In the case known as “Coup I,” Bolivia’s attorney general’s office has requested that 10 bishops testify regarding their role in the alleged 2019 coup d’état that led to the resignation of President Evo Morales.

Archbishop Percy Galván of La Paz, the nation’s capital, charged that the move is an attempt to “intimidate us,” and two former presidents have decried this effort as persecution of the Church.

In 2019, Morales ran for the fourth time in a row, despite the fact that a referendum in 2016 had prohibited a fourth term for a president.

Morales was re-elected in a process questioned by international organizations over suspicions of fraud. Amid widespread protests and strikes, Morales fled the country and was granted political asylum in Mexico and later in Argentina.

After Morales’ departure, the second vice president of the Senate, Jeanine Áñez, became interim president of the country. 

For Morales’ political party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), to which current president Luis Arce also belongs, this constituted a coup d’état. 

Also in the “Coup I” case, in December 2022 the governor of the large Santa Cruz Department, Fernando Camacho, was arrested and accused of the crime of terrorism.

In that same process, the authorities are now requesting that the prelates who participated in the meetings to restore peace to the country in 2019 testify.

Among them are Archbishop Ricardo Centellas, then vice president of the Bolivian Bishops’ Conference (CEB); Bishop Aurelio Pesoa, former deputy general secretary of the CEB; and Giovanni Arana, auxiliary bishop of El Alto.

More in Americas

Archbishop Galván spoke Feb. 12 with the local press and reaffirmed the position of the bishops’ conference “to always be available to clear up any doubts on this issue, that of our participation as bishops and that of the participation of the Church in those difficult and critical moments that our country had to go through.”

Regarding the events of 2019, he pointed out that “the police had mutinied, the Army was confined to their barracks, we were totally unprotected. We had to do something.”

“We are Bolivians, we are children of God, and we made available our good offices so that a solution could take place. It may not have been the most perfect, but it was the one that pacified [the country], to a great extent,” he acknowledged.

“They want to intimidate us, but I think this is to not know the nature of the Church,” he pointed out. “They’re giving us more fortitude, they affirm us in what we are doing with all respect and love for our constitution, our laws, and our authorities.”

“We’re not going to act arbitrarily in any way,” he assured.

The prelate told the UNITEL television station that “we know the issue of persecution. We know of our brothers who are deprived of liberty in different prisons in the country, for political reasons, of course, with other pretexts, pretexts such as terrorism, conspiracy, coup d’état ... and if this is going to extend to the Church, it wouldn’t be uncommon; we’ve seen it in Nicaragua, where a bishop has been arrested because he didn’t want to accept [exile].”

“We are already old priests; they have been threatening us, persecuting us. It’s already a long story,” he noted.

(Story continues below)

“The fact of being religious doesn’t prevent us from giving any statement. We do not enjoy, as is falsely understood, any privilege,” Galván said.

The former president of Bolivia, Carlos Mesa, criticized the proceedings by the authorities and pointed out on social media that “in its desire to hide the monumental fraud of 2019 as attested by the OAS, the EU, and international observers; and emulating the dictator Ortega, the MAS now seeks to persecute bishops who defend democracy and human rights. Political persecution in its crudest execution.”

Ortega has accused the Nicaraguan bishops of plotting a coup d’état during the 2018 anti-government demonstrations as well as in the bishops’ support for the protesters’ call for early elections (to possibly replace Ortega).

Former president Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga warned that President Arce was “turning into another Ortega” in reference to the Nicaraguan dictator, by “attempting to crucify bishops, whose mediation the MAS requested in 2019.”

In addition, he believes that Pope Francis “must speak out about the persecution of the Church in Bolivia.”

In 2021, the Bolivian Bishops’ Conference itself presented a document to the pope and the Bolivian Attorney General’s Office that includes the participation of the CEB in the 2019 political crisis.

In that document, the bishops explained the negotiations that took place at the Catholic University before Áñez took office as president of Bolivia and they rejected any accusation linked to “an alleged coup d’état.”

In June 2022, with Morales’ ally Arce in power, Áñez, after 15 months in preventative detention, was sentenced in what is known as the “Coup II” case to 10 years in prison on the charge that she assumed the presidency illegally.

The archbishop emeritus of Sucre, Jesús Juárez, told the Bolivian Fides News Agency that he doesn’t see the need for the religious authorities to be summoned to testify, since “the Church has already put all its good offices at disposal and also made a document, in which she makes clear everything that took place.” They shouldn’t have to “repeat everything like a broken record.”

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.