The counterrevolutionary coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia places in jeopardy one of the most important efforts at social change in decades -at the same time as it raises difficult questions about how to forge a democratic path to socialism, writes Peter Hudis.
The counterrevolution that forced Bolivia’s Evo Morales, the first Indigenous president in the country’s history, from office on 10 November is an effort to reverse the gains of the one of the most important efforts at social change in decades. Its impact will be felt long into the future, necessitating a careful assessment of the series of developments that led to this tragic outcome.
Morales was forced from power by Bolivia’s military in the aftermath of the presidential election of 20 October 2019, which he ran for a fourth term. Bolivia’s Constitution mandates that the victor win at least ten percent more votes than its closest rival (in Morales’s case the conservative Carlos Mesa), or else face a run-off. After initial ballots indicated he would fall short of that goal (Morales’ total was 45.3% vs. 38.2% for Mesa), the Supreme Electoral Tribunal shut down the transmission of quick-count tabulation for 22 hours. When it resumed, Morales’s vote total exceeded Mesa’s by 10.12%. Morales and his supporters claimed the discrepancy was a result of rural ballots (which are often slower to process) coming in during those 22-hours, while his opponents accused him (without hard evidence as of this point) of stuffing the ballot boxes.
As protests mounted against the electoral results, the Organisation of American States (OAS) released an audit that cited ‘irregularities’ in the vote and called for new elections. Hours later, Morales agreed to the new elections with a reformed electoral commission. He did so, he stated, to ‘lower tensions’ and ‘pacify Bolivia’.
It should be noted that the OAS is hardly a neutral body, since it is composed of all states in the hemisphere (including the U.S.). Nevertheless, it did take action on an earlier coup in 2009 against the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, by expelling Honduras from the OAS. Even then, however, it rejected calls by some member states (such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador) to impose sanctions against the coup plotters—largely at the insistence of the U.S. And Honduras was allowed back into the OAS in 2011, without it lifting a finger to reverse the 2009 coup.
Although Mesa at first welcomed Morales’s agreement to hold new elections, he quickly backtracked under pressure from the far right and demanded that Morales resign.
The goalposts moved at lightning speed from demanding new elections to insisting on the ousting of both Morales and his political party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS). When Morales demurred the military stepped in and forced him out. While the role of the Trump administration in influencing Mesa’s change of heart remains to be disclosed, it quickly applauded Morales’s overthrow by making the totally preposterous claim that a ‘dictator’ had been removed from power, even though no one questions that Morales’s three previous elections were completely fair and democratic.
It is no secret that the U.S. has been looking for ways to foster an ‘alternative’ to the MAS since Morales came to power in 2006. It has now found it in the Bolivian military. There’s no way to explain this other than to call it what it is: a coup d’état .
Who gains from the coup?
While the rightists clearly played the pivotal role in Morales’s overthrow, sections of the popular movements have long supported Morales called for his resignation as well. Morales was immensely popular in his early years; he won the 2006 election with an unprecedented 66% of the popular vote, sparking immense enthusiasm, especially from the Indigenous peoples of Bolivia (close to two-thirds of its populace) who faced incessant racism and had been excluded from political life for centuries. Over time, however, as he has sought to co-opt, control—and in some cases undermine—social movements and organisations, his popularity began to wane.
Although the Constitution that he drafted in 2009 prevented him from seeking a fourth term, last year he promoted a referendum to allow him to do so. He lost the vote by a considerable margin. Undeterred, he appealed to the Supreme Court, which consists of his appointees; it ruled that the law barring Morales from running again ‘denied him his human rights’. He then ploughed ahead with his recent re-election campaign, even though it was clear that he would have difficulty securing a majority.
Alienated by his effort to monopolise state power in fewer and fewer hands (beginning with himself) many of those in the popular movements—such as miners and members of the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), the largest union in the country which had earlier been his ally—called on him ‘to resign, if necessary’ following the OAS report. COB leader Juan Carlos Huarachi stated:
The people are asking, and that is why we ask the president to reflect, if it is for the good of the country, for the health of the country, that our president resigns. The president must listen to the clamour of the people.
The claim that demands for Morales’s removal came only from the Right and military is therefore clearly false. This helps explain why Morales, along with his entire cabinet, acceded so quickly to the demands for his resignation instead of putting up a fight: he had lost the support of too much of his base. That does not change the fact, however, that the prime beneficiary of his removal is the far right, which is now in charge and has rapidly moved to dismantle the gains of the last 14 years—beginning with racist attacks against Indigenous peoples. This isn’t the first time in history that the failure of a left-wing government to fulfil its promise of social transformation provided an opening for reactionary forces to take advantage of.
On 12 November the conservative Vice President of Bolivia’s Senate, Jeanine Añez Chavez, was ‘voted’ in as president (!), even though the Senate lacked a quorum since MAS members boycotted the proceeding and Bolivia’s Constitution requires one in order to take a vote. So much for the claim that the Bolivian right favours democracy.
Upon being forced out of power by the military, Morales stated:
I ask my people with great care to respect the peace and not fall into the violence of groups that seek to destroy the rule of law. We cannot fight among Bolivian brothers. I make an urgent call to resolve all differences with dialogue and discussion.
But the right and the military are not interested in a dialogue—otherwise they would not have forced his removal in the first place after he called for new elections. The future of Bolivia will not be decided by a ‘dialogue’ with reactionary forces harbouring racist resentment against the gains achieved by Indigenous peoples and others in recent years; it will be decided by a contestation of forces on the streets, as has repeatedly occurred in Bolivia’s history.
Major clashes between supporters and opponents of MAS are now taking place in El Alto, La Paz, and Cochabamba—the latter being the centre of the ‘water wars‘ of 2000 and ‘gas wars’ of 2003 that brought down Bolivia’s neoliberal government. Nine protesters were killed by government troops during peaceful protests on 16 November. This has not stopped tens of thousands from flooding the streets demanding Morales’s return (he is now in exile in Mexico) and an end to the repression. As one Indigenous coca grower involved in the protests said of the instigators of the coup:
They’ve been giving us orders for 500 years, and now they want to take away our 13 years. They will take away our pollera. They will take away my voice.
In some areas opponents of the coup are building citizen assemblies and self-defense committees to coordinate blockades, protests, and sit-ins. The Federación de Juntas Vecinales (Fejuve) is one of many neighborhood organisations involved in such protests; they have formed a Trade Union-Civilian Police Force to resist violence by the coup leaders.
Social and cultural gains Under Morales
Of one thing there is no doubt: despite its shortcomings (which I will detail shortly) the years of Evo Morales’s rule led to a dramatic improvement in the lives of the vast majority of Bolivians. Illiteracy rates dropped from 13% in 2006 to virtually zero today. Unemployment rates have fallen from 9.2% in 2006 to 4.1%. Moderate poverty rates declined from 60.6% in 2006 to 34.6% in 2018; and extreme poverty rates fell in the same period from 38.2% to 15.2%. The Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, fell 19% during his tenure. Most significantly, life expectancy increased by nine years. This adds up to a remarkable improvement in living standards that resulted from Bolivia’s (partial) nationalisation of its natural gas industry and an ambitious program of social welfare for its poorer inhabitants.
No less important, Bolivia became a ‘plurinational’ state that for the first time incorporated Indigenous languages and culture into the country’s development model. Central to this was its adoption of the Indigenous Andean concept of Vivir Bien, or living well, which was written into its 2009 constitution. It is the closest any modern nation has come to incorporating such Indigenous concepts as communalism and respect for the nature as an end in itself (‘Pachamama’) into principles of governance. This also extended to gender relations: 50% of elected officials in parliament are women.
It is these gains—and most of all the elevation of the social and cultural status of the Aymara and Quechua people—that Bolivia’s new rulers are intent on reversing. No sooner was Morales removed than crowds composed of Ladinos (non-Indigenous, westernised mestizos) took to the streets and burned the Wiphala—the multicoloured flag representing Bolivia’s 36 Indigenous groups. Carlos Mesa—who was deposed from power in 2003 by a popular uprising led by Indigenous peoples—declared that the new government will be ‘cleansed’ of Indigenous values. Añez Chavez proclaimed:
I dream of a Bolivia free of satanic Indigenous rites. La Paz is not for Indians; let them go back to the highlands or the Chaco.
Her hand-chosen cabinet initially included not a single member of the Indigenous community.
Añez Chavez is an interim figure that will no doubt be made to step aside. The person most likely to replace her is no better—Luis Fernando Camacho, a member of the evangelical Christian right who admires Brazil’s Bolsonaro. After the overthrow of Morales he proclaimed:
The Bible is returning to the government palace. Pachamama will never return. Today Christ is returning to the Government Palace.
Why are they so full of hate?
There has always been a significant section of Bolivian society that fiercely opposed Morales, the MAS, and all they stood for. It was a motley crew of neoliberals, anti-Indigenous racists, and the national bourgeoisie concentrated in such areas as Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando (especially those dependent on agribusiness). Following Morales’s ascent to power in 2006 some of them went so far as to push for secession from Bolivia.
But Morales and the MAS skilfully defused such opposition by making a series of concessions. These included allowing for greater extraction of bio-fuels, increased exports of meat, deforestation, and other measures that enable agribusiness to flourish. A key turning point was Morales’s decision to push for the construction of a highway through Indigenous territory, called TIPNIS, in order to facilitate agricultural exports to Brazil and Argentina as well as the world market. He also refrained from any large-scale nationalisation of industry or property, especially in the Santa Cruz region. While such acts weakened his support among Indigenous peoples, they succeeded in quieting (at least temporarily) attempts by the conservative opposition to force his removal from power.
Truth be told, the middle class and national bourgeoisie did quite well under Morales (the same was true in Venezuela prior to a few years go), since not only was their property right not infringed upon but high commodity prices made them wealthier.
Yet as we saw in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Brazil, the fact that a section of the national bourgeoisie profited under such leftist regimes does not mean they ever accepted them. In the case of Bolivia, they could not stomach the thought of being governed by a full-blooded Aymara from the highlands who spoke enthusiastically of socialism, the rights of the marginalised, and respect for nature. The more those of ‘lower rank’ rose in stature, the more they hated them for threatening their sense of their own stature.
They bided their time and waited for the moment to strike. That moment came close to arriving in 2014, when economic growth slowed due to a decline in the price of many commodities—at the very moment Morales was losing support from his base because of the centralization of power in fewer and fewer hands and his failure to make Vivir Bien more than a rhetorical expression. The critical turning point came this year, when Morales pushed for an additional term even though it was clear that he had become considerably weakened politically. Like sharks on the prowl, they detected his weakness and came in for the kill during and after the election.
There is an important lesson here that applies far beyond Bolivia: no matter how much a progressive government tries to placate its reactionary opponents, they will turn on it sooner or later, utilising all of the most nefarious tools at their disposal.
The unfulfilled promise of Bolivia’s effort at social transformation
When Morales took office as a result of a powerful popular mass upsurge in 2006, it was assumed by many of his supporters that the social movements that brought him to power, and not the MAS, would become the major power broker. But it didn’t turn that way. Pablo Solón, Bolivia’s UN Ambassador during Morale’s first term, reports that there was a “major change in the orientation of the government” after the 2009 election:
Everything fell under the control of the power of the executive, and a government extremely personalised around the figure of Morales. The ideology that came to prevail within government circles, of which [Vice-President] Álvaro García Linera is the purest expression, said: we don’t accept independent thinkers, there can be no independent thinkers. Here everyone must agree with what Evo Morales and Álvaro Garcia Linera say.
While the government went out of its way to incorporate members of the popular movement in the state apparatus, this had the effect of stifling their autonomy and initiative. When popular organisations objected to particular government policies they often found themselves marginalised and attacked. María Galindo, a Bolivian feminist and founder of Mujeres Creando, writes:
If you were not from [Morales’s] party you had no right to say anything, and if you were in the party you couldn’t opine either, since the decisions were made by a closed circle. This created a gigantic democratic void.
And Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, the well-known Aymara theoretician and activist, stated:
I had so much hope at the moment when Evo Morales came into the government. But he has come to crave centralised power, which has become a part of Bolivia’s dominant culture since the 1952 revolution. The idea that Bolivia is a weak state and needs to be a strong state—this is such a recurrent idea, and it is becoming the self-suicide of revolution. Because the revolution is what the people do—and what the people do is decentralised.
These important criticisms must not be ignored or subsumed for the sake of focusing exclusively on the machinations of the right and U.S. imperialism—vital as it is to vigorously expose the culpability of both in the anti-democratic coup.
Some on the left are drawing the wrong conclusion from the events by arguing that Morales and the MAS did not go far enough in centralising state power in a single hand. They seem totally clueless that the gains made under Morales were the expression of a diverse, grassroots movement that had been on the streets for years before he came to power. Their thought and action was the energising force that produced the regime and provided it with the power and potential to transform Bolivian society. Monopolisation of state power by a single party, no matter how well intentioned, is incapable of providing what can be accomplished by the unfettered activity and creativity of the masses.
The tragedy, Solón argues, is that:
…a terrible phenomenon has been produced: the Aymara and Quechua Indigenous community, which resisted colonisation for 500 years, is today very weak because an Indigenous government is promoting a very consumerist, developmentalist perspective of western modernity. As a result, Aymara and Quechua communities, and their alternative vision, Vivir Bien, is weaker today than before the arrival of [Morales’s] government. It should have been exactly the opposite scenario.
This does not mean that the Bolivian masses will passively accept the ongoing counterrevolution. They have forged some of the most militant labour, peasant, and Indigenous movements of this hemisphere, and they have rebounded from setbacks and defeats before—as especially seen from the upsurge of the early 2000s that reversed the setbacks of the 1980s and 1990s. As much as the ruling elite thinks it has a free hand to impose economic austerity and racial exclusion now that Morales is out of the way, South America is simmering with new forms of resistance, as the recent developments in Ecuador and Chile show.
The day will come when the Bolivian masses will cast aside the elites and social structures standing in its way, as it absorbs the contributions and limitations of the social experiment that defined their nation over the last 14 years.
Peter Hudis is a member of the International Marxist-Humanist Organisation. He is the author of Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism (Brill, 2012) and Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades (Pluto, 2015), and the editor of The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (Monthly Review Press, 2004) and The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso, 2013).