Bolivia, One Year Under a Coup Government
On October 20 of last year, Bolivians cast their ballots in their national presidential election. Evo Morales of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party was expected to win, granting him a fourth term to continue the leftist policies that have thus far resulted in impressive economic growth for the country. Crucially, this economic growth has not occurred at the cost of the indigenous poor peoples of Bolivia, as right-wing governments of the past had attempted, but hand-in-hand with the economic and social uplifting of the people of Bolivia. With such socially and economically just policies already working for 14 years, President Morales and MAS enjoyed overwhelming support in the country -- especially among Indigenous and Mestizo peoples, which together constitute the majority of Bolivia’s population. But 21 days later, after the opposition contested the legitimacy of the election results and started targeting MAS party members and their families, chief commander of the Bolivian armed forces General Wiliams Kaliman publicly requested that President Morales resign his position, and Morales soon after fled the country. Right-wing senator Jeanine Anez was then able to declare herself interim president in a move supported by the US government, misconstrued by mainstream Western media to seem more legitimate, and openly joked about by billionaire capitalist Elon Musk who happens to have interest in the country’s lithium supply.
Along with the greed behind the plan to sell Bolivia’s national resources for their own personal short-term gain, we must also consider the coup leaders’ racism. Much has been made of the relatively high number of coups and coup attempts in Bolivian history, and some have attempted to frame the one last year as more of the same in a country that just can never seem to make democracy work. But while it is true that much of the 20th century saw Bolivia wracked in political crises or military dictatorships, the most recent power-grab by the right-wing coalition in the country was the first in over 39 years. It was also the first successful rebellion against the latest Constitution of Bolivia, approved by public referendum in 2009, which defined Bolivia as a unified plurinational and secular (not Catholic, as it was before) country and thereby enfranchised Indigenous groups to exercise local autonomy and participation in government on their terms. As right-wing White descendants of European colonizers, most of the 2019 coup leaders, including Jeanine Anez, had on multiple occasions said out loud, tweeted, or otherwise indicated their sense of racial superiority, disdain for Indigenous cultural practices, and fantasies of violence against Indigenous and Mestizo peoples. The coup leaders clearly identify with the predominantly White global elite over the actual people of their country, evidenced by their desire to privatize and sell off the government-owned industries, reversing the MAS socialist policies which have lifted myriad Bolivians from poverty. But if that were not enough, it is simple enough to find records online of Anez and others in her circle dehumanizing Indigenous and Mestizo Bolivians with terms like “poor Indians” and “satanic.” Indeed, that language is not always meant to be figurative: some, like early coup leader Luis Fernando Camcho, are connected with fascist paramilitary groups like the Santa Cruz Youth Union, which advocates for separation from what they consider a heathen state.
As the 2019 Bolivian political crisis developed, many of these fascist paramilitary groups took to the streets. Some may have been involved in violent attacks and arsonry targeted at Morales, MAS members, and journalists. When the right-wing of the country coalesced behind Jeanine Anez and MAS began organizing protests against the new unconstitutional government in response, Anez made Decree 4078, which called on the Bolivian armed forces to assist in “the defense of society and maintaining public order” while exempting such participants from criminal liability. In the subsequent weeks, at least 25 people died of gunshot wounds and two of other causes, while hundreds were injured in clashes with law enforcement. A group of workers organized a march, only to be stopped by soldiers shooting into their ranks and killing nine. Road blockades and mass rallies were attacked by riot police, soldiers, and helicopters with live rounds. MAS, not fully realizing what had happened until it was too late, began negotiating with the new coup government in an attempt to stop the violence. Negotiating with the coup leaders, however, only legitimized the unconstitutional government and temporarily quelled much of the popular resistance.
As the negotiations between MAS and the coup leaders continued and the dust settled, protests dissipated, but frustrations grew. The MAS leaders compromised with the coup leaders, and for several months convinced their supporters to accept the new reality. During that time, Anez and her allies have removed Bolivia from multiple international political and economic organizations, expelled people from foreign countries (including the 700 Cuban doctors that provided the foundation for Bolivia’s new free healthcare system), threatened disenfranchisement of largely Indigenous areas, relaxed covid-19 restrictions against the advice of health officials, and privatized key industries in Bolivia. But by July of 2020, after the fourth postponement of the promised new general elections in just 8 months, the people of Bolivia demanded the immediate resignation of Jeanine Anez as well as general elections to be held in September. The Pact of Unity, a national coalition of powerful trade unions and Indigenous groups supporting MAS, called for a general strike and widespread sabotage. Boulders were scattered across highways, trenches dug into rural roads, and mountain passes dynamited -- the number of blockaded roads in Bolivia reaching over 200 in just a few weeks, with some cities completely shut down. The state responded with threats of military repression, and then encouraged right-wing paramilitary groups to attack roadblocks, resulting in dozens injured. Despite the mass rebellion, both MAS and the Anez administration decided to stick with the postponed election date in October. The Bolivian Workers Center (COB), the country’s largest trade union federation, eventually called for an end to the strike, and the Pact of Unity announced the demobilization of protest actions.
It may be tempting to think that the protests against the coup in November 2019 and July-August 2020 were inconsequential and ended in failure. The leaders of the trade unions, the Pact of Unity, and even MAS itself gave in to the demands of the coup government on multiple occasions long before popular resistance broke. But it is notable that after the uprising of July-August 2020, the date of the general election was not moved again. The coup government, despite their nominal command of the police and armed forces, was unable to even muster up a final attempt to retain power before the landslide defeat they suffered at the polls a couple weeks ago. The radical popular resistance exhibited across the country by the diverse multitudes of Bolivia reminded their supposed leaders in MAS that such strategies are what put MAS into power in the first place. Perhaps it is easy to say now with the benefit of hindsight, but with 14 recent years of wildly successful socialist economics and decades of organized allied social movements shaping the country, the leftist, progressive, and just forces of Bolivian society are too well-organized and entrenched to be defeated so easily. In the face of such commitment to Bolivian democracy, the long-term viability of Anez’ coup government never stood a chance.
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