Learning from the Banality and Aftermath of Bolivia’s Coup
This week’s court ruling disqualifying ousted leader Evo Morales from pursuing a Senate seat has brought last year’s events in Bolivia into sharper focus. Amidst allegations of election-rigging in a presidential contest against centrist candidate Carlos Mesa, Bolivia’s former president Evo Morales fled Sucre for Mexico in fear for his life (he now resides in Argentina) under pressure from the armed forces to leave his post.
On Nov. 12, with soldiers patrolling the streets and military jets circling the capital, Jeanine Áñez, a right-wing politician accused of racism, gripped an oversized Bible and declared herself interim president. Áñez then issued a decree that exempted “the military from criminal responsibilities related to the use of force,” while violence between protesters and the security services intensified as a coalition of right-wing politicians and business elites consolidated power. The Áñez government has since hired a consulting firm, CLS Strategies — which also helped sell the 2009 coup in Honduras — to enhance its image in the run-up to elections.
This was a typical example of a military coup d’état. Emblematic of military interventions that are preceded by protests and supported by civilian elites, Morales’s opponents and international observers immediately questioned the coup label. The former president’s critics maintain there was no coup because his election was illegitimate and the military was merely “playing peacekeeper,” even as events after his departure exhibit all the trademarks of a coup.
Whenever a country’s elites and masses support a coup, as in Bolivia, they create the impression that the military’s actions are legitimate. Indeed, civilian involvement in military interventions defies (unrealistic) expectations about what constitutes “normal” civil-military relations and sparks debates about a given event’s coup-like nature. What the various parties to this post-coup debate never point out, or perhaps fail to recognize, is their universal agreement that military involvement in disputes over who gets to rule is illegitimate — whether or not civilians invited the armed forces to do so.
One major source of this confusion likely stems from conceptual problems about the definition of military interventions. In much of the scholarly and public imagination of coups, military officers are portrayed as acting unilaterally against civilians, not moving in tandem with them against shared civilian opponents. Yet these civil-military alliances for coups are commonplace — not evidence of newly blurred lines between coups and revolutions.
Spontaneous and elite-organized bouts of protest and unrest preceded or occurred alongside coups in postwar Syria (1954, 1963, 1966), Iraq (1936, 1958, 1963), and Turkey (1960, 1971, 1980). The perpetrators of Egypt’s coup in July 2013 mobilized the Tamarod movement against President Mohamed Morsi. Nearly six years later in April 2019, military officers in Sudan likewise seized power amidst mass demonstrations that they used to justify armed intervention.
The formation of civil-military alliances and the use of civilians to legitimate military interventions is normal. It follows a broader logic of stigmatized coup politics. Anti-coup norms proscribe armed public agents from weighing in on the policy process and questions of regime selection. Coup perpetrators indeed worry that ordering tanks to occupy the capital and troops to storm the presidential palace might very well be interpreted and described as a coup d’état. Because coups are viewed as illegitimate, officers defend their actions in the post-coup battle of public relations with the help of popular and elite civilian backing.
This often includes media efforts to redefine the event itself as something other than a coup. Days after an infamous coup in March 1963, which involved the organization of street protests, the Syrian Ba’ath Party’s mouthpiece, al-Ba’ath, labeled its violent seizure of power as a revolutionary action. Egyptian conspirators applied the same label to their 2013 takeover on private and state-owned television.
In the hotly contested war of words between detractors and supporters of ousted incumbents, pointing to mass support as evidence of a non-coup simply helps coup perpetrators defend their norm-violating actions. Observers use a variety of labels to describe these non-coups, including revolution, popularly backed coup, the “culmination of a popular movement,” and even the portmanteau “covolution.” Commenting on events in Bolivia in particular, one observer cited the absence of military rule as evidence that the event was not a coup.
In short, civilian support for military interference in politics is incongruent with the (inaccurate and misleading) stylized imagination of military coups, in which soldiers act alone against the interests of the civilian body politic. To execute a coup, soldiers do not need to unilaterally seize radio stations and/or issue communiques announcing their newly established rule. They do not have to physically occupy the halls of power. During street protests in March 2019, Algeria’s chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Ahmed Gaed Salah, simply invoked Article 102 of the country’s constitution, declaring former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika unfit for office and stripping him of his power.
To correct this thinking, coups should be conceived as one of many types of “military interventions,” which occur relatively frequently over issues ranging from the application of force and the military budget to questions about who gets to rule. The latter issue area was clearly at stake in Bolivia, when the head of the armed forces, Gen. Williams Kaliman, “suggested” that Morales resign, a declaration that the latter interpreted as a coup. Referring to Morales’s ouster as a “postmodern coup,” Abdullah Aydogan describes an “intervention” in which the military authoritatively influences a country’s executive character.
Military interference in the political process is not impossible or even difficult to define. What is at issue in similar cases from Thailand to Egypt to Bolivia is that the stigma surrounding military intervention leads the innocent to condemn coups and shames the guilty into publicly altering characterizations of their norm-bending behavior. Various narratives of a single coup-event do not arise organically out of genuine confusion, but are the requisite response of coup perpetrators who wish to bring illegitimate actions into normative alignment.
By forming coalitions with civilians — who the public accept as normatively appropriate agents of political authority — soldiers gain political cover during the tense period in which the definition of their power seizure is adjudicated. In these moments, powerful interests in parliament and the media seek to legitimize their military partisans’ entrance into politics, allowing the latter to get away with a normatively unacceptable deed. Even with the backing of Tamarod and massive public demonstrations, for instance, in the wake of the 2013 Egyptian coup Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took pains to “create the impression” that “[Mohamed] Morsi’s removal constituted a revolution, not a coup.”
In other words, support from civilians does not mean that the event in question is conceptually distinct from a run-of-the-mill coup. Now widely acknowledged as an illegitimate putsch, the infamous CIA-sponsored ouster of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 involved Iranian soldiers as well as clerics, politicians, journalists, false flag pro-Tudeh mobs, pro-Shah demonstrators, and the Shah. The agents involved in planning Mossadeq’s overthrow wanted the operation “to appear legal or quasi-legal instead of an outright coup” and that “public opinion must be fanned to fever pitch against Mossadeq in the period just preceding the execution of the overthrow operation.” The CIA devoted “every effort … to increasing the size and effectiveness of the anti-Mossadeq forces,” and centered the plan around the Shah’s signing of a firman (royal decree) appointing Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi premier over Mossadeq.
With these historical patterns in mind, a familiar drama predictably unfolded surrounding characterizations of last November’s coup in La Paz, as opponents of Evo Morales claimed revolutionary credit for pushing out the leader at the barrel of a gun. Nothing about these events was unique to coup politics or Bolivia, where there have been 43 instances of regime change since independence from Spain. Senior military officials typically lead coups during protests, which tend to initially lack violence. A repressive wake then follows, likely when “the incentives for restraint disappear,” according to Erica De Bruin.
Despite Morales detractors’ best efforts to label his ouster as a revolution, it is hard to deny that this was a banal example of military intervention, not a unique something-by-another-name. Unfortunately, until we reclaim civilian participation as “normal” in coup politics, civil-military allies will continue to successfully spin their seizures of power as revolutionary heroism. Engaging in this post-coup name-game hinders our ability to recognize coups as such — and to recognize that the event itself and its justifications are conceptually distinct but normatively related.
The silver lining around debates about the nature of coup-events is that both sides agree on the most important point: Those who are angry about Morales’ forced exit, as well as those who swear it was not a coup d’état, both believe in the undesirability of army interventions over questions of political leadership. This means that civil society activists, security sector reformers, and politicians can more firmly inculcate anti-coup norms by informing the partisan masses where they stand on common ground. Until then, from Egypt to Bolivia, the masses will continue to cheer on setbacks to democracy.
Drew Holland Kinney is a visiting assistant professor of political science at Tulane University.