The lawyers who sit on Bolivia’s highest constitutional court have their futures cut out for them should this whole being-powerful-judges thing not work out. Perhaps they could star in the next spin-off of “Better Call Saul,” or chase ambulances somewhere, because their legal reasoning is as creative as their ethics.
The malleability of the jurists on the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal was on full display in 2017, when they granted then-President Evo Morales the ability to run for a fourth consecutive term in the landlocked South American nation. Mr. Morales, of native ancestry in a country long ruled by descendants of Spanish imperialists, had had a relatively successful presidency for his first three terms, helping to raise incomes for the poor and middle classes in the resource-rich, but impoverished Andean nation. Nonetheless, Bolivia’s voters had evidently tired of Mr. Morales — he had governed since 2006. And so when the president spearheaded a referendum in 2016 to change Bolivia’s constitution to allow him to run for a fourth straight term, it was rejected by a majority of voters.
In stepped Bolivia’s highest court. The Bolivian Constitution in its present form, they found, actually violated Evo Morales’s human rights. (Four consecutive presidential terms is on par with freedom of speech and assembly, the Solons of La Paz apparently determined.) And so Mr. Morales ran once again in the fall.
But the Bolivian leader’s fourth run was less successful than his prior bids. While he “won,” according to the Bolivian government, there were widespread irregularities, leading to mass protests. The country was largely at an impasse. Ultimately, the military stepped in and gently “encouraged” Mr. Morales to leave the country. He is now in exile in Mexico.
Was Mr. Morales’ ouster a coup? Arguably, yes. While his fourth “election” lacked legitimacy, it undoubtedly stinks when generals barge in and tell a civilian president to pack his bags.
But Mr. Morales’ departure manifestly was not an American plot. Indeed, the U.S. throughout the Bolivian president’s election bid, and the conflict that followed, had maintained a studious silence. Even now after his departure, all the U.S. has done has called for a new round of free and fair elections.
A pattern has emerged in the last few years as the United States’ global clout has waned. Attempts at pushing for regime change have tended to backfire. And those leaders who have been forced out by their restive populaces — not only Bolivia but Algeria too, most recently — were toppled absent U.S. pressure.
In both Venezuela and Syria, the U.S. for several years has been openly pushing for the fall of the incumbent regimes. As a matter of morality, this is undoubtedly correct: Venezuela’s leftist regime has brought mass immiseration to a once-wealthy country, and Bashar Assad’s Syria has set new standards of depravity during his country’s brutal civil war.
But as a practical matter, the U.S.’s posture has been disastrous. In both cases, America’s stance has spurred Russia to take action and bolster its client regimes. The U.S., of course, was never going to match Russian firepower in Syria. America rhetorical and (minimal) material support for anti-Assad forces simply spurred Russia to assert itself strongly there. And Moscow has dispatched nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuela, reasoning that the U.S. is not going to risk a broader conflict just to bring down the regime in Caracas.
In other words, America’s voicing support for regime change has in effect bolstered the very regimes we hope to see replaced.
Moscow’s zeal for protecting regimes the U.S. declares illegitimate no doubt stems from the Maidan Revolution in 2014, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown. Mr. Yanukovych (unlike, for instance, Bashar Assad) was democratically elected and was a close client of Moscow’s. But the U.S. quite openly supported the demonstrations that eventually took him down. Moscow has evidently determined that it will not allow something like that to happen again.
Teddy Roosevelt believed that America’s foreign policy posture should be to speak softly but carry a big stick. But the lessons of Bolivia, Venezuela and Syria seem to be speak softly — and put the stick down altogether.
• Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.
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