Mike Gonzalez analyses the presidency of Evo Morales, who became President of Bolivia in 2005 at the head of a powerful mass movement, and was ultimately ousted in a right-wing coup last year. This article was originally published in two instalments on Rebel News.
Bolivia faces into new elections on October 18. For the first time since 2002, Evo Morales will not be a candidate. He was driven out of office by a right-wing coup after the original presidential elections in October 2019, and is currently in exile in Argentina.
The justification given for the coup was an allegation of electoral fraud by observers from the Organization of American States. This was then picked up and repeated by Washington and the Latin American right, for whom Morales was the last bastion of the ‘pink tide’ that began with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1999.
The Coup in Bolivia
The immediate allegation arose out of Bolivia’s complex electoral system. A number of candidates stood the first round of voting in 2019; there would then be a second round fought out between the two leading candidates – unless there was already one with 40% or more of the total votes and at least a 10% margin over his rival. When the first unofficial result was announced, with 84% of votes counted, Morales had well over the 40% and was 7.4% ahead of his opponent.
There was then a 36 hour delay before a final tally was announced, giving Morales a 10.4% margin. This result was challenged and Evo began talks with opposition candidate Carlos Mesa, accepting a re-run with Adriana Salvatierra, the leader of the Senate and a member of his MAS (‘Movimiento al socialismo‘ – Movement Toward Socialism) party, as his replacement.
But a police strike and major protests in La Paz and other cities then precipitated a coup and Morales was ‘invited’ to leave by the head of the armed forces, with the military already deployed in the streets. Evo, his vice president Álvaro García Linera, and several of his closest associates, clearly under threat, went into exile in Mexico (and later in Argentina).
Jeanine Añez, a senator from the Amazonian department of Beni and fifth in line to assume the post, took over the presidency with the support of the right and in particular from the east of the country, whose largely white bourgeoisie had always been the centre of opposition to Morales’ ‘government of the social movements’.
The coup was obviously well prepared, and its intentions rapidly became clear when Añez produced a large white Bible at her inauguration – an obvious signal to Morales’s mainly indigenous supporters. She announced a new Cabinet, eleven of whose thirteen members were white, and banned the Wiphala – the multi-coloured, chequered flag of the Aymara nation which symbolised the ‘plurinational’ nature of the Bolivian republic under Morales.
In its place she flew the flag of Santa Cruz, the main city in the eastern provinces known as the Media Luna or Half Moon. It is the wealthiest region of the country, dominated by export agriculture, gas, oil and cattle-raising interests linked to multinational capital; it is also the heartland of the white racist opposition to Morales.
Añez’s first presidential decree gave the army carte blanche to pursue members of the MAS and repress protest; the immediate consequence were two massacres of indigenous supporters of Morales at Sacaba and at Senkata, where demonstrators were massing outside a natural gas facility. To the toll of 30 dead were added a 1000 or more prisoners as MAS supporters were pursued, beaten and arrested. Shortly afterwards 700 Cuban doctors participating in government health programmes were thrown out, together with Venezuelan diplomats and others working with the state.
The coalition around Añez represented the old ruling order – mainly white and virulently racist. They had campaigned to bring down the Morales government from the moment of his election as president in December 2005, but the passing of a new, plurinational constitution in 2008, in the teeth of their opposition, meant that their campaign had momentarily failed.
Their hostility was driven by a hatred of indigenous Bolivia, which Morales represented, and hostility towards the new government’s commitment to taking over the gas and oil industries and redistributing their profits through social programmes to the benefit of the poor and the indigenous populations.
Water wars and the road to Red October
It was a mass movement that began in Cochabamba in 2000 and became a popular insurrection, known as Red October in 2005, that carried Evo Morales to the presidency of his country – the first indigenous person to hold that office in its history.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Bolivia was seen as a laboratory for the testing of neo-liberal strategies devised by the International Monetary Fund. These centrally involved the privatisation of public assets and the rolling back of state involvement – it would mean privatising health and social provision and undermining the advances won by the trade unions from the state.
Under successive presidents, the education system was privatised, and later the state electricity and telephone companies, the national railways and most importantly of all Bolivia’s national oil company. Its rich mineral resources, its land, and finally even its water would be surrendered to multinationals. The impact of declining public spending, unemployment, poor health, etc. would fall on the poor, the indigenous population in the cities and in the rural areas, workers and peasants.
Despite an extraordinary history of militant trade union struggles led by the miners through the Bolivian Trade Union Congress, the COB, the unions were weakened by the decline of the mining industry and the assaults of neo-liberalism. But when the government announced the privatisation of the water company supplying the city of Cochabamba, under IMF instructions, it was the last straw.
Bechtel, the US-based multinational that later made huge profits out of the Iraq war, bought this water company and insisted that even the rainwater collected would be theirs to sell. The population erupted, joining protests that brought together workers in local factories, students, market traders, and the population of the local poor barrios, for whom raising the cost of water would force them to choose between drinking and eating.
The government sent in troops and the people fought back; they were joined by the indigenous communities outside the cities whose traditional water rights were also being taken away. After three months of resistance, the government backed down and the water company was returned, to be run by an elected local committee. It was a famous victory, the first successful struggle against privatisation.
This was more than a protest – it was the rebellion of a people fighting back, not led this time by political parties or trade unions but mobilised by a range of local organisations, many of them rooted in the historic traditions of the indigenous communities. Led by an anarchist factory worker, Oscar Olivera, they called themselves the Coordinating Committee for the Defence of Water and Life.
The Cochabamba water war turned a tide (if the mixed metaphor can be forgiven). Two years later the city of El Alto, high above the capital La Paz, was also faced with the privatisation of its water supplies, sold to a French-based multinational. Of the city´s million inhabitants, over 80% described themselves as indigenous. They organised and built an extraordinary fightback that mobilised workers and students, indigenous groups and the urban poor.
In the process lessons were learned from Cochabamba about how to build struggle through collective decision making and open democracy.
From water, the movement turned its attention to the nationalisation of Bolivia’s huge gas and oil reserves, whose profits would then be used for the benefit of the majority population. The year was 2005. The attempts by the then president, Lozado, to sell off the country´s oil and gas to global capitalists was met by a mass insurrection, with Lozado eventually resigning. His replacement, Carlos Mesa, proposed only raising the taxes and royalties to be paid by the corporations, but he could not bring himself to legislate even that.
On October 16th 2005, half a million marched through La Paz demanding nationalisation. Mesa resigned and new elections were announced for December 2005.
Evo Morales Comes to Power
Evo Morales is an Aymara. Like many of Peru’s indigenous population in the high Andes, his parents worked in the tin mines, but by the late sixties the mines were in decline and his family, like many others, took advantage of a government grant to take over a small farm in the Chapare region to grow coca – a legal crop in Bolivia because of its traditional use and symbolic significance for the indigenous people who chew the leaf.
The miners brought with them their traditions of combative trade union organisation, and in Chapare organised a trade union for the farmers, the cocaleros. Evo Morales became its president.
In the face of neo-liberalism the indigenous struggle continued, but there were divisions over how to conduct it. The cocaleros were one arm of the resistance, another was the organisation around Felipe Quispe, El Mallku, with a greater emphasis on Aymara nationalism and on the fight for land by the indigenous peasants.
It was also a battle between visions of the nature of the struggle. For Quispe, and the militants of the water and gas wars, what was being laid were the foundations of a different kind of society. As Oscar Olivera put it,
‘the nation must self-govern through autonomous structures of participation that socialise responsibility for public life’
But another current in the movement, to which Morales belonged and which was expressed in the formation of the MAS (Movement towards socialism) party, had its eye on reaching government in the existing state.
Morales was now the public face of the mass movement that had grown up between 2000 and 2005 and whose demands were revolutionary. But in the two days between the mass demonstrations in La Paz and the announcement of presidential elections, Morales and the MAS’ politics shifted the emphasis back to elections.
In 2005, Evo Morales won the presidency with 54% of the vote.
On May 1 2006, at an emotional ceremony at the San Alberto oil facility, Evo Morales announced the nationalisation of oil, declaring it a pachacutik, the great day or the day of reckoning in Aymara mythology. In fact it was not a full nationalisation but an increase in the taxes and royalties to be paid by the oil companies; and the measure left half of the industry in the hands of big capital.
Resistance to Evo Morales
The battle was far from won, as the Media Luna began to organise to bring down the new government. Two forces faced each other – the mass movement on the one hand, and the racist bourgeoisie on the other – as Morales announced the election of a Constituent Assembly of elected delegates to draft a new constitution.
But there was a critical feature of their election which marked the end of the revolutionary moment. The MAS decreed that only members of political parties could elect delegates – not the movements who had created Red October. Because the strategies of the latter were not focused on elections, they had not built separate political organizations. Their aim, after all, was a new popular democracy, based on open public assemblies and collective mobilisation.
By excluding the them the MAS were taking over the leadership of the movement and sending a message to the heartlands of Aymara nationalism, like El Alto, that the focus of politics would be now be concentrated on winning the state rather than transforming the society.
With the encouragement of the US ambassador Philip Goldman, Media Luna threatened to secede – taking with them the bulk of Bolivia’s natural resources. In the legislature and the assembly they mounted a sustained blocking strategy while in the east members of the MAS were persecuted and murdered by mobs of young white men. In the town of Porvenir (ironically meaning ‘the future’) a march of mainly indigenous MAS supporters was stopped at a highway barricade and 30 were murdered while hundreds more disappeared.
Outside the Constituent Assembly building in Sucre, the administrative capital, demonstrations were held on a daily basis. The eastern provincial governors threatened to cut off supplies of oil and government buildings in the Media Luna were attacked and burned down. After a recall referendum confirmed him with 67% of votes, and after further threats, Morales declared a state of emergency in the four provinces.
In January 2009, the new Constitution was passed with a majority of 61%. Although the violence in the east continued, the Media Luna campaign declined; in that year’s presidential elections Morales won a decisive victory and the opposition campaign was scaled back. In fact, Morales had met with the eastern leaders earlier that year and agreed to guarantee their economic interests in exchange for a recognition of the MAS’s political control of the state.
It was not an end to the class conflict which in Bolivia always had the characteristics of a racial conflict too. But for the moment the Bolivian economy was growing annually and oil revenues did pull a significant proportion of the population out of poverty.
There were unresolved issues; the agrarian reform was never carried through, and the structures of power were not transformed. But the indigenous population were now visible in parliament, their rights and culture enshrined in the Constitution. In this still highly polarised society, however, Evo Morales’s claim to lead a ‘government of the movements’ ensured that indigenous Bolivia would support and sustain him, as long as that community was protected and the promise to improve the quality of their lives was held to
One central element of that promise was contained in the concept of buen vivir, which appears in each of the Constitutions of the pink tide countries in one form or another. It is more than simple recognition and respect for the indigenous culture from which it derives. It is a commitment to a society and an economy based on a harmonious relationship between man and nature, guaranteed by an economy producing for need and in which priority is given to the interests of the collective over the individual.
Bolivia was a visible presence in international conferences on climate change and the environment. Yet in 2011, the contradictions between buen vivir and the development of what vice-president Linera had called ‘Andean-Amazonian capitalism’ became dramatically clear in the TIPNIS National Park in the eastern region.
The government had approved the building of a major highway through this protected area where indigenous farmers worked the land in traditional and sustainable ways. The road was designed to allow the transport of mainly Brazilian products into Bolivia and of Bolivian minerals to Brazil and Argentina. The beneficiaries would be multinational companies.
For the farmers it was a direct threat to their survival as a community and they organised a 600 kilometre protest march to the capital. But the marchers were stopped en route by troops and police sent by the Minister of Defence. The social movements and trade unions demonstrated and joined the marchers, and the project was suspended. It was never cancelled and was later resumed.
This episode exposed the unresolved contradictions at the heart of the MAS government. Bolivia continued to be an economy organised around the export of raw materials, and the discovery of huge deposits of coltan and lithium on the exquisitely beautiful salt flats of Uyuni brought Chinese and Japanese capital to the area.
Despite its reputation as a defender of the environment, the MAS´s environmental promises remained largely unfulfilled. It was true that the Morales period had raised millions from poverty, had introduced health and education projects. The main beneficiaries of Evo’s policies were a mainly indigenous urban and rural lower middle class engaged in commerce and trade, who reaped the benefits of higher levels of consumption.
But political support for MAS was built on its reputation as a party representing the indigenous peasantry, and dedicated to the advance of 21st century socialism. What TIPNIS had clearly exposed, however, was that the country remained tied to and integrated into a global capitalist system in which it continued to play the same role of supplier of the minerals, oil and gas that flowed from what the writer Eduardo Galeano had described as the ‘open veins’ of Latin America.
García Linera had clarified much earlier that what was being built in Bolivia was what he called ‘Andean-Amazonian capitalism’f, and with it a new indigenous middle class. It would become clear that this new capitalism was based on the old economy, producing raw materials for a global market rather than creating a new kind of economy producing for its own population in an ethical, environmentally-friendly framework.
Two developments exposed the contradictions in the strategy and would make the Evo regime vulnerable to the coup that eventually brought it down. The first was the above-mentioned TIPNIS. The second was Morales’ proposal for a referendum to change the Constitution to allow for his re-election beyond the two permitted terms. It was rejected by nearly 52% of those voting.
The reasons are complex but what the results indicated clearly is that Morales’ level of support was not automatic nor guaranteed. His dress and his discourse emphasised his identification with the indigenous communities. But the construction of a new 27-storey presidential building and the purchase of a 38 million dollar private jet symbolised an arrogance of power which contradicted Morales’ modest manner. The layer of government functionaries were part of a new bureaucracy and an increasingly corrupt MAS.
There were other signs of change. David Choquehuanca, the highly respected foreign minister and himself an indigenous native of the Altiplano, the high Andean plateau, was arbitrarily fired in 2016 and sent to a backwoods diplomatic post in Venezuela. It was reported that he and Linera had clashed with increasing frequency in Cabinet meetings. Linera for his part had begun to coin the concept of Evoismo, a political idea based on Evo himself rather than what he represented in the political life of Bolivia. And that personalism was reflected in corruption which had taken two of his ministers to prison.
There is no question about this. The coup is the latest episode in a political, racial and class conflict which had never ended in Bolivia. The Media Luna lay in wait, as did Washington and a Latin American right desperate for the collapse of the Bolivarian experiment.
That said, if Evo and his allies in the MAS, or at least a section of them, did not see the rising discontent among his mass base, the growing cynicism of many of those in or close to power or the distance that was growing between Evo and his supporters, then it was wilful blindness. Neither did they notice that the level of mass protest against the coup in a country that had come close to revolution a dozen years earlier was muted and slow.
The first actions of Añez left no doubt that the fall of Evo Morales would be the occasion for a violent revenge inflicted on the mass of poor Bolivians by a racist right infuriated by the loss of their economic and political privileges.
The Covid-19 pandemic showed clearly that this new government had specific priorities which did not include the health or welfare of the majority population. Añez’s response was so poor that her own right wing allies turned against her. MAS meanwhile, or MAS in parliament, now led by Eva Cova, decided to negotiate with Añez; its principal concern was to ensure that there would be no obstacles to its standing in the postponed, but now imminent presidential elections, which it expects to win.
Añez has now announced her withdrawal from the elections on October 18th, to clear the way for a single candidate of the right, Carlos Mesa. Evo Morales himself is prevented from standing because the Constitution forbids him from standing for a third term.
He has been refused the right to be a candidate for the Senate because he has been outside the country for a year. It would have been logical that the popular Choquehuanca to be the MAS candidate but that was vetoed by Morales who has put forward a moderate economist, Luis Arce, instead. Unlike Morales and Choquehuanca, he has no mass base of support and is wholly dependent on Morales’ backing.
It seems that the MAS has a reasonable chance of emerging with the highest vote, but the majority it needs is not guaranteed. And MAS itself is not unified: its members in La Paz and in parliament are interested above all in returning to power; its base in the countryside and among the urban poor may be looking back to Red October in the hope that it will return.