, some see the case against Áñez as part of a pattern of political persecution. Numerous members of her administration, and some supporters from civil society, have either been arrested or fled the country.

But this is not unique to the current government, notes María Teresa Zegada, a Bolivian sociologist. Áñez’s government persecuted members of Morales’s government; Morales’s government pursued its opponents, too. “It’s a vicious cycle of score-settling,” said Zegada.

This reflects the pliability of Bolivia’s justice system to those in power – something widely recognised in the country, as well as by Human Rights Watch and the UN special rapporteur who visited the country this year – and only makes it less likely the opposition, and society as a whole, will accept the trial’s outcome as impartial.

“Bolivia remains a polarised country, and there’s not a lot of trust across the political divide,” said Carwil Bjork-James, an anthropologist. “Then there is a recurrent problem, which is a lack of trust in the independence of the judicial apparatus. And that makes any trial challenging right now.”

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