Editorial: Passing the Test of Justice: On the Coup in Bolivia

After October’s Amazon synod called for “an emphatic rejection of ‘colonial-style evangelization’ and ‘proselytism,’ in favor of an inculturated proclamation that promotes a Church with an Amazonian face, with full respect for and parity with the history, the culture, and the lifestyle of the local populations,” the forced removal of Bolivian president Evo Morales by nationalistic Christians backed by military and police forces in November was especially distressing. The synod seemed to signal a new attitude on the part of the church toward indigenous populations, one that might reorient the hearts and minds of Catholics from a place of fear and defensiveness to one of openness and humility. Sadly, as events in Bolivia make clear, a climate of fear still dominates.

Morales’s ouster was led by Luis Fernando Camacho, a 40-year-old lawyer and millionaire heir who previously served as the vice president of the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, or Santa Cruz Youth Union (UJC). According to Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton of the independent news website the Grayzone, the UJC qualifies as “a fascist paramilitary organization that has been linked to assassination plots against Morales,” and is “notorious for assaulting leftists, Indigenous peasants, and journalists, all while espousing a deeply racist, homophobic ideology.” Mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times classified Camacho benignly as a “civic leader” while ignoring his connections to the UJC and its history of violence, racism, and misogyny.

At Patheos.com, Michael Stone made the comparison between Camacho and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro: “Both men share a contempt for indiginous [sic] peoples and cultures, while promoting a virulent and violent strain of evangelical Christianity.” Camacho and Bolsonaro are staunch defenders of the economic elite within their countries, and favor powerful corporate interests over democratic initiatives.

From a purely economic standpoint, it is hard to argue that Bolivia did not experience gains under the Morales government. During his tenure, extreme poverty was reduced by 60 percent, the unemployment rate was halved, and real GDP per capita increased by 50 percent, growing at twice the rate of other Latin American countries. Yet because these improvements redounded to the population as a whole and not just a handful of wealthy plutocrats, one suspects that detractors such as Camacho are at least partially motivated by the loss of their privileged status. As the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador Guillaume Long stated in an interview with the analyst Michael Brooks, many Latin American elites “prefer inequality to prosperity”; they would rather keep their place in an unequal hierarchy secure than be part of a development model that attempts to lift all.

This is not to say that Morales’s record is without flaws. He approved the construction of a highway through the TIPNIS rainforest despite opposition from the local community, and used police violence to stymie their protests. His decision to run for a fourth term, despite its technical legality, is now criticized by some—including his former United Nations ambassador, the activist Pablo Solón—as a bit of antidemocratic overreach. Former vice president Álvaro García Linera admitted in an interview with the Guardian that he and Morales “didn’t do enough to bring up a new generation” to facilitate a transfer of power. García Linera also dismissed critics from the left as “Starbucks feminists and folkloric environmentalists.”

None of this changes the fact that the way Morales was deposed from office—with police mutinies in major cities and the intervention of the military—was a coup. In the days before Morales’s forced resignation, members of his party, the Movimiento al Socialismo, or Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), had their houses burned and relatives kidnapped as a means of intimidation. Morales’s self-appointed successor, the ultra-conservative Jeanine Áñez, had no clear constitutional path to the presidency: she was previously serving as vice president of the Senate and installed herself as its president, and then the president of Bolivia, without the necessary quorum. When MAS officials tried to hold a counter meeting to challenge Áñez, police prevented them from entering the government building.

Áñez’s party only won 4 percent of the vote in Bolivia’s October elections. Soon after taking power, she granted impunity to police forces, essentially giving them free reign to suppress dissent. This drew a stern rebuke from Amnesty International, who warned that the decree “allows possible human rights violations and crimes under international law committed by members of the Armed Forces to go unpunished.”

Like Camacho, Áñez has a history of racist and anti-indigenous sentiment. “I dream of a Bolivia without satanic indigenous rituals, the city isn’t made for indians [sic], they need to go back to the countryside!” she tweeted in 2013. During her first public appearance as president, she lifted a Bible into the air and stated, “The Bible has returned to the palace!” A few days prior, Camacho entered the presidential palace with a pastor and knelt before a Bible placed atop a Bolivian flag. The pastor declared that “Pachamama will never return to the palace,” a reference to the goddess of the earth revered by Andean peoples.

It is the Francoist-inspired Christian nationalism of Áñez, Camacho, and their allies that should alarm Catholics worldwide. As individual Christians, we are called to a place of kenosis, or self-emptying, on behalf of others; this means being so secure in our faith that we can open ourselves to experience the gifts that others have to share with us. If we truly seek conversion of hearts, it will not come about by coercion, force, or repression of others’ beliefs, but rather by modeling—or at least attempting to model—a Christlike humility that encounters each person as one for whom God poured out his life.

Our church, too, in this particular historical moment, is called to a collective kenosis that empties itself in service to the poor, the marginalized, the distrusted and discarded among us. These include the indigenous communities in Bolivia that Áñez and Camacho would cast aside, paradoxically, in the name of God. Here the words of Matthew Fox, a former Catholic priest whose concept of “Creation Spirituality” now seems prescient in light of climate change, income inequality, and the struggle for indigenous rights, might provide a corrective: “Creation spirituality liberates Roman Catholicism from its flirtations with fascism . . . for it insists that not all mysticisms are authentic, but only those that pass the test of justice.”

There are those who will argue that Morales diminished the stature of the Catholic Church in Bolivia. And it is true that under the country’s 2009 constitution, the church lost its status as a protected state religion, even though Morales remains a professed Catholic and was received by Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2018. But to respond to this by wielding the Bible as a weapon and welding the church to the apparatus of state power as Morales’s opponents propose to do disfigures the faith. It turns it into a tool of oppression rather than the light by which we image Christ to others in gentleness of spirit; meet violence with its antithesis, curiosity about and interest in our fellow humans; and pray creatively and in such a way that makes connections across belief systems, not in spite of but because Christ calls us to a life of abundance.

Michael Centore
Editor, Today’s American Catholic

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