Coup and Resistance in Bolivia

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The coup against Evo Morales spells disaster for peasants, workers, and indigenous people. But the popular resistance shows the potential to overturn it.

Latin America is in a new era of convulsions. The past two years have seen popular uprisings in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile, and Colombia, with hundreds of thousands in the streets against the austerity plans of their governments. At the same time, we have also witnessed the growing strength of right-wing phenomena, such as the attempted coup in Venezuela and the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. This polarization is a product of the Latin American people’s disgust with years of austerity and neoliberalism, as well as the inability of the post-neoliberal Pink Tide governments to contain the masses while facing new economic crises across the region. To these right-wing advances, we can now add Bolivia, where the extreme right has executed a coup d’état against President Evo Morales. Proclaiming its desire for “democracy” in the face of an “authoritarian” government, the right wing quickly showed its true face: murderous, racist, and pro-imperialist.

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Since the assumption of Jeanine Áñez’s illegitimate government, 32 demonstrators have been killed, hundreds wounded, and hundreds more arrested. The Áñez regime has expelled dozens of international journalists, severely limiting coverage of the coup and the repression that has followed. Nearly 700 doctors from Cuba who had been providing vital free medical care to the country’s poor were also expelled.

In the days following the coup, the new government issued arrest warrants for Morales and for Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera. The police and the armed forces carried out a brutal repression with live ammunition against demonstrators in the streets. Right-wing mobs burned the indigenous Wiphala flag and looted and burned the homes of MAS supporters. A mayor from the MAS was dragged through the streets in the town of Vinto, doused in red paint and her hair cut. “God has returned to the presidential palace” the coup leaders declared, as they assumed power, Bible in hand.

On November 21, thousands of demonstrators descended from El Alto and the provinces to downtown La Paz, carrying the coffins of those killed by the army days earlier. When the demonstrators reached La Paz, the army was waiting for them. The images of soldiers tear-gassing the coffin bearers and abandoned coffins in the middle of the street circulated across the world.

The police and military-led coup d’état underway in Bolivia has been organized entirely in the service of Bolivia’s elite, with the blessing of the agri-business sector, the Catholic church, the media conglomerates, and the most racist and reactionary sectors of Bolivian society. It has been fully endorsed by the Trump administration, the Organization of American States, the largest European imperialist powers, and right-wing figures across Latin America like Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. An explanation of this scenario requires examining the deep and structural contradictions that have developed in Bolivia in recent years.

Prior to the coup, President Evo Morales had enjoyed relatively high support among the working class and the poor. Poverty fell from 38 percent to 18 percent during his presidency as did income inequality, with the Gini score (a metric of income inequality) falling from 0.58 to 0.46. Most notably, after decades in which indigenous traditions and languages were marginalized by the state and the media, Morales’s administration brought a revalorization of indigenous communities not only in economic terms but also in the realm of recognition: legal rights, access to government office, indigenous languages in schools, recognition of Bolivia as a “plurinational” country, etc. The country also enjoyed a more or less stable economic situation and sustained economic growth over the last 10 years. Bolivia has largely avoided economic crises like those which have affected Argentina, Venezuela, and Brazil since 2011-12. In this context, it is understandable that vast sectors of masses hold illusions in Evo Morales’s leadership. The situation in Bolivia today, however, shows the limits of so-called “Andean capitalism,” in which the bourgeoisie’s profits and power were preserved and a real strategy for socialism was never on the agenda.

On October 20, however, a semi-spontaneous movement led by the middle classes arose in opposition to supposed electoral fraud carried out by Morales and his party, the MAS. Within a few days, the movement became radicalized and was joined by members of various sectors who had been aggravated by 14 years of Morales’s government. This veneer of popular support allowed the opposition to conceal its deeply reactionary, racist, and clerical character. The initial coalition included the Cochala Youth Resistance and the Santa Cruz Youth Union, ultra-right organizations which resented the new democratic rights offered to indigenous people by the MAS government, as well as various neighborhood associations and so-called “civic committees.”

The business sector, particularly the agro-industrial sector, joined the coup movement only in its final moments, when Morales’s weakness was evident. A mutiny against the government by the police began in the city of Cochabamba, quickly spreading to the rest of the country. The Armed Forces also gave tacit support to the coup and declared that they would not repress the “people.” They later suggested publicly that Evo Morales resign—a statement welcomed by Donald Trump on Twitter. These various rebellions against Morales eventually coalesced and ended in the political alliance that today governs Bolivia.

The Role of the Ruling Classes and Imperialism

Over the last decade, the MAS government had become increasingly assimilated to Bolivia’s ruling class, gradually stripping itself of its indigenous and popular composition and incorporating figures who were far removed from the social movements, including technocrats and professional administrators. In a context of economic stability and growth fed by the high price of raw materials, the MAS believed it could partner with private businesses and even transnational corporations to advance the “common interests” of all Bolivians. Indeed, many important sectors of the ruling class profited more than ever under the Morales government. Among these were the financial and banking sectors, import businesses, and finally the agribusiness sector, which since 2014 enjoyed unprecedented legal and economic benefits under Morales.

If the situation was clearly so favorable to them, why did these sectors turn on Morales? Answering this question requires examining not only the role of the MAS in the economic and political stabilization of Bolivia, but also the social relations in the country. The MAS began as an organization of peasant and coca farmers — or cocaleros — who had suffered from decades of government-led eradication efforts. Under the previous neoliberal regimes, the party’s popularity rose sharply among the poor after the Water War and Gas War of 2003, two popular uprisings against privatization of the country’s water and natural gas reserves. After its electoral victory in 2005, the MAS was able to make several economic concessions, thanks to a balance of power favorable to the poor and working class.

With the end of the boom in raw material prices, the Morales government was seen as an unreliable partner due to its indigenous origins and Morales’s “socialist” and anti-imperialist rhetoric. With a marked deceleration of the country’s economy and an increasing fiscal deficit since 2014, the business sector distrusted Morales’s ability to ensure profitability. This distrust was not enough to encourage a coup exit, however, and this explains why, when the coup first took shape, the business sector took more than 15 days to take a stand; they would not do so until the weakness of the regime and the government became clear.

Morales’s Bonapartism Fed the Right-Wing Opposition

In 2008, a new constitution, agreed upon by both the MAS and the Right-Wing in the eastern provinces of the country, was approved. However, after pacifying its peasant and indigenous base, the MAS government became increasingly authoritarian and resistant to any criticism, however slight, even from its traditional bastions of support. At the same time, the government attempted to co-opt the various indigenous, peasants, and workers organizations of the country—either incorporating them into the regime or building parallel organizations without rank-and-file support but which were financed with state resources.

The first evidence of this turn was the government’s attempt in December 2011 to impose a major hike in gasoline prices, an attempt that Morales would later be forced to rescind in the face of enormous popular resistance. At the same time, Evo Morales faced the resistance of the indigenous peoples of the TIPNIS (Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory) who rejected the construction of a highway through their territories. These communities received enormous popular support against an extractivist policy that only deepened the plundering of indigenous wealth. In June 2013, the government’s pension reform was achieved only after fierce repression of the Bolivian workers, who organized one of the largest struggles in years—a process that culminated in the formation of the short-lived Workers’ Party, an organization which was led by Bolivia’s largest union federation, which includes the COB (Central Obrera Boliviana), the Huanuni Mining Union, and other unions. The defeat of this movement by the government was only achieved through the repression of its leaders, the persecution of hundreds of miners, and the cooptation and bribery of the upper layers of the mining, manufacturing, and oil union bureaucracy. These events contributed to the distancing of important sectors of workers from the MAS.

This accumulation of discontent and anger eventually pushed former COB leaders and entire unions persecuted by the government into the ranks of the right-wing opposition. Though the COB first supported Morales at the outbreak of the coup, it was unable to mobilize its base and subsequently made direct overtures to the coup and called for Morales’s resignation.

The qualitative leap in Morales’ Bonapartism came in 2019 after he ignored the result of a 2016 referendum prohibiting a third term for the president. Through various legal and judicial maneuvers, and despite voters’ rejection of the measure, Morales stood for election again. Finally, the denunciations of fraud on October 20 triggered the mobilization of the opposition, culminating in the resignation of Evo Morales on November 10. Now, a negotiation of the Right Wing and the MAS in parliament has resulted in an agreement to call for new elections, but without the participation of Morales or Vice President Álvaro García Linera.

Unleash the Power of Indigenous, Peasant, and Worker Resistance

The right-wing opposition, hegemonized by the bourgeoisie in the eastern city of Santa Cruz and the Catholic Church, celebrated Morales’ resignation. Protesters burned indigenous flags. Policemen cut the indigenous symbol off their uniforms, holding Bibles and claiming to defend “democracy.” The coup leaders, Fernando Camacho and Carlos Mesa, unleashed a furious political persecution against the MAS party and the workers and indigenous people who rejected the coup. They burned their homes, detained people, and brutally repressed anti-coup demonstrations.

We should make no mistake: This is a coup organized by Bolivian capitalists, agribusiness, the church, and the Armed Forces. It is supported by U.S. imperialist interests organized in the OAS, and it has a deeply racist, homophobic, anti-worker, and anti-indigenous perspective. A few days after the coup, the illegitimate government of Jeanine Áñez passed decree 4078, exempting the military from any criminal responsibility when repressing protests.

For their part, Morales and the MAS not only responded too late to the offensive of big business, the police, and the military, but their strategy also contributed to its eventual victory at each step. The Bolivian Legislative Assembly, which is overwhelmingly controlled by the MAS, could have refused to accept Morales’s resignation. This would have at least presented an obstacle to the leaders of the coup. Instead, the MAS ended up recognizing Áñez’s illegal assumption of power, in exchange for the freedom of its members and assurances that the party would be able to participate in the upcoming elections. Needless to say, this policy of negotiation with the coup government, that Morales himself has supported from Mexico, only serves to demoralize the sectors who want to resist the coup.

However, despite the calls for dialogue from the MAS and its allies, the population began a spontaneous, growing mobilization against the right and for respect for the wiphala, a symbol of the struggle of the indigenous peoples. Deploying impressive methods of self-organization and encouraging the transformation of the mobilization’s program from a rejection of racism to the defeat of the coup d’état, the workers and neighbors of El Alto are confronting the right-wing opposition. Tens of thousands meet daily in town halls and assemblies that regularly march to the center of La Paz. The Túpac Katari peasant federation has initiated a mobilization to block access to La Paz, just as they did in 2003 and 2005. The miners of Colquiri and Coro Coro were the first workers’ detachments to join the resistance. Soon the rural teachers’ union joined too. The racist actions of the right, particularly the burning of the wiphala, have awakened a sleeping giant in the indigenous movement.

The coup government is far from stable. The possibility of a civil war erupting is not out of the question. This makes for an extremely volatile situation with an outcome that is difficult to predict.

The will of indigenous people, peasants, and working people to struggle, expressed in the resistance to the coup, makes it clear that the ruling class has not succeeded in radically altering the balance of forces in the country. The movement continues to develop by the day. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that this resistance has taken place largely in spite of the leaderships of the country’s top union and party.

The creation of self-defense committees in the working-class city of El Alto represents a key element in the effort to defeat the coup and the savage repression, as are the many forms of self-organization among workers and poor people. These popular committees have rejected opportunist leaders and replaced them with those who are willing to put up a fight. The role of the working class, aligned with peasants and the indigenous movement, is key to constituting a counter-power to the state and the armed forces, defeating the repression, and retaking the agenda of the workers and popular classes in Bolivia.

What is certain is that a severe social and racial rift has been reopened in the country.

Will the agreed upon election between the right and the MAS definitively deflect the rebellion of the masses against the coup d’état? Will they succeed in getting the mobilized masses to give up their demands, which expose the limits of Morales’ post-neoliberal government? Will a new right-wing regime be able to settle in Bolivia within the framework of profound agitation and class struggle across Latin America?

These urgent questions demonstrate that a pre-revolutionary or even a revolutionary situation may develop in Bolivia if the masses succeed in radicalizing the resistance to the coup and overcome the MAS’s politics of dialogue and negotiation. Once again, the Bolivian working class and peasants have shown their willingness to fight the reactionary and racist minority that historically has held the reigns of the country. In recent years, Morales and his party have acted as mediators between those two antagonistic forces. With the MAS’s role as an intermediary severely weakened, the resistance against the coup, with its rapidly developing bodies of self-defense and self-organization, may very well develop into a force capable of defeating the Right, the capitalists, and the agents of U.S. imperialism in Bolivia.

Translation: Robert Belano

About author

Javo Ferreira

Javo Ferreira

Javo is a leading member of the Revolutionary Workers League — Fourth International (LOR-CI) and an editor of our sister site La Izquierda Diario Bolivia. He is author of the book Comunidad, indigenismo y marxismo (Community, Indigenism, and Marxism).