Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

The Coup d’État that Wasn’t. Does the Latest Revolt in Bolivia Reveal Limitations of a Concept or the Failure of Scholars Using it?

Franz Xavier Barrios-Suvelza, Erfurt University 

The latest events in Bolivia unleashed a vivid polemic in the media on whether the unconventional interruption of Evo Morales’ mandate as of this 10th of November was a coup d’État. I claim that the Bolivian case reveals the need to rethink whether the category coup d’État can be reasonably applied to cases in which the ruler being ousted has himself broken constitutional rules. In most accounts the idea of a coup d’État implies an interruption of the legal order. Admittedly, interrupting the leadership of the executive is the most telling trait of this sudden change of the political setting. Yet, a coup d’État itself is part of something bigger. Namely, the break of a specific state of legality including related constitutional rules. If the coup d’État means damaging a specific prevailing state legality, does it make sense to use this concept for describing the case of Evo Morales, if the interruption of his mandate did not break but repair what was already broken in legal and constitutional terms? I think we need a different concept to avoid conceptual stretching. So, let’s not speak of a coup, but of a remboîtement d’État.

Since 2013 the constitutional and legal body regulating access to the heights of state power in Bolivia was repeatedly violated by Evo Morales. The boldest violation occurred in 2016 when he disrespected the referendum he convoked, aiming at modifying Art. 168 of the Bolivian constitution that forbids more than two mandates for the president. In 2015 he bypassed this constitutional clause, drawing on a decision of the Constitutional Court (Constitutional declaration 003/2013) strategically packed by him. After losing the referendum of 2016, the also packed Electoral Court refused to abide by the electoral law that obliges it to enforce the results of a referendum (Art. 15 of the Bolivian electoral law). Morales then imposed his candidacy for the elections of 2019 in spite of the unconstitutionality of such an attempt, after forcing the servile Constitutional Court to interpret the constitution in his favor by declaring the eternal reelection of a ruler as a human right (Decision of the Constitutional Court 0084/17).

In light of these facts, the fraud in the elections of October 2019 that Morales’s party organized, while concurrently representing a breach of the law, was nothing but the icing of the cake. The constitutionally backed installation of the transitory new president Añez, a few hours after Morales’s resignation, repaired a constitutional collapse that Bolivia underwent for many years.

But there is more to this. It turns out that the category coup d’État in this case is inappropriate not only because no breach of state legality took place, since this legality was already broken, but because other parameters attributed to a coup d´État were also absent. One of these parameters concerns the role of the Bolivian military during these events. Most of the observers that hastily labeled the Bolivian upheaval as a coup took the advice for Morales to step down, given by the head of the armed forces General Kaliman, as the decisive fact. Prestigious scholars, experienced journalists, romantic and fanatic endorsers of Morales, and Morales himself, suddenly fraternized around this conclusion. Professor Levitsky, a profound expert on the region and an outstanding scholar, concluded overconfidently in an interview with O Globo that there was no doubt that what happened in Bolivia was a coup dÉtat. His proof was the mentioned appeal of General Kaliman. That after Evo’s escape the military played absolutely no role in filling the power vacuum, and that there is no proof of a preconceived military plot to remove Morales, all seems irrelevant to Professor Levitsky’s assessment. Professor Levitsky further overlooks that the appointment of the new president was constitutional (following Art. 169/I of the Bolivian constitution). Moreover, the formula that General Kaliman used in his bizarre appearance a few hours before Morales resigned is explicitly backed by Bolivian military law (Art. 20/b of the Law 1405). All observers that view the military issue in the Bolivian affair as the proof for a coup have not only naively overstated the role of General Kaliman, they have simply ignored all nuances, backgrounds and consequences of the evolution of the Bolivian army after more than 35 years of democracy in Bolivia.

There are also additional parameters for assessing the presence of a coup d’État not met in the Bolivian case. According to Power and Thyne (2011), a coup has to be illegal in order to distinguish it from those social revolts that are not automatically considered to be illegal, even if they end in a president’s resignation. This kind of citizen revolt is the result of the constitutionally granted freedom of association. Moreover, Power and Thyne remind us that a coup has to be pursued by actors from within the state apparatus. In the Bolivian case forces from within the state apparatus were not the driving force that led to Morales’s exit, nor was the social pressure that cornered him of an illegal character.

To be sure, both categories, the coup d’État and the remboîtement d’État, share common traits. Both include the interruption of a president’s mandate before its regular time by means other than the ballots. Furthermore, both share the quality of being mere techniques of sudden and unconventional disruption of the current ways of accessing and exercising state power, and both should be defined independently of specific public policies that may ensue after their application, irrespective of the ideological backgrounds of those engaging in such techniques.

During discussions of the overthrow of Morales, the word coup d’Etat has served multifarious functions. For instance, followers of Morales and intellectuals, who much too often romanticized the deep change that Bolivia experienced under Morales, use this concept to internationally delegitimize the alleged “right-wing, oligarchic, racist and deeply religious“ newcomers. Curiously enough, some scholars presented the word coup d’État as a rather technical and parsimonious concept. According to them, one should not refrain from calling things by their name, even if the social forces behind the latest Bolivian crisis happened to be citizens being sincere and right in their deep discontent over the trajectory of governance. The call for analytic parsimony makes sense, but only if the observer himself breaks free from sloppy fact-gathering, paternalistic approaches, romantic pictures, and cliché-driven assumptions in the first place.

Suggested citation: Franz Xavier Barrios-Suvelza, The Coup d’État that Wasn’t. Does the Latest Revolt in Bolivia Reveal Limitations of a Concept or the Failure of Scholars Using it? December 8, 2019, at:


2 responses to “The Coup d’État that Wasn’t. Does the Latest Revolt in Bolivia Reveal Limitations of a Concept or the Failure of Scholars Using it?”

  1. Bartolome Clavero Avatar

    Bad try. Morales’ unconstitutional movements are true, but his substitution by a racist government has been even more unconstitutional. There you have a failed self-coup, that of Morales, and a full coup, that of the present government. ¿May I refer to my own analysis (in Spanish)?

  2. Andrew Arato Avatar
    Andrew Arato

    excellent try, well done, Prof. Barrios-Sulveza. Of Mr. Clavero I would ask, first, what was the constitutional order that was interrupted or ruptured, the one that was negotiated in 2008-2009 or the one that was mangled by Pres. Morales unconstitutional, i.e. the result of a real, not failed, autogolpe. Second, what should be the political aim of those fearing a right wing revolution?

    Arato, Andrew: Coup, Revolution, or Negotiated Regime Change, VerfBlog, 2019/11/29,

    there I also argue how counterproductive politically the talk of a coup may very well be.

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