The photos in this article were taken by my daughter, Thea Thunbo, back in 2010, when she travelled to Bolivia with a group of students from Krogerup Højskole. They were invited to participate in the “Peoples’ Global Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth” in the city of Cochabamba. President Evo Morales visited and spoke on this occasion.

I receive the news about President Evo Morales stepping down with sadness as well as happiness. When elected back in 2005, he was the president I felt Bolivia had deserved ever since independence in 1825, following almost 300 years of Spanish conquest and colonization.

Evo Morales was probably the first president, the majority of the Bolivian people could genuinely connect with, being a man of the people himself. Yes, you could call his rhetoric for populist, but we should not forget that his policies primarily focused on issues affecting indigenous and poor communities, and he advocated for land reform and the redistribution of the enormous wealth of gas in the underground. Unfortunately, like too many presidents around the world, he became too absorbed by power, and this seems to have led him astray, and certainly away from his origins, into the dead-end road of authoritarianism and questionable undemocratic positions and practices.

Bolivia is no longer a country I follow closely, but it used to be. I travelled to this magnificent country on several occasions in the 1970s, taking busses and trains around the country, to meet people in towns and villages. In 1979 I made a particularly memorable trip to Bolivia, because I got the opportunity to visit the now deceased, but world-famous wife of a miner called Domitila Barrios de Chungara from the tin mining town of Siglo XX. I talked to her in between her many meetings, was invited to eat with her family, and travelled into the heart of the tin mountain on small trains with her husband. One of my most memorable experiences. A year later I was able to meet her, when she attended the UN Women’s Conference in Copenhagen.

Another memorable experience on that same trip was literally witnessing one of the close to 200 military coups Bolivia has experienced since independence, a feature which should be remembered as we also today look at the political forces that surround politics in the country. In the book, simply called Bolivia, and published in 1984, I use the introductory chapter to tell that story. It was written in Danish, because the book was a basic introduction to the country for Danish high school students. Here it is in English!

One evening in August 1979, I was standing on the plaza in front of Parliament in the center of La Paz, together with thousands of Bolivians. Our eyes and ears are directed towards two large loudspeakers on the façade of the building. Behind the façade, Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz is speaking from the parliamentary rostrum. Quiroga was a socialist from one of the small parties, but widely admired and recognized as one of the best speakers in the country. This evening his speech was dazzling. Again and again you could hear enthusiastic roars reach the dark-blue sky above us.

There were several reasons for thousands of people gathering in the square this evening. But the main reason was that Quiroga had announced that this evening, he would present an indictment against former military dictator Hugo Banzer. He had come to power in 1971 in a military coup, and it lasted for seven years. Seven costly and bloody years for the Bolivia people. Now was the hour of accounting.

This was only possible because Bolivia had been a democracy since July 1979. Free elections had taken place for the first time in 20 years. The optimism could be felt all over. People believed better times would come. But history was not forgotten. This was what Quiroga talked about. He listed all the crimes of Hugo Banzer. How he had prevented political parties and unions to operate. He had ordered the killing and imprisonment of political opponents. He had looted the wealth of the country for personal gain.

Quiroga finished his hour-long speech around ten in the evening. Together with Bolivian friends, I went to a café to talk. Not so long ago this would not have been possible, because the military government had a curfew from ten evening until six morning. My friends told me that I should not ignore the fact that under the surface, people were still fearing yet another military coup, a new dictatorship. It was well known that there were different groupings within the military, some leaning towards democracy, others hard core defenders of authoritarianism. This group was just waiting for the right occasion to bully their way to power once again.

A few weeks later, I left Bolivia. At this time, it was still a democracy, but there were plenty of rumors of a coup being planned. On 11 October, the military garrison in the city of Trinidad rebelled. The former dictator, Hugo Banzer, just happened to be in the area. After days of negotiations, the soldiers surrendered, but all Bolivians knew it could happen again. And it did. On 1 November 1979, Coronel Natusch took power – but following strong resistance from farmers, workers and miners, he only lasted two weeks.

On April 18, 1980, General Luis Garcia Meza gave a speech at the Military Academy in La Paz. Another election was planned for later in 1980, so his statement to officers and students was important. “Historically, political parties have failed,” he said. “Therefore, the military has to build another form of democracy. We have the military knowledge required. Politicians cannot correctly represent the people. All they do is spread lies about the military, forgetting that they are responsible for all the ills plaguing the nation. It is not possible to have a dialogue with these politicians, so they have to be held responsible for their deeds.”

Three months later, on 17 July 1980, the military seized power in coup number 191. The name of the leader? General Meza. It all started at dawn on 17 July in the garrison in Trinidad. At 11 am, the unions met and declared a general strike, and closing all roads. At 11:40 am the building was surrounded and men in uniform entered shooting. Many were killed and even more arrested. A little later, the same happened at the Presidential Palace, and at the University. All radio stations were taken over and the airport closed. On 18 July, General Meza was declared President. One of the more than 500 people killed was the popular Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz, who spoke so eloquently that evening one year ago.

Today, following Morales’ downfall, I hope and pray that Bolivia will not revert to the days when one military dictatorship followed another. I also hope that those parts of his legacy that have changed the lives of ordinary Bolivians will not be forgotten, although it is important to also understand why Morales and his party, Movement for Socialism (MAS), moved in an undemocratic direction.

This is also important to reflect upon for those of us, who have supported the MAS party to move in the opposite direction and become more democratic through the support offered by the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy (DIPD). This project was managed by the Socialist Peoples’ Party (SF), and it was approved by the Board during the time, when I was the Director of DIDP. I do not regret that we approved such a project, despite the well-known risk involved – that at the end of the day, the leadership of the party, President Morales and his close advisers, would not appreciate the suggestions from younger members of the party to democratize. Hopefully, the groups DIPD and SF have been in contact with will continue to work for a democratic MAS, for the benefit of the party itself, and certainly also for the country.