SIM REPORT: Latin America & Caribbean, Issue 3

BOLIVIA, MEXICO & SPAIN: Diplomatic dispute highlights Bolivian foreign policy shift

On 30 December 2019, Bolivia expelled Mexican ambassador María Teresa Mercado in response to Mexico’s decision to host several of exiled former president Evo Morales’ senior officials in its embassy in La Paz. Bolivia’s centre-right government, led by President Jeanine Añez, also expelled two Spanish diplomats on suspicion that Madrid sought to help one of Morales’ ex-officials leave Mexico’s embassy. Several of those in the embassy are wanted by the current Bolivian administration for crimes including sedition and terrorism. In response, Spain expelled three Bolivian diplomats, however Mexico, which briefly hosted Morales as a political exile before he was awarded the same status in Argentina, has not retaliated.

The diplomatic row centres on Mexico’s decision to grant refuge at its embassy in La Paz to nine people linked to Morales’ former government. Mexico has, for decades, granted political asylum to exiled political leaders, particularly those from leftist parties. Among those in the embassy are Juan Ramón Quintana, Morales’ former chief of staff, and Javier Eduardo Zavaleta López, a former defence minister. Although Mexico’s decision to host the officials is within international law, Bolivia’s centre-right administration has sought to convey its displeasure through the expulsion of Mexican and Spanish diplomatic personnel.

The dispute highlights the noteworthy change in Bolivia’s foreign policy stance since Morales’ departure in November 2019. Unlike Morales, who aligned Bolivia closely with other left-leaning Latin American governments, such as those in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, Añez has prioritised improving relations with the US and recognised Venezuelan national assembly leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim president. The government’s decision to expel diplomats from Mexico and Spain, both of which have centre-left leaders and have previously had close relations with Bolivia, is a reflection of La Paz’s new foreign policy approach in the new Añez government.

For organisations with interests in Bolivia, however, the case highlights a lack of medium- and long-term stability in the landlocked South American country’s politics. Following the disputed elections held in October 2019, which prompted protests and eventually led to Morales’ resignation, voters will go to the polls in a new general election on 3 May. The presidential race, which will proceed to a run-off if no candidate secures a majority or more than 40 per cent of the vote and a 10 per cent lead over their nearest rival, is likely to be a race between a candidate for Morales’ MAS party and a centre or centre-right opposition figure, likely either Añez or the leading contender in the previous election, centrist former president Carlos Mesa.

The future trajectory of Bolivia’s foreign policy is therefore highly dependent on the outcome of May’s presidential election. The most recent opinion poll, published on 2 January by local research firm Ciesmori, has the undetermined candidate from Morales’ MAS party ahead on 20.7 per cent of the vote, followed by Añez on 15.6 per cent and Mesa with 13.8 per cent. The election, however, is likely to become a race between one pro-, and one anti-Morales candidate. In the likely event that no candidate secures a first-round victory, a majority of voters will likely coalesce around an anti-Morales figure, most likely either Añez or Mesa. Internationally, both Añez or Mesa would prioritise improving relations with the US, major Latin American economies such as Brazil, and EU countries, although Mesa would likely also seek to strengthen ties to leftist administrations in the region, including in Argentina and Mexico.

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