Bolivia and the Commitment to Democracy
In the past week, the internet has been abuzz about the decisive victory Luis Arce and his Movement for Socialism (MAS) party won on October 18. And as well it should: the victory signals the return of democracy to Bolivia after last year’s far-right coup ousted President Evo Morales and other MAS party members from their positions. The internet being what it is, however, some facts and histories have become conflated and unsubstantiated rumors are being repeated as fact. Let us look into the brief history of Bolivia for context as to what happened last October, what happened just last week, and its relevance to the United States.
Bolivia has had a history of political instability and human rights violations particularly perpetrated against Indigenous peoples. Like much of Central and South America, that history begins with the near-complete destruction and subjugation of Indigenous civilizations through Spanish colonization that lasted for about 300 years. In the 19th century, with the European empires in crisis following the Napoleonic Wars, and inspired by the United States and Haitian revolutions against colonial rule, wars of independence were waged successfully across Spanish-American territories (Bolivia is named for the legendary Simon Bolivar, “the Liberator”). But, like in the United States, the pre-existing White male landholding elites led these new nations, with Indigenous peoples in almost every Latin American country designated second-class citizens. This was the case in Bolivia, as well, despite Indigenous people making up the vast majority of the population. Wealthy landowners forced Indigenous people into peasantry to work their estates and mines. The natural resources of the region, silver and then tin in Bolivia in particular, brought foreign investors and trading partners. Meanwhile, conflicts between the elites, seeking to consolidate or carve out some land and power of their own, brought even more violence -- Bolivia lost more than half of its land to neighboring countries in the 19th century following independence.
After thirty years of free-market economics that collapsed with the Great Depression in the 20th century, Bolivia followed the shift in much of the world toward greater suffrage. More wars over land and resources were fought, strengthening the importance of the military in Bolivian society. At the same time, political parties like the popular Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) emerged including persons of Native and mixed descent. Over the course of the 20th century, the Bolivian military intervened in the government on multiple occasions, almost always as right-wing reactions to the success of left-wing politicians and parties. At least one, the dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer from 1971-1978 was materially supported by the United States through CIA Operation Condor, and only brought down when four women started a hunger strike that inspired a national movement of nonviolent resistance. Right-wing coups continued to plague the people of Bolivia as they repeatedly tried to establish a peaceful, lasting democracy, while foreign multinational corporations gradually privatized more of Bolivia’s resources. It was not until the early 2000s, with the Water War of Cochabamba that saw Indigenous people fighting back against the privatization of municipal water, and the Bolivian Gas War over the ownership of the natural gas mines, that a new movement of Indigenous socialist organizations emerged, with labor activist Evo Morales at its head. Morales and MAS campaigned on a promise to finally empower the marginalized groups in the country; when he won the presidency in 2006, Evo Morales became the first Indigenous head of state in South America. Since MAS and Morales took leadership of Bolivia, to the shock and reluctant admiration from the neoliberal western powers, the socialist policies of de-privatization and public ownership of industries have fulfilled that promise, vastly raising the standard of living for the poor, while simultaneously improving the Bolivian economy. According to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, extreme poverty was reduced by half, and the country’s GDP grew by almost 5% per year.
So, if things were going so well for Morales and MAS, how did this coup occur? First, for all the good Morales has accomplished -- and the list is impressive -- many leftists believe he probably should have taken a step back at some point to promote (and advise) a new face of his party. In 2016, the results of a national referendum seemed to agree that presidential term limits should be enforced. To many even in his own party, it did not matter that the Supreme Court later struck down the referendum based on the American Convention of Human Rights, and that Morales was legally permitted to run for a fourth term -- his image was already starting to sour.
Fast forward to the Bolivian election of October 2019: reasonably assuming that the vast majority of rural Indigenous voters would overwhelmingly choose Morales, MAS declares victory before all the ballots are counted. The right-wing opposition quickly pounced, using the opening to claim manipulation and fraud. The far-right quickly fell in line behind notoriously racist legislator Jeanine Anez, who declared herself interim president. The police turned on Morales, killing dozens in street protests with Morales supporters.
And it was not just Bolivians who were mobilized. An entire machine of anti-Morales propaganda aimed at audiences outside of Bolivia appeared seemingly overnight. The Organization of American States (OAS), which was originally established during the Cold War specifically to prevent the rise of democratically-elected leftist governments like MAS, almost immediately claimed to have “deep concern” (at first without evidence) that cast further doubt on the election results. Over a million tweets seemingly from Bolivian accounts claimed to the world “there is no coup.” And the vast majority of American mainstream media fell for the racist, historically ignorant, and simply inaccurate narrative of a corrupt and anti-democratic Latin-American “strongman” finally being removed, even refusing to call it a “coup” at all: the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and even non-American liberal sources like the Guardian. Morales, his family, and others in his party were threatened with kidnappings, assassinations, and more. Morales fled to Mexico, and many others went into hiding.
But it later turned out that the OAS had fabricated any evidence of election tampering, and those tweets came from a massive bot network created by one US Army veteran and apparent right-wing troll Luis Suarez. The mainstream media was either racist, lazy, and/or simply expressing their neoliberal ideologies. And then there’s the tweet from Elon Musk. Last year, as the internet blew up over the Bolivian election crisis, in an example of what some call “saying the quiet parts out loud,” the celebrity billionaire incredibly announced his naked hostility to democracy when it suits the interests of capitalists like himself. Being accused of conspiring with the United States government to organize the coup against Morales in order to obtain lithium from the country, Musk flippantly responded: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”
In the year since the coup, the right-wing government under Anez has allegedly kidnapped, murdered, and imprisoned MAS supporters in an effort to stamp out leftist politics in Bolivia. Less than a month after declaring the presidency for herself, and just a week after the military fired massacred at least 23 pro-Morales protesters during a nonviolent demonstration, Anez made Decree 4078 granting impunity for human rights violations committed by the Bolivian Armed Forces in maintaining “public order.”
Well, as MAS returns to power in Bolivia, with citizens decisively siding against the right-wing anti-democratic conspirators, many on the internet have dug up the old tweet, along with those claims that Musk himself, or at least the United States government was involved in organizing the coup. Despite some overtures from the Anez regime to foreign businesses to buy up Bolivia’s lithium (including to Musk), the hard evidence of collusion is scant, and mostly conjecture. The troll Suarez seems to have been a lone actor, and no hard evidence has emerged that the conspirators in Bolivia received material aid from the United States. Admittedly, the false claims repeatedly promoted by the OAS are difficult to ignore, especially considering President Trump’s personal support of the coup, as well as the explicitly leftist reasons for the existence of OAS -- but spreading propaganda and misinformation is not necessarily evidence of a premeditated conspiracy. Indeed, the fact that the OAS could not produce any evidence, even faked evidence, for weeks after announcing their “deep concern” indicates that the Bolivian coup was a happy accident for the OAS to take advantage.
Regardless of who organized the coup, many of the people who fanned the flames, especially outside of Bolivia, were based in the United States. Anti-democratic sentiments are exposing themselves with greater confidence -- just look at that Musk tweet. As the world’s premier “democracy,” last Cold War-era super power, de facto empire, and “leader of the free world,” we are in the strange position that what happens here has an outsized effect in the world. When we go to vote in a couple weeks, we must also consider the racist right-wing violence and undemocratic policies promoted by our own leaders -- there is more at stake than just the future of the United States.
“Bolivia: Jeanine Añez must immediately repeal decree giving impunity to Armed Forces personnel.” Amnesty International, 18 November 2019. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/11/bolivia-derogar-norma-impunidad-fuerzas-armadas/
Chocquehuanca, David and Bruno Sommer Catalan. “Bolivia’s Socialist VP Candidate: “‘The Coup Against Evo Morales Was Driven by Multinationals and the Organization of American States.’” Jacobin, 26 January 2020. https://jacobinmag.com/2020/09/bolivia-elections-david-choquehuanca-mas-morales
Derysh, Igor. “‘Cyber Rambo’: How a US Army vet aided the right-wing coup in Bolivia.” Salon, 23 January 2020. https://www.salon.com/2020/01/24/cyber-rambo-how-a-us-army-vet-aided-the-right-wing-coup-in-bolivia/
Johnston, Jake. “Data from Bolivia’s Election Add More Evidence That OAS Fabricated Last Year’s Fraud Claims.” Center for Economic and Policy Research, 21 October 2020. https://cepr.net/data-from-bolivias-election-add-more-evidence-that-oas-fabricated-last-years-fraud-claims/
Lambert, Renaud. “Bolivia’s coup.” Le Monde, December 2019. https://mondediplo.com/2019/12/02bolivia
Macleod, Alan. “Why the Bolivia coup is not a coup — because the U.S. foreign policy establishment wanted it.” Salon, 13 November 2019. https://www.salon.com/2019/11/13/why-the-bolivia-coup-is-not-a-coup-because-the-u-s-foreign-policy-establishment-wanted-it/
“Massacre in Cochabamba: Anti-Indigenous Violence Escalates as Mass Protests Denounce Coup in Bolivia.” Democracy Now!, 18 November 2019. https://www.democracynow.org/2019/11/18/bolivia_cochabamba_massacre_anti_indigenous_violence
Robinson, Nathan J. “Lessons From The Bolivian Coup.” Current Affairs, 26 November 2019. https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/11/lessons-from-the-bolivian-coup
Rozsa, Matthew. “Elon Musk becomes Twitter laughingstock after Bolivian socialist movement returns to power.” Salon, 20 October 2020. https://www.salon.com/2020/10/20/elon-musk-becomes-twitter-laughingstock-after-bolivian-socialist-movement-returns-to-power/
Wilgress, Matt. “The Far-Right Coup in Bolivia.” Jacobin, 14 November 2020. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/11/bolivia-coup-evo-morales-jeanine-anes-indigenous-violence
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