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Bolivia Twice Delays Elections, Citing Pandemic

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's hard to delay presidential elections in the United States - yet in some countries, you can. In Bolivia, the authorities have repeatedly postponed elections, citing the coronavirus pandemic. NPR's Philip Reeves says that's triggered protests across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting, unintelligible).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: High in the Andes Mountains, Bolivians are on the march.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting, unintelligible).

REEVES: These are miners and union activists. There are Indigenous women in hats and big, brightly colored traditional skirts. This march, recorded by a locally based journalist, is through the city of El Alto near the capital of La Paz. It's one of many protests in recent days. Heidi Motino, an accountancy student, is among those who've been taking to the streets.

HEIDI MOTINO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "This government's illegitimate," says Motino, speaking via WhatsApp. "We never elected it."

Nine months have elapsed since Evo Morales, Bolivia's first Indigenous president, was driven from power amid allegations of electoral fraud that are still disputed. An interim government was installed, led by a Christian conservative, Jeanine Anez. Her mandate is simply to transition to elections, says Linda Farthing, who lives in Bolivia and has written extensively about it.

LINDA FARTHING: That's what an interim government is supposed to do. It's supposed to minimize its role in policy, and it's supposed to hold elections - nothing else.

REEVES: Farthing says it's gone well beyond that.

FARTHING: The government has been going after its enemies and consolidating power, instituting policies that should not be instituted by an interim government.

REEVES: Bolivia's electoral authorities have postponed the elections twice, citing the pandemic. The unions, social organizations and leftist supporters of Evo Morales see this as a threat to democracy. They've been blocking highways around the country.

COVID-19 hasn't so far hit Bolivia as hard as neighboring Brazil, Chile and Peru, yet it is causing mayhem. The police have collected many hundreds of bodies from homes, cars and streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING POTS)

REEVES: Videos have appeared online of a prison where inmates protest on the roof, demanding medical support. Dr. Jose Antonio Viruez is head of intensive care at a hospital in El Alto.

JOSE ANTONIO VIRUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Viruez says many patients are dead when they're delivered to his hospital after going from one hospital to another in search of treatment. He says he's not politically partisan, but as a medical professional, he's against the street protests.

VIRUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: They're counterproductive, says Viruez. There'll be more infections. As the pandemic grows in Bolivia, so do political tensions. The government's accused protesters of endangering coronavirus victims by blocking highways and cutting off oxygen deliveries.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ARTURO MURILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Protest leaders say they're letting medical supplies through. "Lift the blockades," says government minister Arturo murillo at a press conference. "Otherwise, we'll do it for you." Those words aren't taken lightly in Bolivia. The interim government has a history of confronting opponents.

THOMAS BECKER: Bolivians are experiencing one of the most repressive periods since it became a democracy nearly 40 years ago.

REEVES: Thomas Becker is from Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic.

BECKER: The government has violated the freedom of press by targeting journalists who have criticized them and by shutting down stations. And the government has targeted human rights defenders and politicians who have spoken out against them.

REEVES: Becker's one of the authors of a report about the interim government's human rights record. It says security forces killed 23 Indigenous Bolivians during protests just after Anez took office. The government's condemned the report as one-sided. Bolivia's electoral authorities say the election will be held on the 18 of October. The candidates include Jeanine Anez. Her opponents accuse her of delaying elections to buy time to unify the right wing. "We've proved willing to protest in a pandemic even though everyone knows it's risky," says Heidi Motino, the accountancy student.

MOTINO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Our rights are being abused, she says. Motino says she plans to go on taking to the streets to ensure she has the chance to elect the people who govern her. Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.