Explained: Why was Bolivia’s former President Jeanine Áñez imprisoned, what is the political controversy about it?
A Bolivian court sentenced former interim president Jeanine Áñez to 10 years in prison on June 10 after finding her guilty of organizing a coup that brought her to power in 2019, and has been jailed ever since.
Áñez was convicted of “breach of duty” and “unconstitutional decisions,” Reuters reported. The court also sentenced former commander of the Bolivian Armed Forces Williams Kaliman and former police commander Vladimir Calderon to ten years in prison each.
Bolivia was at odds over whether a coup d’état ousted former President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous leader. Following Morales’ resignation in November 2019, the leader of the opposition and Senate of Bolivia, Jeanine Áñez, declared herself interim president of the country. Her critics claim she played a crucial role in the alleged coup.
Who is Bolivia’s Jeanine Áñez?
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Before assuming the presidency, Jeanine Áñez was a relatively unknown figure in Bolivia’s political landscape. She had earned her law degree in the city of Trinidad, Bolivia, and then worked as a television news anchor. According to the Wall Street Journal, Áñez served as an elected member of the assembly that established Bolivia’s current constitution between 2006 and 2007.
A member of the Democratic Social Movement, Áñez has been a member of the Bolivian Senate since 2010. She was elected Vice President of the Senate in 2014 and 2019, making her the longest-serving opposition MP.
After weeks of protests following allegations of voter fraud, President Morales and senior members of his cabinet resigned in November 2019. As the remaining senior member of the Bolivian government, Áñez declared herself president amid rising political tensions. She vowed to be only interim head of state and to hold new elections in which she would not run.
A harsh critic of Morales and his socialist policies, Áñez’s presidency was quickly recognized by the US government. After her election, she appointed a temporary ambassador to the US for the first time in more than a decade to improve ties with the country, according to a Reuters report.
Diplomatic relations between Washington and the Morale administration have been strained since 2008, when the United States placed Bolivia on a counter-narcotics blacklist for alleged involvement in the global drug trade. Morales then expelled his US ambassador.
According to The Washington Post, Áñez began to rapidly consolidate power, appointing a new cabinet that replaced heads of the armed forces and state-owned companies days after assuming the presidency.
The Áñez regime arrested hundreds of political opponents and left-wing critics and began censoring the media. Her government also accused Morales of sedition and terrorism, but various international human rights organizations dismissed those charges for lack of evidence, calling them politically motivated, the New York Times reported.
A joint report released in July 2020 by Harvard University’s International Human Rights Clinic and the University Network for Human Rights (UNHR) accused the interim government of Áñez of committing gross human rights abuses. It was alleged that at least 23 indigenous Bolivians were killed and over 230 injured by soldiers during anti-government protests in November 2019 in the cities of Sakaba and Senkata. This was reportedly the second-highest month in terms of civilian deaths at the hands of state forces since Bolivia became a democracy in 1982.
Why was she arrested?
Áñez led the government for a year, stepping down after former Morales finance minister Luis Arce became president after his Movement for Socialism (MAS) party won the November 2020 general election.
Members of the MAS accused Áñez of conspiring with the police and military to bring about the coup. In March 2021, Bolivian police arrested the former interim president at her home in Trinidad on charges of terrorism, sedition and conspiracy.
Following Áñez’s arrest and court proceedings, some countries have expressed concern about the independence of the Bolivian judiciary. On March 27, 2021, the United States said it was “deeply concerned” by “anti-democratic behavior and the politicization of the legal system” in the country.
While Morales’ supporters claim Áñez helped oust him in a coup d’état, she has denied the allegations and claimed to have been the victim of political persecution. On February 8, 2022, Anez said, “I took over the presidency of Bolivia without asking, without looking for it, let alone expecting it…with the sole mission of calling new elections and pacifying a country in turmoil,” as quoted by Al Jazeera.
On June 10, a Bolivian court found Áñez guilty of orchestrating a 2019 coup against Morales.
What role does Evo Morales play in the current controversy?
The ongoing political controversy in Bolivia can be traced back to November 2019, when then-President Evo Morales resigned and fled to Mexico, claiming that the opposition and the military had staged a coup against him.
A socialist leader, Morales was the first indigenous leader of an indigenous-majority country, and served as president from 2006 to 2019. He remains a popular leader who is believed to have helped bring economic and social stability to Bolivia.
Morales faced mass protests that sparked backlash from his supporters after allegations surfaced that the authorities had rigged the vote count in the 2019 presidential election in which he won his fourth term.
The following month, a Washington-based think tank, the Organization of American States (OAS), released a report saying they had found serious irregularities in the polls and that the vote should be annulled.
But another US-based think tank, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, criticized the OAS findings, claiming there were no anomalies in the elections and warning against “politicizing what is normally an independent process of election observation.” .
As protests grew in November, police forces across the country also joined the movement. The head of the Bolivian armed forces, General Williams Kaliman, also “recommended” Morales to resign amid social upheaval, the Associated Press reported.
On November 10, Morales announced his resignation, claiming that the armed forces had colluded with the opposition to stage a coup against him. He returned on November 9, 2020 after his former finance minister, Luis Arce, won the presidential election.