Bolivia’s interim president Jeanine Áñez is waging a war on women

In a two-part series, Cindy Forster discusses how Áñez usurped power following the coup in November 2019 and has carried out a campaign to undermine fundamental rights of all Bolivians especially the Indigenous and working-class

July 07, 2020 by Cindy Forster
Self-proclaimed "interim president" Jeanine Añez, with a bible in hand on November 12, 2019.

Jeanine Áñez is a woman president in a world with very few of them. She has exercised national power in Bolivia for eight months as the de-facto chief of state following the coup d’état against Indigenous president Evo Morales.

Under the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, she instituted a strict lockdown with fanfare but she ordered no real prevention measures to accompany it. To date, very little testing is being done, and treatment is substandard. Curfew lasted from noon through dawn. One day a week, adults were permitted to leave home to buy food, and no one was allowed to leave the house over the weekend. Legions of soldiers, police, and ten-year prison sentences threatened the non-compliant.

In this menacing climate, adequate support was not delivered to 80% of Bolivians who labor in the informal economy, or millions who live by their earnings day-by-day. On June 1, the quarantine became less draconian, but all borders remain shut.

The pandemic hit Latin America like a stroke of good fortune for Áñez, allowing her to cancel elections scheduled for May 3. A new date was just set for September 6 after extensive negotiations among eight political parties mediated by the new electoral tribunal, that was put in place after the coup. The head of Bolivia’s electoral tribunal, Salvador Romero, was appointed by Áñez, who finally conceded to the new date, still argues for postponing elections, saying she must protect the health of the Bolivian people. Two of the eight parties, both of them ultra-right, will likely do everything in their power to stall the return to an elected presidency.

In the interest of accuracy, and to challenge the inherent misogyny of dismissing Añez as a doll or a creature of her handlers, it is necessary to ask: What difference does it make that a woman has presided over the coup regime in Bolivia since November of last year?

What is the portent of her abrupt shift from an interim president who promised to leave office as soon as possible, to her repackaging as a presidential candidate? What does the fact she is taking third or fourth place according to the most recent presidential polls, tell us about the meanings of women in political office in Latin America?

Jeanine Áñez usurped the presidency from Evo Morales, an Aymara campesino who secured ample rights for the Indigenous and for women. Áñez is an ultra-conservative Catholic senator from the thinly populated department of Beni in the Amazon. Her home region is renowned for its original peoples of the lowlands who first pushed forward the demand for a constituent assembly in the 1990s. But Áñez is no ally of Indigenous Bolivians. She believes Indigenous spirituality is a sign of Satan, and upon seizing power in the days after November 10, she declared the national government at last free of paganism. Her partisans trampled and burned the Wiphala — the banner of Indigenous unity. Their defilement of the Wiphala brought tens of thousands of Indigenous protesters into the streets.

The Bolivian right and its allies

Áñez’s actions have a broader context. In recent years, class hatred among Bolivian conservatives has turned very ugly, and has come to resemble that of the protest mobs or guarimbas in Venezuela that in 2017 killed over 120 people, a number of whom were set on fire. Conservatives in Venezuela claimed their violent protests proved the socialist government’s ineptitude. The Bolivian Right, for their part, has made constant threats to burn people alive, and targeted the relatives of high-level officials from the former leftist government.

For more than 25 years, Washington has been trying to destroy the forces that cohered in the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) under the leadership of Evo Morales Ayma. Morales has repeatedly been a target of their assassination plans. The dirty war of the United States reaches into every corner of Bolivia.

Long before the elections of October 20 last year, right-wing political parties had been sowing lies about the MAS government. It is a matter of record that the most egregious narco-traffickers are closely tied to the oligarchy, but the Right claims that MAS is a gang of drug lords. Similarly, Bolivia’s neoliberals are tremendously corrupt, yet they pin charges of corruption on MAS. According to the United States and their affluent Bolivian allies, the heroes of democracy are “civic committees” created by the right-wing, that train middle-class and elite youth to attack the poor.

Áñez’s political party, the Movimiento Demócrata Social, is called center-right, but the party is the voice of lowland business magnates who promoted the division of the country, which most would define as an act of treason. Their desires are often enforced by paramilitary groups of long standing with open fascist sympathies. In the last elections before the coup, Áñez won the party’s only senate seat (out of 36 senators in total), and the party won four house seats (out of 130 in total). The party unites and disunites with other right-wing parties. In the 2014 presidential elections they supported the neoliberal politician and tycoon Samuel Doria Medina, a perennial presidential candidate, who is now Áñez’s vice presidential running mate and brings to her fold the Unidad Demócrata party.

The Morales-led government of 2006 to 2019 did more to defend and create new rights for women than any other presidency, yet conservatives seem blind to these achievements. Over the past several years, there have been several incidents of right-wing attacks against Indigenous women, wherein assailants have used their fists, poles, bats with barbed wire wrapped around them and homemade bazookas to attack women wearing Indigenous clothing.

Millions of women are also fierce adherents of the Right. Seen through the lens of history, women in Bolivia who have identified as more European have been loyal allies of their menfolk for five centuries. They have upheld cruel labor systems and extracted inordinate privileges. It was this arrangement that MAS shattered when it came to power in 2006.

The first days of a lady coup president

Jeanine Áñez played her part perfectly, as arranged in advance by various political bosses of the Right.[1] First, when Evo Morales won the elections of October 20 last year, the United States refused to recognize his victory. Conservative candidates gave the signal to paramilitaries they had organized and funded, lodged within the civic committees, and they escalated the burning of campaign headquarters and electoral tribunals. MAS leaders were targeted across the country. During all this, the Organization of American States (OAS) promoted the lie of the Right, claiming that fraud had been committed.

The outcome was sealed by the treason of the security forces. In less than three weeks, the police and military chiefs had accepted bribes from the U.S. embassy. After trying to kill president Evo Morales in various ways, the army forced him to resign on November 10. He conceded, demanding in return that the army, police and paramilitaries stop killing the poor.

On numerous counts, the Constitution was violated in order to install Áñez in the presidency, supposedly on a temporary basis. She was never in the line of presidential succession.[2] As a senator of many years, Áñez is aware of this fact. She and the corporate media successfully confused the public on this score.

Áñez represents the cattle-ranching elite of Beni, in the Amazon, which historically is deeply immersed in drug-trafficking. She has a law degree but has mostly worked as a local television personality. Her first husband was mayor of Beni’s capital and had a number of corruption charges leveled against him (he died at the end of January 2020).

The interim president’s current husband, Héctor Hernando Hincapié Carvajal, is a far more ominous figure. A failed politician from Colombia, he is nonetheless a high-level political operator in the country of his birth. Like Áñez, he comes from a rural area that is associated with the narcotics trade. He has been a member of four political parties that are “very well-known in Colombia for their ties to paramilitaries (narcotraffickers) and corruption.” He describes himself as a partisan of Álvaro Uribe, the Latin American leader of the ultra-right and two-time president of Colombia. Even so, Hernando Hincapié roundly criticized Uribe for not being sufficiently right-wing, since as president, Uribe failed to “renovate the Supreme Court and left us a cancer.”[3]

When they drove out the president, the army ordered the entire country to be blockaded. Áñez said she would mobilize the official fleet of helicopters to bring all parliamentarians to La Paz, the center of governance in Bolivia, but the helicopters only brought the right-wing politicians to the Plurinational Legislative Assembly.

The coup-makers prevented MAS legislators, who held a two-thirds majority of seats, from returning; they were instead forced to come by land and so faced paramilitary aggression. At coup-regime checkpoints they were interrogated, their possessions inspected, and their “intimacy searched,” as reported on teleSUR. MAS legislators had to literally fight their way into the Assembly, as their offices were being ransacked.

Áñez’s lies continued to multiply: an agreement between MAS and pro-coup legislators was made to convene parliament. In that agreement, the pro-coup people inserted a false statement saying that both sides had accepted Áñez as interim president. Anti-MAS media published the lie everywhere. Even though MAS denounced it, they were drowned out by the corporate broadcasts.

In her ideas about freedom of expression, Áñez’s presidency is reminiscent of the era of modern dictatorship in Bolivia that lasted from the 1960s into the early 1980s. Censorship of progressive media began with paramilitary attacks preceding the coup and escalated onward, with some 50 community radio stations attacked, as well as popular print media. Áñez has banned the MAS digital library, an impressive project of the MAS vice president and renowned intellectual Álvaro García Linera. At the same time, journalists were killed, tortured, and driven underground. Áñez nonetheless asserts that under her rule, Bolivia has passed from dictatorship to a thriving democracy.

In a similar vein, Áñez created special privileges for state security forces that hark back to the era of the dictators. Her Presidential Decree 4078 was issued just two days after the coup. It awarded protections to police and military forces from any legal consequences, should they commit violence in pursuit of what Áñez terms a recovery of “civilized” society.

With that decree in force, on November 15 she ordered the first massacre in a place called Sacaba, targeting a protest march from the countryside to the city of Cochabamba. Clearly, the coup regime was looking for the opportunity. Security forces shot from the ground and from helicopters at campesinos pouring in from the coca region of Chapare, the base of Evo Morales’ struggle from the time he was a young union leader. The coca farmers under Evo’s leadership generated the policies that most effectively lowered coca cultivation that is dedicated to cocaine production, as compared to the rest of the continent.

Another massacre took place four days later at the Senkata gas plant in El Alto, an Indigenous city that gave more than sixty lives to bring down a neoliberal president in 2003. Áñez paints the people of El Alto, of Chapare, and of the countryside in general, as “savage hordes.”

The victims of the Senkata massacre say that bodies were sequestered by authorities so as not to be counted, including those of a peasant woman and a young girl. Again, the interim president denied the government hurt anyone.

Under Áñez’s presidency so far, thirty-six demonstrators and innocent bystanders have been killed by soldiers and police. But Áñez swears the security forces have not fired a single bullet. She claims that the massacre victims were shot by their peers or by foreign agents. It is an open secret that a team of CIA and State Department personnel advise the interim president’s every move.

Cindy Forster is an activist and is part of the Comité en Apoyo al Pueblo de Chiapas. She is a historian at Scripps College and the chair of Latin American Studies department.

Originally published by Jacobin, this version is reedited with new material. 

[1] Juan Carlos Marañón, “Entrevista al Piojo: El Piojo Cabrón es un activista digital que reveló varios hechos cuestionados,” La Razón, Sección Sala de Prensa, Animal Político, 22 de mayo de 2020, 3e.

[2]…/cruce-de-palabras-803220/  In an interview with Luis Hernandez Navarro of La Jornada on the program “Cruce de Palabras,” the vice president of Evo Morales explains the constitutional line of succession in the absence of the president: first the vice president, then the head of the senate, and lastly, the head of the chamber of deputies, November 16, 2019, 15:30 horas, “García Linera: Áñez ha pisoteada la Constitución de Bolivia.”

[3] and