When a political crisis broke out in the South American nation late in 2019, it was painted by some opposed to the regime of then-President Eva Morales as a Christian-inspired battle against evil. 

And when Morales, who had been accused of defrauding the October election to obtain his fourth mandate, resigned on 10th November, it was presented by some as the Bible’s victory by a few of the movement’s leaders.

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Bolivia's National Legislature in the capital of La Paz. PICTURE: Ronan Crowley (licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

Yet experts say that while Christianity certainly played a role in the theatre of the crisis - which led to the resignation of Morales on 10th November and resulted in the deaths of at least 35 people with hundreds more injured, there’s since been no sign of a theocracy in sight.

Santa Cruz-based civic organiser Luis Fernando Camacho was at the forefront of those who saw Morales ousting through a religious lens.

“Her brother is a pastor at a Neo-Pentecostal church in Santa Cruz and she interprets the Andean religious practices as idolatry,”

- Julio Cordova, a sociologist and an expert in evangelical dynamics in Bolivia, speaking about Jeanine Añez, the senator who assumed the role of interim President.

A Catholic, Camacho had promised in a rally on 4th November that he would get into the presidential palace in the capital of La Paz and demand Evo Morales’ resignation with a Bible in his hand.

“I’m not coming with weapons, but with my faith and my hope. With a Bible in my right hand and his resignation letter in my left hand,” he had shouted to the crowd. On 10th November Morales finally did it; a few hours later, after the commander of the Army recommended that he should resign, he declared he would leave the presidency.

Julio Cordova, a sociologist and an expert in evangelical dynamics in Bolivia, says that while middle-class civic movement in Santa Cruz is traditionally Catholic, “it seems that Camacho, in touch with neo-Pentecostal evangelical expressions, developed a more effervescent kind of faith”.

Cordova explained that Catholics would usually ask the blessing of a priest after a rally, for instance. 

“But Camacho is not only a consumer of Catholic symbolic goods. He’s a producer of them, who asks the people to kneel down and guides them in prayer, like an evangelical pastor would do.” 

His vision of a spiritual battle between Jesus and the Bible, on the one side, and demons and idolaters, on the other, had resonance with large segments of the movement of opposition to Morales.

Jeanine Añez, the senator who stepped in as the interim President, has also made extensive use of religious elements. 

“Her brother is a pastor at a Neo-Pentecostal church in Santa Cruz and she interprets the Andean religious practices as idolatry,” explains Cordova. 

As soon as she took office, she exhibited a huge Bible and declared: “God has allowed the Bible to come back to the Palace. May He bless us.”

In 2016, Cordova continued, Añez posted on her Twitter account an attack against the celebration of the Aymara New Year, which coincides with the Guarani festivity of the Morning Star (in Spanish, Lucero de Alba). She called it “satanic” and said that “nobody replaces God”.

“The concept of the lucerois Biblically related to a demonic figure. So, she employed a technical evangelical language to say that [the Indigenous festivities] were satanic,” says Cordova.

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Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, pictured in 2017. PICTURE: Samuel Auguste/Flickr (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The success of such speeches is probably related to the growth of evangelicalism among the middle class. In Bolivia, about 75 per cent of the population is Catholic while about 20 per cent is evangelical.

“Evangelicals were stronger among the lower classes, but they have been increasing their presence in the middle class, in the media and in politics,” said Cordova.

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Sergio Montes, a Catholic priest and director of the news agency Fides based in La Paz. PICTURE: Supplied

 

“After Morales’ resignation [the Catholic bishops'] reaction was active and very relevant, issuing several statements that claimed for peace, respect for the institutions and against violence.”

- Sergio Montes, a Catholic priest and director of the news agency Fides based in La Paz.

While many Catholics, meanwhile, were not guided by a religious sense when they chose to oppose Morales’ move, but by political reasons, the use of religious symbols and ideas probably did, however, have an organising effect for them. 

“It was politically fruitful, given that the religious speech was able to touch the political conscience of the people and gave them a stronger sense of commitment,” argues Sergio Montes, a Catholic priest and director of the news agency Fides based in La Paz.

Since Evo Morales assumed power in 2006, some sectors of the Catholic Church had sided with him. But the church leadership had been generally critical of Morales at least since 2016, when he decided to ignore the result of a referendum on the possibility of a fourth mandate in which a majority of the people had voted his proposal down.

“During the November crisis, the bishops followed the events with caution and without a direct participation,” Montes says. “After Morales’ resignation, however, their reaction was active and very relevant, issuing several statements that claimed for peace, respect for the institutions and against violence.”

At the height of the crisis last year, members of the clergy played an important role giving assistance to victims of the violence on the streets and favouring spaces of dialogue, according to the lay theologian and philosopher Miguel Miranda. “Besides, the episcopate and several priests publicly declared that Morales’ overthrow was not a coup d’état.”

Roberto Tomicha, a theology professor at the Catholic Bolivian University San Pablo in Cochabamba, says that during the process of conciliation, a few bishops, including Rev Eugenio Scarpellini of El Alto, promoted dialogue between Morales’ supporters and the opposition, as well as with delegates from the United Nations and the European Union. 

“A few bishops had a significant role in the process of peace,” he says.

Tomicha adds that the interim administration is influenced by traditional Catholics, particularly conservatives connected to the business class of the eastern part of the country.

Many Catholics in Bolivia keep some traditional Andean religious practices and this has never been a problem in the country, says Fr Montes. The rising evangelical movement, however, has been largely critical of such practices – including President Añez – repeatedly speaking out against traditional beliefs and rituals connected to them.

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The Bolivian capital of La Paz in 2017. PICTURE: Belinda Grasnick/Flickr (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

During his time in government, Morales gave his support to Andean traditional religious practices, many times inviting Andean religious leaders – called amautas and yatiris – to take part in official events. 

“He used the Andean symbols to give legitimacy to his administration and even gave a sort of institutionality to the Pachamama religions,” pointed out Miranda. 

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Miguel Miranda, a lay theologian and philosopher. PICTURE: Supplied.

In November, the Andean rites were under fire during anti-Morales protests with images showing people burning the wiphala, the Andean flag.

With the next presidential election will be held on 3rd May (on 25th January interim President Añez announced she will be running), the situation remains unclear. 

“No personalities are emerging to lead the immense popular Indigenous segment. Camacho can’t connect to them. Their electoral significance is huge,” says Cordova. 

For Miranda, the religious element will not be relevant in the election, only the economy. 

“About 70 per cent of the population live in the informal sector. They want stability,” he argued.

Curiously – on the same date as the election, an important popular festivity will also take place on 3rd May, explained Cordova. 

“The Feast of the Cross is an important space of religious syncretism for Indigenous Catholics. Maybe it can entail a revitalisation of the support to Morales’ party.”