Joel D. Hirst Headshot

Evo Quietly Consolidates Power

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In the early morning of Dec. 20, a Bolivian judge ordered the arrest of Ruben Costas, governor of Santa Cruz state. Situated in the lowlands of the Bolivian heartland, Santa Cruz is the wealthiest of Bolivia's constitutionally autonomous provinces. Costas, subpoenaed to appear at a court in La Paz as witness in an ongoing (and controversial) trial regarding an alleged separatist plan for his state, has said that regional autonomy should allow him to testify in his home state. The La Paz-based judge disagreed.

Santa Cruz is the last stronghold of opposition governance. Only this weekend, the regional legislature of Beni (controlled by supporters of President Evo Morales) suspended their opposition governor, Ernesto Suarez, on orders from the central government. Suarez is accused of "economic damages" to the state for irregularities in the purchase of a generator for the small village of San Borja.

Representative democracy in Bolivia is facing its toughest challenge in years.

In October of this year, Bolivia held an unprecedented election to select the nation's judges. The vote, which was fraught with irregularities and claims of manipulation in the candidate selection process, handed President Morales control of the country's judicial power in an election where the protest "null and blank vote" obtained more votes than the candidates themselves.

Morales already has a majority in the Congress and controls the Supreme Electoral Council.

The last step for full control of the country has been the "autonomous" provincial governors. By using obscure laws and trumped up charges, President Morales has been able to remove three of the four opposition governors; one has been jailed, one fled to Paraguay, and one was fired. Costas is the only one remaining. The governor has stated he has no intention of going to La Paz, and the La Paz-based judge has ordered the arrest warrant served on Jan. 2, 2012.

This is a classic example of 21st century authoritarianism. Countries as far ranging as Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Uganda use agreed-upon functions of democratic governance -- such as elections, or transparency laws -- but warp the outcomes toward their partisan political objectives. Meanwhile the global institutions established in the 20th century to deal with more blatant violations of human rights from totalitarian communist regimes or military dictatorships are not able to keep up.

This is the key challenge for the new generation of freedom fighters and democracy promoters; who must carefully present and steadfastly defend the tried and true principles of liberal, representative democracy. Yet it remains just as important a task.

As the Bolivians are finding out, the institutions of 21st century authoritarianism offer them no better protection for their fundamental, inalienable, irreversible and un-renounceable human rights than did those of the last century.