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Bolivia Struggling To Transition To New Elections Following Fall Of Evo Morales


It has been two weeks since Evo Morales fell from power in Bolivia, following mass protests over allegations of electoral fraud. There is now a right-wing interim president, whose appointment triggered more deadly protests. She has forged an agreement with Morales' Socialist party over holding elections. Yet deep divisions remain, particularly over religion.

NPR's Philip Reeves was recently in the capital La Paz and filed this report.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Heidy Motino is an accountancy student. She's 22. She's also an Indigenous Bolivian. Her people have been around here since long before Spanish colonialists invaded some five centuries ago.


REEVES: Motino's among a crowd calling for the return of her hero, Bolivia's first Indigenous president, Evo Morales.

HEIDY MOTINO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Morales doesn't discriminate against anyone," says Motino. She's fearful that'll now change under Bolivia's interim president, Jeanine Anez. Anez is a conservative Christian and former senator who's a staunch opponent of Morales. She arrived in the presidential palace nearly two weeks ago, flourishing a huge Bible.


JEANINE ANEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "God's bringing the Bible back into the palace," Anez declares. For Motino, that set off alarm bells.

MOTINO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "It's lamentable," she says. "Politicians shouldn't misuse the Bible like this." Many in this crowd agree. They interpret Anez's Bible brandishing as a sign of intolerance, evoking a colonial past in which Indigenous people and their beliefs were brutally repressed.

VIDAL ALARCON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Politicians have misused the Bible to dominate our people since the conquest of America began," says Vidal Alarcon, who's a farmer.

Bolivia's mostly Catholic, yet religion is complicated here. Different faiths entwine.

LINDA FARTHING: It's Catholic, but it's a lot of Catholic syncretism with Indigenous religious beliefs.

REEVES: Linda Farthing lives in Bolivia and has written extensively about its Indigenous groups.

FARTHING: They have a great reverence for place, for the earth mother. It's a - very much a nature-based set of religious practices.

REEVES: By walking into the palace waving the Bible, Anez seemed to be hitting a reset button.

KATHRYN LEDEBUR: It's a whole reshaping of the discourse around religious symbolism and, I think, superiority.

REEVES: That's Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a nongovernmental organization specializing in human rights.


MOTINO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Heidy Motino, the accountancy student, says she believes in God. She also reveres Earth Mother, the highly popular ancient Andean deity symbolizing life and fertility, otherwise known as Pachamama. The freedom to do this matters greatly to Motino.

MOTINO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "That's why Bolivia is a plurinational state," she says.

MOTINO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: The words plurinational state were added to Bolivia's official name in 2009 during Morales' first term. It was part of a new constitution recognizing the country's 36 Indigenous groups, who are about 40% of the population. The charter also recognized their freedom of worship.

The campaign to oust Morales was dominated by a business magnate and conservative Christian named Luis Fernando Camacho. On the day Morales resigned, Camacho arrived at the presidential palace with a flag, a Bible and a priest.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "The Bible's back," says the priest. "Pachamama will never return." That video went viral. It was a big blow to Indigenous Bolivians, says Jorge Derpic, a Latin American specialist at the University of Georgia.

JORGE DERPIC: That is just brutal for a large part of the population who have been included in the government of Morales.

REEVES: Bolivia's interim government must now guide a deeply polarized nation to elections. It says it wants to create unity and that when President Anez waved that huge Bible, she wasn't being divisive. Yet there have been disturbing incidents of people burning the Indigenous flag and scrawling racist graffiti.

Heidy Motino, the accountancy student, thinks in these troubled times, Bolivians need to remember something.

MOTINO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "God asks us to love each other," she says. "He doesn't talk about people being black or white, and he doesn't say, go to war."

Philip Reeves, NPR News, La Paz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.