SCOTTSDALE, Arizona – Bolivia is in a violent holding pattern while it awaits new elections called for by President Jeanine Áñez, who leads the self-proclaimed interim government.
Bolivia’s bishops and others are hopeful that elections will provide calm after weeks of violent protests following the departure of former President Evo Morales, currently in exile in Mexico.
Morales stepped down on Nov. 10, after protests erupted due to credible accusations that he had committed fraud in the Oct. 20 presidential poll.
At least 30 people have died in political violence since the election, and hundreds of others have been injured.
While Morales – now claiming to be Bolivia’s “president-elect” – has offered to come back to Bolivia to help negotiate a peace, Áñez has warned that if he does return, he will be criminally charged with fraud.
Father Jose Fuentes, adjunct secretary of the Bolivian bishops’ conference, says the Church is uniquely able to assist with a dialogue as they are the only institution both sides trust.
United Nations envoy Jean Arnault has called for talks ending the crisis to be jointly mediated by the UN and the Catholic Church.
Matthew Peter Casey – Clinical Assistant Professor at Arizona State University’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies – said he is not sure Morales’s side would trust the Church’s impartiality.
Although Morales is a Catholic, he took certain privileges from the Church during his years in office and was openly critical of the hierarchy, calling it conservative and anti-revolutionary.
Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, celebrated indigenous culture and religious beliefs. In addition, he was an outspoken socialist, and many of his critics equate socialism with atheism.
Áñez, on the other hand, has been highlighting her traditional Christian beliefs, carrying a Bible with her in public.
“The day after what I would call a coup,” Casey said, referring to Morales’s departure, “the conference of bishops put out a video saying this was not a coup.” Since then he says they have been “taking the party line of people in power,” and “they’re pushing the peace and reconciliation side of things with public prayers.”
Bolivia is around 20 percent indigenous, although the vast majority of the population have some indigenous ancestry. Casey said that some observers see conservative Evangelical Christian and conservative Catholic groups attempting to “stoke anti-indigenous angst” as a reaction to Morales’s promotion of indigenous culture.
Casey said that many indigenous people think the interim government will use violence against them for racial and religious reasons, since many accuse indigenous practices of being pagan.
However, Casey is personally hopeful that elections will help the situation.
“I think that some irreparable damage has been done, and most importantly people have died and are being persecuted, but international pressure will force the interim government to hold elections,” he said.
Bolivia’s constitution says new elections must be held within three months of an interim government taking over. Áñez officially took office on Nov. 12.
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