MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much, and thanks to everyone who’s joining the call with us on Veteran’s Day. So we certainly appreciate it. And for all the vets on the line, thank you for your service.
This is [Moderator], obviously. I do have [redacted] on the line, who may have to take over for me.
But as you know, we’re monitoring today the quickly unfolding events in Bolivia and the resignation of President Evo Morales and Vice President Garcia Linera yesterday. The Secretary is following this very carefully and issued a statement yesterday regarding the importance of democracy in Bolivia and our entire hemisphere. Ours is a hemisphere of freedom and democracy, and what happens in Bolivia matters for all of us.
So joining us today for this background call is [Senior State Department Official One] who will be referred to going forward as Senior State Department Official Number One. Also on the line is [Senior State Department Official Two] who will be referred to from this point on as Senior State Department Official Two.
Just a reminder, today’s call is on background and is embargoed until it ends. Official One is going to open with brief remarks and then we will take a few questions. Go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. Thank you very much. First off, I think it’s important to say that during this tense period of transition in Bolivia, we’re calling on everyone to step back, to refrain from violence, and to observe the rule of law.
Now this is a significant moment for Bolivia and for democracy in our hemisphere. And though we admire what the people of Bolivia are standing up for, which is upholding their constitution, democratic principles, and calling for legitimacy of their own electoral process, and they’ve been struggling to make their voices heard since October 20th and really – the day of their national election and really from well before that.
Their 2009 constitution limits a president to two consecutive terms of office. Now in a referendum in 2016, voters defeated a bid by President Morales to procure public support to remove those term limits. But his government rejected that result and the next year, in 2017, he obtained permission from the constitutional court – a constitutional court really composed by his supporters fundamentally – to run again for president, in spite of the limits imposed by the constitution in that 2016 referendum.
Despite these actions, Bolivians went to the polls on October 20th, hoping for a credible and transparent election, but only to find irregularities on the day of voting, and this included an abrupt suspension of transmission of preliminary election results. And after that, civil society groups quickly organized and, as you’ve seen, larger and larger protests have occurred throughout the country for these weeks since.
Now supporters of the government interrupted many of these protests after Morales called on them to defend his administration. And unfortunately, over the course of these days, at least four people have died in civil unrest, and hundreds have been – excuse me – hundreds have been injured; many homes and businesses have been damaged. In fact, this kind of violence from any quarter is just not the way democracy is conducted, and we really call on people to step back from that sort of a conflict.
Now during these days, the call for elections that truly represent the will of the people has broadened. And we’ve seen protesters and even eventually people from the public security forces, the police in every major city, begin to join in with the broader protest.
Now the Morales administration itself had invited the Organization of American States to observe these elections, and following the irregularities of October 20th they conducted a close review of the electoral process. And the OAS has released a report based on the findings of their technical mission that conducted that closer review, and that technical review cited egregious irregularities and evidence of manipulation of the vote. They recommended new elections take place with a new electoral court.
Now the U.S. and others have supported this – these OAS recommendations. And initially, shortly after October 20th, President Morales, first agreed to new elections and a new TSC, and then announced his resignation soon after. He, his vice president, senior officials, elected officials, and many other ministers have followed suit and have been resigning.
You have surely seen statements by Morales and his supporters calling him the victim of a coup, despite the fact that what all these events clearly show is the Bolivian people have simply had enough of a government ignoring the will of its voters. And continued incitement and unrest and violence to feed this false narrative is simply damaging Bolivian democracy.
After nearly 14 years and his recent attempts to override the Bolivian constitution and the will of the people of his own country, the resignation of Evo Morales should be accepted by the National Assembly in order to preserve a democracy and pave the way for the Bolivian people to have elections, truly free and fair that reflect their will. We call on the National Assembly to convene, to provide the quorum required, and to determine a constitutional transition to new elections as soon as possible.
And it’s important to emphasize the requirement and that the means exist for a constitutional transition, one in accordance with their own experience, Bolivia’s own standards and with the principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. And we’re going to continue to work with our international partners to ensure that Bolivians have the opportunity that they deserve to freely establish democracy and constitutional order in their country.
MODERATOR: Okay. Great. Thanks. You ready for questions?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes, indeed.
MODERATOR: Fabulous. Okay, Nicole.
OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question on the call, please press 1 then 0 on your phone keypad. Again, 1, 0 if you have a question. If your question does get answered and you wish to remove yourself from the queue, please press 1, 0 again.
One moment for our first question.
And our first question is from the line of Courtney McBride with Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this call. Evo Morales did not submit a formal letter of resignation, and there have been some expressions of support from others in the region, notably in Mexico and Argentina. And I’m just wondering, is there a sense that he may look to return to office, particularly given this rhetoric about being the victim of a coup? And what efforts, if any, is the U.S. taking to back Carlos Mesa or to help stabilize the situation in Bolivia?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We don’t have any particular preference among candidates or anything of the sort. We’re focused on preserving the democratic principles that should govern this hemisphere and to the democratic and constitutional order in Bolivia. Evo Morales announced his resignation, and he did so publicly. It is for the – as I understand the rules of the Bolivian constitution – for the National Assembly to accept that, that resignation officially, in order to preserve the constitutional succession under their laws. And we hope that the members of the National Assembly will meet and establish the quorum that will allow that process to move forward.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Let me add that there is a draft of the – sorry – a copy of the resignation letter circulating. We’re trying to determine if that is actually a valid document or something else that somebody fabricated, but we have seen a draft that has been signed.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Matt Spetalnick with Reuters. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much. Can you tell us what, if any, contacts has the Trump administration, the U.S. diplomats, or even the U.S. military had with the opposition or even the Bolivian military? And if there has been such contacts, what’s the message that they’ve sent to them? And what concern, if any, do you have about the political vacuum that currently exists?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Official Number Two, would you like to take the first stab at that?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: In terms of the political vacuum, it appears that today or tomorrow there could be an interim president sworn in. That interim president would have 90 days to organize elections, which would have to take place within 90 days to organize a new president – to have a new president take office. And all this is under the current constitution. So if the interim president can be sworn in very quickly, that would help the public order, and there would be no constitutional break.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: In the terms of the first part of your question, the U.S. mission keeps in touch with people across the political spectrum in any country all over the world, in any mission. But fundamentally from the department, we’ve – the message that we’ve put out, and we have had no direct contact in – since the 20th of October, so I’d – it’s a public message, which is follow the norms and the standards of the constitution, clear and transparent elections, a definitive – place your trust in the voters and listen to their voice that this has to be a democratic and a constitutional, a civilian-led process, that public security forces should provide public security, and that the civil society and political actors are the ones who have to take responsibility for the future of their country, as is stated in their own constitution.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Cliff Krauss with The New York Times. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks for taking my call. So my first question is if the legislative assembly is not meeting and we don’t know exactly when they will meet to accept these resignations, and I’m wondering if that may be because of negotiations going on with the MAS to reach a quorum.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I expect that the legislative assembly will meet today, again, or tomorrow. It’s not meeting now but – and it would be correct to say that it would be important to have a quorum and that talks are ongoing to make sure that MAS deputies are there to form a quorum. Some of the MAS deputies need to be worried about security, now that their government’s going out of power, but it’s an ongoing effort. We hope that it will – obviously will take place sooner rather than later. That would fill the vacuum in leadership here on the ground.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And it’s – and to add to that, I – it’s important in any political system that people who have taken on the responsibility of democratic roles, elected rolls fulfill those mandates. And we certainly hope that all members of the assembly participate fully, first. And I think it’s important to say that they have the absolute right to participate fully in the political debates that their country are facing without hindrance, without threats, without violence, and that they deserve the protections that go with their office and as their roles as citizens. But secondly, that they have a responsibility to participate in those debates. And we certainly hope that all, from all political parties, come to help form that quorum and so that the country can democratically set its course in accordance with its constitution.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Shaun Tandon with the AFP. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, thanks for doing this call. Could I just follow up on one of the statements I believe by Senior Official Number Two, saying that this process should civilian led. In light – I know you said that you don’t consider this a coup. What role do you see for the armed forces at this point? Is there any message that you’re conveying to them? And if I could also ask you on Venezuela, the Maduro government has said that its embassy is overrun by protestors in La Paz. Do you have any information on that and any reaction or any dialogue in terms of what’s happening there? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The first – the second question first. There have been a number of demonstrations on the street. Last night in La Paz there were demonstrations at El Alto, where the airport is. It’s one of the working-class neighborhoods. There were quite difficult demonstrations. In many cases, very violent. In (inaudible) among middle-class areas, violent demonstrations as well. A number of people were forced from their houses. But there are protests on both sides, both pro-MAS and pro-opposition.
What’s important is to reconstitute the civilian government, get the police working again. To the extent that a protest is extremely violent, the military might want to supplement the police. But again, the military would need to be under police control because the police are civilians. It’s important to maintain civilian control and not move to a world where – a world of the past, where the military is not under civilian control then dominates.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: If I can say one thing on – we just recently celebrated or marked – I can’t call it a celebration by any means – the anniversary of the taking of our mission in Iran years ago. We take very seriously the inviolability of diplomatic missions, and we call on everyone involved in this circumstance, or in any situation of unrest anywhere to respect that inviolability. Now, that said – and I say that even recognizing the disputed nature of the institution that Mr. Maduro purports to call an embassy – there’s no place for violence in these kinds of – these kinds of situations.
OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to Luis Alonso with the Associated Press. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thank you very much for this call. I would like to do a follow-up on this topic of whether or not this is a coup d’etat. Some governments in the region have said that because the military made a request to President Morales to step down, that already constitutes a coup d’etat even though the military didn’t raise arms or didn’t act in a military kind of way. And the other part of the argument that some people are making is that this is a coup d’etat because of the vacuum of power and the constitutional order and therefore it’s a coup d’etat. If you could please address those two points. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The Organization of American States, invited into Bolivia by the administration of Evo Morales, found that the electoral authority manipulated the vote on behalf of Morales and his political supporters.
This uncertainty and this – these facts from shortly after the vote on the 20th created an atmosphere of popular protest which extended, eventually, to include groups affiliated with Mr. Morales’s own political party. And our understanding is that what happened in fact is that people serving in the public security forces, in the police, declined to repress these protests, and later that members of the armed forces declined to repress these protests, and at that point Evo Morales resigned when leaders of the security forces pointed out the obvious, that he had – he had lost the faith of the public and that the – how would you put it? And that the public security situation had become exceptionally grave.
We hope that all – there have been many resignations, but there are – there is still a constitutional structure and there is still a clear line in their constitution for creating a legitimate succession of authority, and we hope that all members of all political parties participate fully in creating a quorum that will allow that process to move forward. In short, if there is a vacuum of power, there are people who clearly have it in their – within their reach to help reestablish a legitimate structure of governance.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Let me add actually one other item. In the wake of the 2003 gas riots when dozens of people died in Bolivia at the hands of security forces, the Bolivian congress passed a law requiring prior to the armed forces engaging with the public in the event that a riot takes hold, they receive explicit, written orders from the president. We have no evidence that says the president gave such explicit, written orders. Therefore, the military would have been unable to engage under the law.
So faced with that, faced with a situation where there’s increasing public disorder, without the legal basis to actually (inaudible) that, that’s how this – the suggestion came from the military that the president might want to depart.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Anthony Faoila with The Washington Post. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Is it your opinion that MAS should be able to field a candidate in new elections, or are you arguing that because the socialists were implicated in election fraud that they should stand down completely from the next vote?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Our position is that people who were directly implicated in trying to distort the outcome of the elections should not participate in that – in the follow-on election. That does not have any – that’s not a statement about any political party.
OPERATOR: And we have time for one more question, and that will come from Nick Schifrin with the PBS NewsHour. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hey, guys. Thanks very much for doing this. I want to go back to one of the core questions of whether this was a coup. We’ve just seen a presidential statement, your statements before. It’s a bit of a Rorschach test, though, given that people who I’ve talked to today on whether this was a coup or wasn’t a coup. So I’m just hoping that you could answer a couple of think-tankers who have argued that this was a coup, which, in fact, the movement on the streets was not across the board, was not representative, that what the military did was not constitutional, and the majority of the people’s voices weren’t heard because the protesters were almost exclusively middle-class. Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There were protesters from all walks of life. The protesters from MAS are accused of assaulting miners and others who were trying to go to La Paz to peacefully exercise their rights. There are other charges that middle-class protesters and opposition forces assaulted MAS. It’s – there’s been violence on both sides. There’s too much violence on both sides. A lot of violence last night – burning of buses, burning of houses, by all sides. And my strong hope is that that does not occur tonight.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: If I could add only one small thing. I think it’s important to recognize, and I think that a lot of people who’ve looked at Bolivia over the long haul have recognized. There are two things that have been going on. The Bolivia that existed when I (inaudible) became a public servant was a Bolivia with severe challenges of social inclusion and a remarkable degree of stratification, and that has not ended but it’s changed radically, and there are radical new opportunities over the last decade and a half for opportunities for people from social classes previously excluded from public life and from a broad swath of the economy. That’s one thing, and that should be praised.
But stealing elections, stealing the results in order to stifle the popular will, well, that’s another thing. And I think it’s a bit – probably a little bit simplistic to boil this down to a question of class or perhaps ethnicity in such a complex set of circumstances. And I hope that we can focus on those principles that we all here in this hemisphere focus on, and have tried to focus on for years, and that – and those principles are the Inter-American Democratic Charter, those principles that people can set their own course in the world. As a sovereign, we want Bolivians to be able to do that in their own way, but within those democratic norms that we’ve all agreed are important for us to follow here in the Western Hemisphere.
OPERATOR: I’ll turn it back to the presenters, if you have any closing comments.
MODERATOR: No, just thanks very much, everyone, for getting on the call on a holiday, and we will see most of you at the State Department tomorrow. Thank you very much.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you kindly.
OPERATOR: All right, ladies and gentlemen, that does conclude your conference for today. Thank you for your participation. You may now disconnect.