Bolivians in several of the country's major cities attended rallies Wednesday to celebrate the Day of Democracy, which marks the end of the 18-year-long military dictatorship in the South American nation.
The day took on a different meaning this year, with thousands of Evo Morales supporters defending the president's right to run for re-election in 2019, and facing off against detractors.
In La Paz, Morales, flanked by the Bolivian Workers' Confederation (COB) union, one of the main players in the country's fight to return to democracy in the early ‘80s, called on citizens to value their right to vote and live in a democracy. The 58-year-old former coca farmer, who took office 12 years ago, has faced criticism, after the Constitutional Court ruled he had the right to seek another term in office after he narrowly lost a 2016 referendum on the same topic to a "No Campaign" led by groups, which it was later revealed, received training and funding for “democracy promotion” from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
"(We must celebrate) the recovery of democracy,” Morales said. "The ones who have the right to speak for democracy are the trade unionists. Trade unionism, social forces helped us recover democracy."
Speaking to the attendees, many of whom carried multi-colored, plurinational flags bearing his image and the logo of his political party ‘MAS’ (Movement for Socialism), Morales, who came into office with the backing of unions and organized social movements throughout the country, declared a start to his re-election campaign.
"The military created a state of siege. In 12 years (since Morales came to office) there hasn't been a siege. The Bolivian people not only have a guaranteed democracy but have strengthened it," he said pledging to continue working for the interests of the majority of Bolivians.
Morales also condemned 21F counter-protests, which he described as "violent," while praising independence revelers.
"This morning we have seen four, five, ten, twenty blockades along the way so that (democracy celebrators) cannot demonstrate. They (anti-Evo demonstrators) are violent,” the president said of the 'Bolivia Said No' and 21F protestors, who also occupied the streets and squares of La Paz.
The so-called 21F protesters are working to deny Morales the right to re-election. On Feb. 21, 2016, 51.3 percent of Bolivian voters decided that Evo could not run for a third term in office. Morales, who at first said he would abstain from an additional run, threw his hat in the ring after the court ruled in November 2017 that officials could run for three consecutive terms. Morales said he made the decision to curb the United States government’s influence in the region after foreign officials said the court’s decision was “a step back for democracy.”
Counter-protesters in La Paz not only blocked pro-Morales marchers from certain streets but, according to MAS, kicked a woman dressed in traditional Indigenous clothing. Between 41 and 48 percent of Bolivia’s population identifies as Indigenous and the country is home to 38 different ethnicities, according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.
The main opposition candidate, Carlos Mesa, said at a rally in La Paz that Morales should "understand that no is no."
The leader of Bolivia moved on to the city of Sucre where he said that the right-wing seeks to "confuse the population" and are framing him as a "part of the past."
Morales declared: "The past is neoliberalism," asserting that Bolivia’s "neo-liberals are trying to disguise" and rebrand themselves.
Large pro-Morales marches also took place in Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, Tarija, Potosi, Trinidad, and Cobija. Government officials in Santa Cruz and Tarija said Morales was their candidate in 2019. Local media also reported tensions between Morales supporters and 21F counter-protesters in these cities.