“Morir Antes Que Esclavos Vivir”: Bolivia’s fight for freedom

Bolivians holding hands during "Cabildo" | October 2019 | Courtesy of Comite Pro Santa Cruz website

It was the 10th of November 2019, fifteen minutes before the news of Evo Morales renouncing the presidency in a recorded video from “el Chapare.” The civic leaders Luis Fernando Camacho, Marco Antonio Pumari, and lawyer Eduardo Leon had entered the Bolivian Palace of Government, the “Palacio Quemado” in La Paz, Bolivia with a Bible, the letter of renunciation, and the Bolivian flag. They knelt in the palace and set the flag on the floor. On top of it were the Bible and the letter. The letter of renunciation was written by Luis Fernando Camacho specifically for Evo Morales to sign, expressly renouncing his hold on the presidency. They proceeded to pray for the country.

Evo Morales had been in power for almost fourteen years, manipulating the constitution to his pleasure, trying to outsmart the Bolivian people; however, many Bolivians realized that they had had enough of Evo Morales’s corruption and his manipulation of the constitution to his advantage. On February 21, 2016, 51% of Bolivians voted “No” to the referendum that Evo Morales conducted to consult the population about changing Article 168 of the Constitution of the State. That article established that an authority in the government could hold office for no more than two continuous administrations. Therefore, if Morale’s proposal to change Article 168 was accepted by the referendum, it would allow him to run for reelection for the fourth time since 2006.1 And the people of Bolivia rejected his proposal. So, in 2017, Morales continued his attempt to hold power by stating that limiting his time as president violated his human right to participate in politics. And that same year, the TSE, or “Constitutional electoral court,” ruled that the binomial Morales-Garcia ticket was approved to run for the general election for the fourth time, despite the results of the earlier referendum. Therefore, if Morales were to be elected again, it would establish the constitutional precedent of making perpetual reelections legal.2 How could the TSE courts simply overrule the results of a referendum of the Bolivian people? Bolivians didn’t stay quiet. Multiple protest marches were held, but they were not able to effect any change. Nothing else was left to do, but just wait for the 2019 election results to come in, and show Morales through the votes that he wasn’t desired as president anymore. That is where the emblematic 21F (referring to the 21st of February referendum) was born: “Bolivia Dijo No.” It became symbolic of the moment when the Morales government turned its back on the people of Bolivia by trampling on their will through democratic and constitutional elections.

On July 9, 2019, President Morales approved the amendment of Supreme Decree 26075 to expand the lands demarcated for livestock production and for the agribusiness sector to include permanent forest production lands in the regions of Beni and Santa Cruz.3 His actions led to a series of uncontrolled fires in the area of “the Chiquitania.” The fires destroyed over two million hectares by August of 2019.4 Volunteers from all over Bolivia came to Santa Cruz to help to put out the fires. The fires were affecting little towns that were nearby and the Bolivian population started sending trucks with supplies, food, and equipment to protect them against the fires. “We have consulted the biologists of Chiquitania and we have exceeded the estimate of more than 2.3 million missing animals in many protected areas,” Professor Sandra Quiroga of Santa Cruz University told AFP.5 The people of that region were devastated by this event, and they blamed Evo Morales for it, calling him a “Murderer of Nature.”6

Gran Cabildo | October 4, 2019 | Santa Cruz, Bolivia | Courtesy of Comite Pro Santa Cruz website

Then, on October 4, 2019, an extraordinary cabildo (or town hall) was organized in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. More than 1.5 million people took part at “Los pies de Cristo” and over 4.5 million people streamed the gathering through social media.7 This was seen as one of the most influential cabildos ever. On that day, decisions were made by the people. A lot of people didn’t want to vote that year because they were tired of the government, but they nevertheless promised that they would go and vote. It was approved by the people that everyone would be on the lookout for the count of votes to be legitimate. Many Bolivians distrusted the TCE because of the 2016 elections. Another decision made at the cabildo was the voto castigo to the political party MAS, which was Morales’ party, for their ineffectiveness in helping to fight the forest fires in the Chiquitania, as well as for disrespecting the vote in the referendum of 2016. And if the MAS won the elections by fraud, the people wouldn’t take the abuse anymore.8 After this day, the people had hope, hope that this time if anything happened, they had each other and they had faith that they would prevail.

Election day came: October 20, 2019. And with it came the nightmare that Bolivia wasn’t surprised to experience. Everyone was alert, and nobody took their eyes off the news that was transmitting the count of the votes. People were in the streets, verifying that nothing suspicious was occurring. All of a sudden, messages, images, and videos flooded all types of social media with news that supporters of Evo Morales, known as “Masistas,” were stealing ballots and manipulating the vote. The people were angry; hundreds of Bolivians took to their cars and drove to the front of the buildings where the vote-counting centers were located in their towns, and they started protesting. Later that day, Luis Fernando Camacho arrived at the vote-counting center in Santa Cruz, grabbed a megaphone, and called for a national civic strike, and called for all leaders of civic committees all over Bolivia to join him the next day to officialize the strike.9 Luis Fernando Camacho was 42 years old, a lawyer, a politician, an activist, and the ex-president of the “Comite Pro Santa Cruz,” which led the peaceful fight against Evo Morales. “Comite Pro Santa Cruz” is a civic institution with the supreme purpose of ensuring the moral and material aggrandizement of the department of Santa Cruz and Bolivia.

Earlier that same day, irregularities were appearing on the Transmission of Preliminary Electoral Results (TREP), and it stopped transmitting the votes for twenty hours. Different departments of Bolivia were infuriated by the actions of the government to cover up possible fraud related to the election count. Once the transmission of voting results was resumed, Morales and his political party were already celebrating his victory, claiming a ten-point lead over the opposition.10 After these actions, the Bolivian people started to rise up. They would not let their votes and voices be stolen once again. Edgar Villegas, who is a Bolivian engineer, showed evidence on news television “Jaque Mate” presented by Ximena Galarza, a Bolivian journalist. Villegas later delivered a report to the Organization of American States, or “OEA,” on how the elections were fraudulent.11 No Bolivian would have known what the next 21 days would bring for them and for their country. On October 22, 2019, two days after the election, Luis Fernando Camacho set in motion the national civic strike Paro Civico Indefinido as had been agreed to at the October 4 cabildo.12

Bolivian man during the 21 days | October 2019 | Author: Rafael Avila

Santa Cruz was the first department in Bolivia to initiate Paro Civico Indefinido. The people of Santa Cruz started strong. They never wanted violence. The purpose of Paro Civico Indefinido was to show that a country can protest without any violence and make a change. With the slogans “No confrontar,” “no provocar violencia,” “retírense cuando lleguen los grupos de masistas, déjenlos pasar y vuelvan a bloquear,” and “Resistencia, resistencia, nadie se cansa,” the people of Santa Cruz communicated through social media to guide them during these days.13 Hope was in the air. People from all ages rose up and began creating their own groups to look after the streets where they lived. They would bring chairs, tires, rope, and even their cars to block the streets so that no vehicles would be able to cross. They stayed up all night and stood strong all day under the burning sun of Santa Cruz. It was mandatory to say good morning, good afternoon, or good evening when crossing a blocking point in the city. They wanted to maintain courtesy above all, and to remember that they were all together in this fight. The “Olla Comunitaria” was being incorporated into the circumstances. People would cook with big pots or collect donations and go to the places where people needed to eat something during the day. No charge. It was a way of thanking people for the big effort everyone was putting into the fight.

On the 25th of October 2019, ”Luis Fernando Camacho went to the Departmental Police Command and demanded that the commander not suppress the people.”14 The people were powerful but afraid at the same time. Everybody knew what the government was capable of, but they stood strong. On October 30, 2019, after days of confrontation all over Bolivia between Evo Morales supporters and the opposition, Santa Cruz mourned the deaths of Mario Salvatierra (55) and Marcelo Terrazas (41), who had been killed by gunshot in the city of Montero, Santa Cruz. Later, artists from Bolivia painted Mario’s and Marcelo’s faces so nobody would forget who they were and how brave they were.15 After the deaths of Salvatierra and Terrazas, the blocking points weren’t just ropes and wheels. Some neighborhoods used trucks to protect their streets and their people from the “Masistas” that were on their way to the center of Santa Cruz.

Citizens united by making a barrier to protect against the police | November 2019 | La Paz, Bolivia | Author Dasio Facundo Bazan Lia

On October 31, 2019, Camacho reunited the people of Santa Cruz for another cabildo, where he demanded the renunciation of Evo Morales. They didn’t want a second round of elections nor new elections anymore. They had had enough. People of Bolivia wanted Morales gone. On November 2, 2019, Camacho, accompanied by leaders from Comite Civicos from all over Bolivia in another cabildo, gave an ultimatum of 48 hours to Evo Morales to renounce his presidency.16 The people were surprised by the announcement. Most of them knew that Evo Morales wasn’t going to listen to Camacho at all, but some had hope, and hope was all that mattered in those days.

The 48 hours had passed and on the 4th of November 2019, nothing indicated the resignation of Evo Morales. Camacho organized a new cabildo, and he introduced to the people the letter of resignation that he personally would give to Evo Morales. That next day, Camacho and his partners flew to La Paz, Bolivia without anyone knowing. On the 5th of November 2019, at 7:00 pm, Camacho arrived at the El Alto International Airport. After several hours, Camacho was still at the airport fearing for his life, due to Morales’s supporters, who would not let him leave the airport and who shouted death threats to him. Apparently, a Bolivian Airport Services Officer called the “Masistas” to warn them about the arrival of the opposition leader.17 The country didn’t sleep that night, waiting for news about Camacho and the other leaders. After not being able to access the city, on the 6th of November 2019, Camacho and his crew returned safely after his failed mission. Meanwhile, the people of Cochabamba mourned the death of one of their own, the brave Limbert Guzman (20), who was in an altercation between the Cochala Youth Resistance and the supporters of Evo Morales.18 Paintings of Limbert Guzman started appearing in the department of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. On the  7th of November, the leader of the opposition managed to enter La Paz, Bolivia with the help of police guards. That same day, the Coca Producers Association of Yungas, La Paz, organized a cabildo in the city of El Alto to demonstrate their support for Camacho.19

Police Officers raising the Bolivian flag in support of the protest | Cochabamba, Bolivia | November 8, 2019 | Author: Diego Andia

The Bolivian people throughout these days were trying to convince the police forces and military to help their people and do the right thing. The 8th of November seemed like another regular day of the Paro Civico Indefinido. The fight was still on, with three deaths and hundreds of injuries reported across the country, when suddenly a glimpse of hope rose at one of the police stations in Cochabamba. The police began waving the Bolivian flag, and one police officer said, “The police are not beholden to any political party; they are true to the Bolivian people.”20 This act of bravery inspired other police stations across the country to follow their steps and unite with the Bolivian people in this fight for democracy. The people celebrated with the police officers and the whole country felt once more hope and faith to keep up the fight until the end. The next day, the 9th of November 2019, the leader of Ponchos Rojos and “Csutcb” Nelson Condori with the leader of the opposition Luis Fernando Camacho held a conference, where Condori announced their support for Morales’ renunciation, and they hugged as a sign of peace and anti-racism. On the 10 of November, the Commander of the Armed Forces, Williams Kaliman, held a press conference where he suggested that Morales should resign from his position as president. (Ponchos Rojos is an organization of indigenous movements of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, which arises in the province of Omasuyos, Achacachi, in the department of La Paz)21

That same day at 4:30 p.m., the news throughout Bolivia was interrupted by an announcement by Evo Morales, allegedly recorded from the city of Chapare in Cochabamba. Morales was in a room with Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera and Health Minister Gabriela Montaño. Morales at that time announced, “We are resigning, I am resigning my position as president,” he continued to imply that all the violence that had occurred in the last 21 days had been the fault of the opposition leaders. After him, his Vice President followed Morales’s steps by resigning his position as vice-president, and then the Minister of Health did the same. After the announcement, the air of all Bolivia filled with relief and happiness. Everyone was celebrating, dancing at every intersection, horns of cars supporting the celebration, and people singing in the streets Si se pudo, si se pudo, waving the flag of Bolivia in every way they could. Videos from Bolivians who got to record the exact moment when Evo Morales renounced started flooding social media, and the peace in the people was astonishing.

Everyone was proud, people cried, hugged, sang, ran to their family’s house, into the streets, through video calls, and windows. In other departments of Bolivia, the tension had been building up due to Evo Morales’s accusations of the protest being a “coup.” During the celebrations, Luis Fernando Camacho made an announcement telling the Bolivians to not end the Paro Civico Indefinido until they knew who would become president. The political party of Evo Morales had many political figures in the government. Since the announcement of the president’s resignation, multiple government officials began to resign too, until the next in line was the deputy senate leader, Jeannine Añez. A conference took place for the announcement of Jeanine Añez, declaring that she would take the place as interim president and help the Bolivians to organized new elections to retrieve democracy and peace. On the 12th of November 2019, Jeanine Añez flew to La Paz to accept her title as transitory president. Holding the Bible high, the news showed her walking through big crowds of people, who showed their support for her.22 In Santa Cruz, one last cabildo was being organized to give a spectacular ending to the beautiful fight every Bolivian experienced during those 21 days. All Bolivia was free, free of dictatorship, and filled with unity and love.

Illustration of Evo Morales during all the renounce announcement during the 21 days | Author Ciao Hurtado

I would like to thank the team of people that guided me in the early stages of my article. I am grateful for the help from Dr. Betsy Smith and Daniela Durán from our meetings that encouraged me to follow a topic that I am passionate about, and Dr. Whitener who guided me and carefully revised my article to make sure I would find success in this project. I would like to thank my family for sending me their support all the way from Bolivia, and the artists from Bolivia who let me use their illustration/images to help me tell our story. I would like to add that Bolivia, like many countries in Latin America, is still fighting against corrupt governments and it is a pleasure to have an opportunity to write about my country and use my voice and experience to tell our story.

  1. Hurtado Calderón and Alvaro M, “Nadie Se Cansa, Nadie Se Rinde La ‘Generación Pititas’ y La Comunicación Paralela,” Revista Aportes de La Comunicación y La Cultura, no. 27 (2019),10.
  2. Hurtado Calderón and Alvaro M, “Nadie Se Cansa, Nadie Se Rinde La ‘Generación Pititas’ y La Comunicación Paralela,” Revista Aportes de La Comunicación y La Cultura, no. 27 (2019), 10.
  3. Carolina Méndez and Mercado, “Disaster Strikes in Bolivia as Fires Lay Waste to Unique Forests,” Mongabay Environmental News, September 6, 2019, https://news.mongabay.com/2019/09/disaster-strikes-in-bolivia-as-fires-devastate-unique-forests/.
  4. “Bolivian Wildfires Destroy Two Million Hectares of Forest,” BBC News, September 10, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-49646409
  5. “More than 2 Million Animals Perish in Bolivia Wildfires,” Phys, September 26, 2019, https://phys.org/news/2019-09-million-animals-perish-bolivia-wildfires.html. The “AFP” is a leading global news agency providing fast, comprehensive, and verified coverage of the events shaping our world and of the issues affecting our daily lives.
  6. Dan Collyns, “‘Murderer of Nature’: Evo Morales Blamed as Bolivia Battles Devastating Fires,” The Guardian, September 2, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/02/bolivia-evo-morales-wildfires-chiquitano.
  7. Osman Patzi Sanjinés, “Camacho, 21 Dias Con Fe Moreno Artes Graficas, 2019, 32.
  8. Osman Patzi Sanjinés, “Camacho, 21 Dias Con Fe” Moreno Artes Graficas, 2019, 32.
  9. “Hitos Históricos de la recuperación de la Democracia,” Comité pro Santa Cruz (blog), November 28, 2019,https://www.comiteprosantacruz.org.bo/hitos-historicos-de-la-recuperacion-de-la-democracia/.
  10. Guillaume Long, David Rosnick, Cavan Kharrazian, and Kevin Cashman, “What Happened in Bolivia’s 2019 Vote Count?” Challenge 63, no. 6 (November 1, 2020), 3.
  11. “El informático Edgar Villegas presentó pruebas de fraude electoral ante la OEA,” November 6, 2019, https://www.paginasiete.bo/nacional/2019/11/6/el-informatico-edgar-villegas-presento-pruebas-de-fraude-electoral-ante-la-oea-236572.html.
  12. “Hitos Históricos de la recuperación de la Democracia,” Comité pro Santa Cruz (blog), November 28, 2019, https://www.comiteprosantacruz.org.bo/hitos-historicos-de-la-recuperacion-de-la-democracia/.
  13. Hurtado Calderón and Alvaro M, “Nadie Se Cansa, Nadie Se Rinde La ‘Generación Pititas’ y La Comunicación Paralela,” Revista Aportes de La Comunicación y La Cultura, no. 27 (2019), 12.
  14. “Hitos Históricos de la recuperación de la Democracia, Comité pro Santa Cruz (blog), November 28, 2019, https://www.comiteprosantacruz.org.bo/hitos-historicos-de-la-recuperacion-de-la-democracia/.English translation by the author: “Luis Fernando Camacho llega al Comando Departamental de la Policía para exigir al comandante que no reprima al pueblo.”
  15. “Hitos Históricos de la recuperación de la Democracia,” Comité pro Santa Cruz (blog), November 28, 2019, https://www.comiteprosantacruz.org.bo/hitos-historicos-de-la-recuperacion-de-la-democracia/.
  16. “Hitos Históricos de la recuperación de la Democracia,” Comité pro Santa Cruz (blog), November 28, 2019, https://www.comiteprosantacruz.org.bo/hitos-historicos-de-la-recuperacion-de-la-democracia/.
  17. “Líder opositor fue evacuado de aeropuerto tras ser cercado por simpatizantes de Evo Morales,” France 24, November 5, 2019, https://www.france24.com/es/20191105-bolivia-opositor-aeropuerto-cerco-simpatizantes-evo.
  18. “Fallece Limbert Guzmán, la primera víctima de los enfrentamientos en Cochabamba,” Los Tiempos, November 6, 2019, https://www.lostiempos.com/actualidad/cochabamba/20191106/fallece-limbert-guzman-primera-victima-enfrentamientos-cochabamba.
  19. “Camacho en el cabildo de Adepcoca: ‘Yo no me voy a Santa Cruz hasta que Bolivia sea libre,’” Los Tiempos, November 7, 2019,https://www.lostiempos.com/actualidad/pais/20191107/camacho-cabildo-adepcoca-yo-no-me-voy-santa-cruz-que-bolivia-sea-libre.
  20. “Motín de policías en Bolivia: agentes de varias ciudades se declaran en rebeldía contra el gobierno de Morales, quien denuncia un ‘golpe de Estado,’” BBC News Mundo, 9 November 2019, https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-50355750#:~:text=Centroam%C3%A9rica%20Cuenta-,Mot%C3%ADn%20de%20polic%C3%ADas%20en%20Bolivia%3A%20agentes%20de%20varias%20ciudades%20se,denuncia%20un%20%22golpe%20de%20Estado%22&text=Pie%20de%20foto%2C,donde%20aseguraron%20que%20est%C3%A1n%20amotinados.
  21. Jose Luis Choquecallo Bautista, “LA REVOLUCIÓN DE LOS PONCHOS ROJOS: UNA REIVINDICACIÓN INDÍGENA,” n.d., p.18. English translation by the author: “Ponchos Rojos es una organización de movimientos indígenas delEstado Plurinacional de Bolivia, que surge en la provincia de Omasuyos, Achacachi, en el departamento de La Paz.”; “Hitos Históricos de la recuperación de la Democracia,” Comité pro Santa Cruz (blog), November 28, 2019,https://www.comiteprosantacruz.org.bo/hitos-historicos-de-la-recuperacion-de-la-democracia/.
  22. “‘La Biblia Vuelve a Entrar a Palacio’: Jeanine Añez, Presidenta Interina de Bolivia,” El Pais, November 13, 2019, https://www.elpais.com.co/mundo/la-biblia-vuelve-a-entrar-a-palacio-jeanine-anez-presidenta-interina-de-bolivia.html.

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32 Responses

  1. I am truly glad to have read this article as I was unaware that this was happening in Bolivia. I admire the fact that you chose a topic extremely personal to yourself and that you are creating awareness to a subject you are clearly passionate about. This was a well written descriptive article that highlighted the efforts of the Bolivian people to to fight for change in power.

  2. This article is written with a lot of passion. You were able to describe and inform audiences on a significant issue in such a well-organized and clear way. I really enjoyed learning more about this topic from your article. I had seen small news coverage on social media but the content was limited and I was able to fully grasp what was happening like how I was able to do with your article.

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