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People are Dying in the Streets: Interview With a Bolivian Socialist

Left Voice spoke with Juana Runa, a member of the Liga Obrera Revolucionaria – Cuarta Internacional (LOR-CI) and Bread and Roses in Bolivia, about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bolivia and the insufficient response by the current interim coup government.

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(Image: Juan Karita/Associated Press)

The social, economic, and political situation in Bolivia is becoming increasingly dire. With a healthcare system overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases after years of cuts and privatization in the healthcare system, doctors are forced to turn patients away and are being infected at high rates. People are dying in the streets or at their homes without ever being tested or diagnosed. This public health crisis is exacerbated by the economic and political crises perpetrated by Jeanine Áñez’s right-wing coup government, which is using increasingly authoritarian measures to quell the social unrest that is steadily building in the country. Left Voice spoke with Juana Runa, a member of the Liga Obrera Revolucionaria – Cuarta Internacional (LOR-CI) and Bread and Roses in Bolivia, about the current situation and the insufficient response by both the interim coup government and its opposition.

What is the status of the Covid-19 health crisis in Bolivia right now? How prepared is Bolivia to handle a health crisis of this magnitude?

The coup government of Jeanine Áñez hasn’t tired of boasting that they quickly declared quarantine, always emphasizing that they reacted promptly by taking this step. Nowadays, however, the situation is becoming drastic three months after the government imposed a militarized quarantine, without having also implemented basic biosecurity measures, much less mass testing.

As is evident in a country where the vast majority of workers live on what they earn in a day to feed themselves and ensure their most basic needs, a strictly enforced quarantine that has been in place for two months is totally unsustainable. It is a time bomb. This became evident in the last few weeks as hunger strikes across the country have broken out, combined with the demand for emergency elections, in the face of the brutality and escalating repression with which the coup leaders have been managing the pandemic.

Infections in the country are dramatically increasing. It’s a complicated situation because thousands of families are driven by hunger to go out and work. Áñez and her government have begun to relax the quarantine at great cost; they are doing it in a totally irresponsible way because they have systematically refused to implement mass testing. This is criminal considering that we have one of the most precarious health systems in the region and today public health is beginning to collapse. In fact, quarantine has been the only “sanitary” measure imposed by the coup government.

In the region of Beni, for example, 70 percent of the health workers, who had to face the pandemic without proper personal protective equipment, are in quarantine and on leave because they were infected with Covid-19. Some have quit out of fear, and at least three doctors have died. In Beni they are forced to choose who lives and who is left to die. Mass graves are being dug quickly, and people are dying at home without even being diagnosed.

Because of the toll that the crisis has taken on healthcare workers, two important hospitals in La Paz and El Alto have been forced to shut down. Workers have been unable to cope with the increasingly worsening conditions.

The extended militarized quarantine has already led to starvation suicides in the country. This is not an “inevitable tragedy”; it is a social crime. This situation is the fault of the coup perpetrators who profit from the pandemic and do so in such an obscene manner that it began to spill over into cases of corruption. In the six months that they have been in control of the state, they have consistently shown that they carried out the coup d’état to use state resources to serve their business and class interests.

The contagion curve in the country is on the rise. To date, there are 20,000 cases, but we know that these “official numbers” are not credible because there are not enough tests. The situation has become so dire that at least 10 people have died in the streets, most of whom had been out seeking medical attention and were turned away by hospitals. 

In this scenario, the social and health crisis triggered by the pandemic is deepening, as is the political and economic crisis.

Since the coup d’état in Bolivia, we have been living through a permanent state of exception, which is today being used to strengthen the militarization and repression under the pretext of the pandemic.

This delicate situation is also the responsibility of Evo Morales and his party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS), because they left behind a precarious health system, thanks to the proliferation of neoliberal laws that dismantled public health. Moreover, the MAS regime forced the working class into precarious conditions with unstable work. Also MAS has been in charge of systematically negotiating with the coup bloc. They have legitimized the coup d’état by negotiating new elections with its leaders, the date of which are uncertain. The candidate for the MAS party, Luis Arce Catacora, uses progressive rhetoric surrounding the coronavirus. For example, he has called for a quarantine salary and a wealth tax. Yet, although the MAS has a two-thirds majority in parliament, it has been silent on all these initiatives. Not only that, Arce Catacora recently publicly recognized Áñez as a constitutional president while the popular sectors that mobilized against her and carried out hunger protests, which the MAS was in charge of containing, are demanding her resignation.

Despite all this, the coup has strengthened the MAS, and that is why they feel they do not need to address workers’ needs. Instead they are placing all their bets on the upcoming elections. Even so, the masses have expectations for the elections because many see the impunity with which the coup perpetrators have operated and the obscene profits they have made from the health crisis, which will only serve to make the lives of hundreds of thousands of people even more precarious.

There is a crisis in the coup bloc: the nonexistent legitimacy of Áñez and her racist government strengthens the role of the armed forces. There are even rumors, encouraged by explicit threats from high-ranking representatives of the military, of a second phase of the coup and the eventual closure of the parliament.

What is the state of the interim government? And how will it affect elections in the fall, especially during this crisis?

The self-proclaimed transitional government, headed by Áñez, came to power as a result of a right-wing movement formed by the middle classes, financed by agribusiness and other business sectors, endorsed and promoted by imperialist powers and the Organization of American States, and blessed by the churches. This right-wing uprising was the one that consummated the coup d’état in November, with the support of the police and the armed forces. All this was very well expressed when, on November 12, the army chief put the presidential sash around Áñez’s shoulders and then she, with the Bible in her hand, proclaimed herself the transitional president.

The openly racist and classist character with which the coup leaders came to power was also expressed when, as soon as they took power, they burned the wiphala, the flag that is a symbol of struggle and cultural identity of the country’s indigenous communities. This fact unleashed the resistance movement to the coup d’état and starkly exposed the strong social and political polarization of a deeply racialized country like Bolivia. The mobilizations against the coup took place despite the MAS’s conciliatory policy.

To stop the resistance movement that was developing in the streets, the coup leaders perpetrated three massacres (Sacaba in Cochabamba, Senkata in El Alto, and Ovejuyo in La Paz), which left nearly 40 men, women, and young people dead, and hundreds of people detained and tortured in police centers. Áñez tried to ensure the army’s impunity for these murders with a decree exempting them from criminal responsibility. The two-thirds of MAS in the parliament unfortunately did not question all this and even approved a law calling for new elections and allowing the de facto government to cover itself with a mantle of “democratic legality.”

On June 12, Áñez was supposed to enact the law to set elections on September 6, a date which was finalized as a result of negotiations between MAS, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and the coup government. However, Áñez did not approve the date for the new elections but instead presented a letter to the Senate requesting that Congress send her a medical report to determine the health safety of this date, arguing that health “comes first.” Considering that the government has done almost nothing to protect workers and those getting sick, this is a blatantly ridiculous political maneuver. No election date has been set yet. 

The situation is very unstable and dynamic. While there is greater social pressure from the popular sectors and the workers who have been suffering from the quarantine and have begun to lose their fear of repression and the virus, because hunger threatens their lives more, the right-wing coup is leaning on the repressive apparatuses to seek to extend themselves in power.

The truth is that with all that has happened in the country, it is not difficult to imagine that after the massacres and all the openly neoliberal and privatizing measures that the de facto government seeks to quickly impose by taking advantage of the pandemic, they will certainly not be willing to lose control of the state through the ballot box.

In any case, the whole of the people’s demands are subordinated to the evolution of the class struggle, whether or not elections are held.

What happened recently with the military and the Senate? What does that have to do with the interim government?

A few months ago, the self-proclaimed transitional government of Áñez proposed to the Senate a list of military personnel, related to the coup bloc, to be promoted to higher ranks. In doing so, however, Áñez left off the payroll military personnel who would qualify but would not be considered “reliable,” thus violating internal regulations of the armed forces.

This situation provoked pushback from the Senate, putting on hold the promotions proposed by Áñez. In response, the commander of the Armed Forces, Sergio Orellana, at a press conference — more than a week ago — after having entered the multinational legislative assembly in combat uniform, gave an ultimatum to the Senate to ratify the “promotions.” This provoked Eva Copa, representative of MAS and president of the Senate, to warn of a possible self-coup.

Today this battle is being fought in the Plurinational Constitutional Court, where Áñez wants the Senate to be forced to ratify her proposed payroll.

The importance of this dispute expresses the intention of the coup bloc to consolidate positions within the armed forces in the face of a situation of extreme instability, not only in national politics but also within the armed forces themselves.

Can you elaborate on the recent scandal surrounding the Bolivian health minister?

In the midst of the social and health crisis, the former minister of health, Marcelo Navajas, was involved in a tremendous case of corruption in which 170 basic respirators were purchased at more than $3.5 million over price. This equipment was also criticized because it is insufficient to deal with cases of Covid-19. As if that were not enough, because this equipment has not been updated, it cannot even be used.

Each respirator cost about $7,000 and was purchased at $28,000. This was done while basic biosafety inputs are alarmingly lacking, while we face the pandemic without sufficient testing and amid a crisis situation in which tens of thousands of people are suffering from hunger.

Navajas was removed. Áñez had to appoint a new minister, the third one, in the months of her government and so far in the pandemic.

With this case, in barely seven months, the coup government has had 15 major corruption scandals.

How are the working class and the indigenous communities responding to the crisis? What positions has the Revolutionary Workers League (LOR-CI) taken up throughout the crisis? How are you responding both to the events in the government and to the response from the working class?

Until now, the response to the crisis caused by the pandemic has been led by the popular and most impoverished sectors that in different parts of the country have been forced to carry out spontaneous, self-organized hunger strikes, because their very lives are being threatened.

Hunger strikes have been combined with demands for elections now. But the driving force behind them is the urgent need to demand the provision of essential services, such as water and the right to work, because there is hunger and you cannot live without food. Indigenous peoples have declared a state of emergency, noting that they have been forgotten and left to their own devices to face this pandemic because they have no access to health and even their food supply has been severely restricted.

So far, even though many small and medium-size enterprises have been closing and stopping operations, which means massive layoffs and salary cuts, the working class is slowly beginning to respond to the crisis. This is because the union bureaucracies have played a containment role. After having policed workers within the unions on behalf of the MAS, they did not hesitate for a second to go over to the coup side, and today they contain the workers despite the desperation of tens of thousands who not only face the risk of the virus but are being left without work and condemned to live in much more precarious conditions. Yet the magnitude of the capitalist attack and the racism of the coup government is so great that we are sure that the working class will soon make its entry into the class struggle.

It is for this scenario that the LOR-CI is preparing, establishing the first programmatic responses that will allow us to confront the capitalist attack in progress and forging a strategy so that this time it is the rich and the capitalists who pay for the crisis, not the vast working rural and urban majorities.

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Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.

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