On the Coup in Bolivia

Against the Current, No. 204, January/February 2020

Bret Gustafson

ON OCTOBER 20, 2019 Bolivians went to the polls to vote in presidential elections. Evo Morales of MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo), already in office for 13 years, was running for an unprecedented fourth term.

Many questioned Evo’s candidacy. His re-election had been questioned in 2016, when he narrowly lost a national referendum that would have abolished term limits. In 2017, a constitutional court overruled the vote, allowing Evo to run. Even so, several opposition parties participated in the election, suggesting its legitimacy.

As returns began coming in, Evo’s lead was significant. Victory by a margin of at least 10% would assure Evo a first round victory and avoid a runoff. When a preliminary vote counting system was temporarily shut down that night, opposition parties cried foul. As the official vote count came online, Evo’s lead moved past the 10% hurdle. The next day he declared victory.

Yet opposition protestors had already taken to the streets. Government offices suffered arson attacks, including facilities where paper ballots were being stored. Many were burned. Street clashes broke out between organized opposition groups and supporters of Evo Morales.

In response to the protests, the government called on the Organization of American States (the OAS) to audit the vote. As that process got under way, street protests intensified. The Bolivian police used non-lethal force to disperse protestors, many of whom sought to enter a secure area surrounding the national palace.

Who is the Opposition?

The question of “who the opposition is” is complicated. Though widely popular (he won at least 47% of the vote), Evo Morales was opposed by a range of social groups. Many young people, frustrated at the lack of employment, were at the fore.

Urban middle classes, many of whom had supported Evo in prior elections, were also frustrated with Evo’s attempt to prolong his presidency. Feminists, anarchists, and many committed leftists also opposed the re-election, arguing that the government had taken a turn to the right.

Despite the popular and nationalist approach to redistributing wealth earned from natural gas sales, Evo’s once revolutionary credentials had been sullied by a range of compromises with the right and the military.

Land reform had stalled. The government had deepened its support for the arch-conservative agro-industrial elite of the east. This included subsidies for diesel, government credit, and a measure that would facilitate more deforestation in favor of the soy industry.

Violence against women had intensified, but had seen little serious government response. Though somewhat leftist in comparative perspective, Evo’s government had deepened the country’s links to extractive capital.

Even so, the right wing, like the military, are a politically fickle and disloyal bunch. Bankers and agro-industrialists had reaped great wealth during the long period of economic growth and stability during Evo’s government. Nonetheless, a vocal sector of the extreme right was at the center of the hard-core opposition to Evo.

Hailing from the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, this more extreme sector of the opposition seized the opportunity for a putsch. Led by a relatively unknown civic leader named Luis Fernando Camacho, and allied with an Andean opposition figure named Marco Pumari, of Potosí, this “civic” opposition demanded that Evo resign.

Evidencing the conservative Catholic and evangelical Protestant tenor of the re-emergent right, the opposition reacted to Evo’s secular turn — and Indigenous symbols like the Pachamama, or Mother Earth — by demanding that “God be returned” to the national palace.

Clearly reflecting a premeditated plan, organized gangs of young men took to the streets to violently confront pro-Evo supporters. One group in Cochabamba, calling themselves “The Cochabamba Youth Resistance” or RJC, consisted of hundreds of men on motorcycles wielding sticks, bats and shields.

The RJC was clearly inspired (and likely coordinated) with a similar organization from Santa Cruz, a men’s group with fascist tendencies called the “Cruceño Youth Union” (Unión Juvenil Cruceñista or UJC). The UJC sent men into the streets of Santa Cruz to confront Evo supporters, enforce a city-wide work stoppage, and occupy public buildings.

The hard-right Camacho, in a bid to provoke instability and bring a violent style of Santa Cruz politics to La Paz, traveled to La Paz with his own delegation of UJC bodyguards to deliver a letter of resignation that he demanded Evo sign. The stunt further heightened the intensity of clashes.

As the otherwise moderate opposition clamored for political renovation and democracy, this more extreme and violent sector elbowed its way to the fore.

How the Coup Unfolded

Clashes between pro- and anti-Evo forces intensified with a few fatalities. The police did not deploy lethal force, but were increasingly subjected to public scorn from the opposition.

Three weeks into the protests, on November 8, police in major cities declared themselves amotinados, in mutiny. In effect, they refused to keep order. This was the first sign that a coup was coming.

On November 10, the OAS released a preliminary report on the elections, suggesting that there had been “irregularities” but failing to demonstrate any hard evidence for a major miscount. In response, Evo Morales, by then having retreated to an air force base outside the city, announced that there would be new elections.

At this point a dialogue might have still been possible. Yet the more extreme opposition intensified its calls for Evo’s ouster. That same day, the military high command went on television and “suggested” that Evo Morales resign.

Evo and his vice-president flew to the Chapare region where his support was strongest. From there Evo announced his resignation. The next evening a Mexican air force plane landed in the tropical region and he was flown to exile in Mexico. The fraud claims have not yet been substantiated, and may never be. But by any reasonable measure, it was a coup.

With government figures resigning under intense threats and pressure, the chain of succession eventually made its way down to an opposition Senator named Jeanine Añez. Añez proclaimed herself president despite the absence of a quorum in Congress (many of Evo’s legislators were in hiding and under threat for their lives).

Añez, who hails from the cattle-ranching region of the Amazonian state of Beni, belongs to a right-wing opposition party called the Democrats (Demócratas) [sic]. Her party had garnered only four percent of the vote in the elections.

The task of the coup government (coup deniers and apologists referred to it as a transition government) technically would be to call for and guarantee free and fair elections. Yet in the face of protests clamoring for Evo’s return, Añez sent out the military who killed more than 20 people.

Some suggested that the military had done the right thing by asking Evo to resign, to avoid being asked to kill in his defense. Yet the military had few qualms about killing for Añez in the early days of the coup government. Indeed one of Añez’ first acts as president — despite the outcry from the international human rights community — was to emit a decree guaranteeing the military impunity. (It has been abrogated, albeit only after two episodes of mass killing.)

The coup regime has also named a new cabinet that appears to be set to use its power to rake back what it can before new elections can be held. A number of policy shifts are underway. Cuban doctors were sent home. Diplomatic ties with Israel and the United States were restored.

Political persecution of MAS supporters and social movement leaders has intensified across the country. The government is arguing that there is a threat of “terrorism and sedition” to mobilize special military units.

This is a revanchist putsch led by the most conservative sectors of society. On social media, many who opposed Evo’s re-election for the sake of democracy, are now decrying a dictatorship of the right. At this writing, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has issued a report arguing that “grave violations” of human rights merit an independent investigation.

The Need for Solidarity

In a bid for stability, the congressional representatives of Evo’s MAS party — still technically a majority in Congress — entered into negotiations to establish a procedure for new elections. The elections were approved as law on November 23, with elections set for April. Given the reality of the shift of the forces of power in the country — especially that of the police and military — the MAS conceded that Evo Morales would not be returning to be on the ballot.

Many critical observers in the United States are eager to see the hand of the CIA or some other U.S. involvement in the coup, something that is hard to prove. We may someday learn of backstage support, but at the moment the eagerness to blame the U.S. hinders us from understanding both the errors of Evo’s government and the complexity and form of the Bolivian opposition.

The Bolivian right is more than capable of staging its own counter-revolutionary coups, having done so several times in the past. Of more concern is U.S. acquiescence and support after the fact, like that of many pundits, observers and intellectuals who suggest that the coup was in fact not a coup, but a “victory for democracy.”

At this writing, traditional conservative parties have seemingly risen from the dead, having been given some new life by the putsch. It remains to be seen if the MAS will remain a majority party in the April elections, assuming that conditions do not deteriorate.

The coup will surely lead the country into a new phase of social movement organizing and struggle, but it may take some time for movements to reconsolidate their autonomy and their political projects after many years of a stagnated and bureaucratic process of change.

Whichever government emerges will face a significant fiscal challenge. With income from gas revenues flat, and expectations high, we may see a return to fiscal austerity, a growth in debt, the return of the IMF and the World Bank as policy arbiters.

Though it will face strong opposition in Bolivia, the United States may also seek to restore its militaristic approach to foreign policy by re-upping its ‘war on drugs’ in Bolivia, and reintroducing the Drug Enforcement Agency along with forms of soft control, such as the USAID (US Agency for International Development), both expelled by Evo in the mid-2000s.

Solidarity from the United States, in the face of these risks, will be crucial in the longer term. This must include vigilance in the face of the Trump administration, which has given legitimacy to the coup government and hopes to repeat the Bolivia coup experiment in Venezuela.

We must also support congressional leaders who were bold enough to call it a coup, among them Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, as well as those who are calling for human rights monitoring.

We should also speak out against those who wish to apologize for this coup, a move that at once demonizes Evo Morales (with no small dose of paternalistic racism) and the leftist ideals that mobilized his supporters, while giving license to military intervention. This acquiescence to military intervention is frightening in an era in which democracy is in tatters, and in which the fascistic urge is growing among middle classes and their oligarchic supporters across the Americas and around the world.

January-February 2020, ATC 204

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