The re-capture of power in Bolivia by traditional elites, backed by US imperialism, has legitimised racism and a wave of repression. At the same time, ousted president Evo Morales’s party the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) may be beginning a process of democratic renewal, writes Olivia Arigho Stiles.
This article is based on a talk given at the rs21 meeting on insurgency around the world on 8 February 2020.
In November 2019, a coup took place in Bolivia. Former President Evo Morales was forced to resign at the behest of the military, following a police mutiny in cities across the country. This was the culmination of two weeks of mobilization by anti-government protestors who accused the government of fraud in the elections on 20 October.
The accusations of fraud started in earnest when the ‘rapid count’ system known as the Transmission of Preliminary Electoral Results (TREP) ceased counting at 83 % of the total vote. The TREP is used by the electoral authority, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), to publicise an approximate vote count ahead of the official result.
The opposition, the Organization of American States (OAS) and corporate media journalists were quick to declare foul play. This unleashed a wave of violence across the country, which as it unfolded, was increasingly steered by ultra-right business leader Luis Fernando Camacho. Camacho is the head of the regional group, the Pro Santa Cruz Committee and has ties to fascist youth groups.
The military’s abandonment of the MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) government proved the breaking point that forced Morales to leave. In his resignation speech, Morales emphasized that he was leaving to pacify the country. ‘I don’t want to see any more mistreated families,’ he said, condemning attacks against people in his party. These included his sister whose house was burned down. He described what had happened as a civic-political-police coup. ‘Being an Indian and being a left-wing anti-imperialist is my sin,’ he said.
In the gaping power vacuum that ensued, a new ‘interim’ president manoeuvred herself into position: Bible-carrying conservative opposition leader Jeanine Añez, who represents a party that received 4% of the vote in the elections. Añez was next in line for the presidency after Morales’s vice president, and the heads of both chambers of Congress resigned in the face of threats of violence against top MAS officials unless they left office. Anti-MAS protestors burned the houses of several MAS ministers
The new interim government immediately launched a brutal crackdown on protesters and MAS supporters. At least 30 civilians were killed and 700 injured by police-military forces as they protested against the coup. In Sacaba, in the coca-growing Chapare region in central Bolivia, some peaceful protestors were apparently shot in the back from a police helicopter.
Morales was the first indigenous President in Bolivia, a country with a 500 year history of racism and colonial violence. Over Morales’ 14-year tenure, income inequality went down by two-thirds and extreme poverty dropped from 38% to 17 %. Bolivia enjoyed steady economic growth while nationalising key industries and hydrocarbons and rejecting IMF debt bondage. New infrastructure projects, social welfare and healthcare provision transformed the lives of poor people, women, and indigenous peoples in Latin America’s poorest country.
Significantly, these protests involved an emergent middle class whose fortunes had significantly improved under Morales’s government. The coup can therefore be understood as a backlash to Morales’ redistributive economic policies and anti-imperialist political vision.
What has the new ‘de facto’ government done so far?
Despite being a transitional regime, the government has already enacted sweeping changes, far exceeding its mandate. It has re-established diplomatic ties with the USA and Israel, while suspending relations with long-time ally Cuba. Hundreds of foreign citizens have been expelled from the country, including over 700 Cuban doctors and Venezuelan diplomats.
Arrest warrants have been issued against dozens of MAS politicians and former government employees, many of whom are in hiding. Armed police now flank the Mexican embassy where seven ex-ministers, an ex-governor and numerous ex-officials are seeking asylum.
Freedom of the press has largely vanished under a sustained assault by the de facto government. Rural radio stations have been shut down and their staff harassed. On New Year’s Eve, journalists Alejandra Salinas, Orestes Sotomayor and Yesmy Marquez were detained and accused of ‘inciting terrorism’ and ‘sedition’ for criticising the government on blogs and social media.
The government is assisted on the streets by paramilitary activism masquerading as civic ‘resistance’. In rural areas, there have been violent attacks by gangs against MAS-supporting trade unionists. In January, Felix Coche Flores, ex-leader of the La Asunta Federation, was viciously beaten by government supporters during a union meeting in the Yungas region. Ex-minister Carlos Romero was hospitalised for stress and dehydration after groups of far-right civilians prevented food and water from entering his home.
The resurgence of racism
The coup has seen the resurgence of racial hatred, as political and institutional conflicts converge with deep-rooted ethno-racial tensions. Indigenous peoples make up the majority of Bolivia’s population but have historically been excluded from power and exploited by elites. Following independence from Spain in 1825, Bolivia has been ruled largely by wealthy white or mixed raced descendants of Spanish colonisers. Later in the 20th century, Bolivia was governed by a succession of unstable, military dictatorships.
Following the elections in October, graffiti was daubed outside the Universidad Mayor de San Andres (UMSA), the public university in La Paz, demanding ‘Indians out of UMSA’. According to social media posts, ‘Long live Bolivia free from Indians’ was chalked on roads by anti-MAS blockaders. Incidents such as these have deep historical significance in Bolivia, where indigenous peoples until the later-20th century experienced harassment and exclusion for wearing indigenous dress or for simply appearing to be indigenous.
As executive secretary of the mining union, the Union Federation of Mine Workers (Federación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia, FSUTMB), and supporter of the MAS, Orlando Gutiérrez said, in November, before Morales was ousted, ‘These k’ankas [whites] do not accept that a comrade, a peasant leader [Evo Morales] assumes power of the country and has taught them to govern.’
Immediately after Morales’ resignation anti-MAS protesters were filmed burning the wiphala, the flag representing Andean indigenous peoples. Footage also circulated of police in the city of Santa Cruz cutting off the wiphala from their uniforms. The wiphala is a powerful symbol of resistance to the centuries of exploitation, racial violence and social exclusion experienced by indigenous peoples in Bolivia. As Aymara writer Jesus Oscuri writes, the burning of the wiphala combined with the ousting of Morales made many feel as if, ‘The Indian was being expelled from power’.
This coup is imperialist but not in the sense that the US is the single active agent seeking to re-establish its presence. Rather, it is home-grown elites, and the bourgeoisie, who desperately seek the intervention of the USA and proactively seek closer ties with the USA because they lack the capacity to challenge the power of social movements and the left through conventional politics.
At the behest of the de facto government, USAID and the OAS will be on hand to help administer the new elections in May this year. Morales expelled USAID back in 2013, pointing out that it is an instrument of US soft-influence in the country.
The MAS needs to embrace a spirit of reflection and self-criticism, which has been absent for many years. It is undeniable that deep popular discontent was generated by Morales’ decision to defy a 2016 referendum in which the public voted against him running for a fourth term, which was at the time prohibited under the Bolivian constitution.
Without doubt, this is a crisis that has partly developed from the internal dynamics of the MAS and the shortcomings of its internal democracy. But in spite of the attacks by the de facto government, the MAS has thus far shown great resilience, and has embarked on a process of democratic renewal.
The MAS was, and is, a party that at heart is most tightly linked with peasant organisations in the highlands and valleys. Across the country, there have been mass meetings to select the new electoral candidates. Given that many have faced intimidation, harassment and imprisonment, this is very encouraging. Arguably, the crisis has forced the MAS to be responsive to its base in a way that it hasn’t felt the need to for a long time.
New elections are scheduled for 3 May. However, it is looking doubtful that the interim government will allow the elections to be genuinely free and fair. In early February another MAS politician, Gustavo Torrico, was apprehended for ‘sedition’ and terrorism. The previous week a judge ordered a six months ‘preventive’ jail for Evo Morales’ lawyer Patricia Hermosam who is also pregnant, for carrying the former President’s documents in order to register him as a candidate for the Legislative Assembly. Again, she is accused of sedition and terrorism.
Weakness on the right
The saving grace is that the candidates on the right are incredibly disunited. The right is split between Carlos Mesa, who ran in the 2019 elections, and Áñez, the ‘caretaker’ president who is running despite having vowed not to back in November. Also in the race is businessman Luis Fernando Camacho, the mastermind of the coup who has links to far-right youth groups. He is hoping to bridge the historic east-west divide in an alliance with Marco Pumari, but all signs so far indicate his appeal beyond elites in Santa Cruz is minimal. On a recent visit to a market in La Paz, he was met with furious chants of ‘murderer’ and pelted with rubbish.
Other conservative candidates include ex-president ‘Tuto’ Quiroga, and ‘Chi’, a wealthy evangelical Christian pastor who surprised many by scooping 8% of the vote in the October election. Despite pleas by all candidates for unity, none can actually bring themselves to eschew ambitions of power and withdraw to avoid splitting the anti-MAS vote.
Next steps for the MAS
After several weeks selecting candidates, the MAS has opted for presidential candidate is Luis Arce Catacora, an economist and ex-economy minister and architect of prosperity and nationalisation under Morales. He is joined by David Choquehuanca for vice-president, ex-foreign minister and as an Aymara activist leading figure in the indigenous wing of the MAS.
Arce and Choquehuanca are clearly a safe pair of hands. The veteran politicians have been touted by the MAS as a winning combination of urban and rural-indigenous sectors; Morales has described the two as a ‘combination of scientific knowledge and ancient millenary knowledge’.
The decision to opt for Arce – who is credited with overseeing the strong growth of the past 14 years – is a pragmatic move, but it has opened up fault lines of conflict within the MAS base. As an intellectual, Arce has described himself as a ‘representative of the middle class’ and the MAS has been accused by some of capitulating to urban, middle-class interests by overlooking Andronico Rodriquez, the vice-president of the union, the Six Federations of Coca growers who was the favoured candidate of the powerful coca growers of the Chapare.
This highly independent tropical region is a stronghold of MAS support and is home to a large sector of cocaleros (coca growers). It was also where Morales began his political career as a cocalero union leader. Rodriquez is young and charismatic, but highly reminiscent of Morales himself, and it appears the MAS felt uneasy about placing him on the ticket at a time when Morales remains a polarising figure.
In recent weeks, the government has intensified its rhetoric demonising coca growers as terrorists and narco-traffickers. At the end of last year, the government suggested it might send in the military to this region, and even exclude its residents from voting in the elections. Unless the MAS are victorious, the future of this coca growing MAS heartland looks very uncertain.
The coup in Bolivia is deeply worrying for the left in Latin America. Morales was one of the last remaining leaders of the Pink Tide in power. As Latin America’s poorest country, and with its long history of social struggle and highly organised indigenous and non-indigenous sectors, Bolivia has great revolutionary potential. This coup places the state back into the hands of the capitalist elites whose power Morales had eroded while in office. Through the criminalisation of dissent and the persecution of masista politicians and trade union officials, these elites aim to weaken the capacity of the left to fight both at the ballot box and at the grassroots.
Freedom of expression, the ability to organise are deeply imperilled in Bolivia. There are some hopeful signs for the MAS. Recent polls give the MAS a clear lead, although not sufficient to avoid a second run-off in the election. Bolivia is extremely polarised and with a massively emboldened far right, even if the MAS secure an electoral victory, it seems unlikely that the violence and harrassment at local level will cease.
But it’s also important to remember that in Bolivia socialism and democracy, concepts that have broader meanings than in the western tradition, go beyond the MAS. It’s tied up in the grassroots unions that sustain the party. It is to these movements we must look to as the way forward out of the current dictatorship.