In what indigenous groups are calling a right-wing military coup, opposition lawmaker and conservative Christian Jeanine Añez declared herself Bolivia’s interim president this week. The move followed the forced resignation of longtime socialist leader Evo Morales, who sought asylum in Mexico.
Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, held presidential elections October 20, but the Organization of American States found “clear manipulation” of the vote. Morales, in office since 2006, disputes that report, and his supporters have been demonstrating for weeks. So far, eight protesters have been killed in clashes with military police.
Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, criminalized evangelical Christianity and banned the Bible from the presidential palace. Despite claiming to be Catholic, he also worked to remove Catholicism as the country’s official faith.
‘The Bible returns to the government palace’
Jeanine Añez, a legislative opponent of Morales’ Movement for Socialism party, claimed the role of Senate leader on Tuesday. Though she wasn’t sworn in, she then assumed Bolivia’s presidency, appearing on the palace balcony with a large Bible. “The Bible has returned to the government palace,” she told supporters. “My commitment is to return democracy and tranquility to the country. They can never again steal our vote.”
Añez, 52, called her predecessor’s rule a “totalitarian regime.” Although Morales’ party holds a two-thirds majority in Bolivia’s parliament, lawmakers who support the exiled leader boycotted this week’s sessions.
The United States offered congratulations to Añez, who promises “to hold transparent elections soon.” Canada, however, has hesitated to support her presidency. Añez, a lawyer and former TV host, has faced criticism for calling indigenous Bolivian rites “satanic” and insisting that “Nobody can replace God!”
Christianity Has Been Under Attack in Bolivia
Morales, who had close ties to Venezuela and Cuba, cracked down on dissent, especially from Christian churches. He led efforts to criminalize evangelical Christianity but then reversed course to make all religions equal. Morales also changed Bolivia’s constitution to give rights to Pachamama, or “mother earth,” an indigenous goddess. (Last month, Pope Francis apologized after Pachamama statues belonging to the Catholic Church’s Amazon synod were thrown into Rome’s Tiber River. Vatican officials say the goddess merely represents life.)
Although more than three-fourths (77 percent) of Bolivians are Catholic, ancient rituals are prominent in the culture. About 40 percent of the population belongs to one of 36 indigenous groups. In the capital of La Paz, a Witches’ Market thrives as a tourist attraction just blocks from the presidential palace. People buy plants for warding off curses and have their fortunes read. “This is live ancestral wisdom mixed with new elements,” says sociologist David Mendoza, “but it keeps its roots.”
Bolivia’s right-wing leaders have pushed back against what they consider to be paganism. Meanwhile, indigenous groups credit Morales with boosting their rights as well as their standard of living. After resigning, Morales said, “My sin was being indigenous, leftist, and anti-imperialist.”
Añez, however, says, “Bolivia cannot continue revolving around a tyrant.” Her transitional cabinet contained no members of indigenous groups. According to the country’s constitution, Añez must set a new election within 90 days. If she doesn’t run, her term will end on January 22.