Following last November’s coup, for almost two weeks now the Bolivian workers, peasants and indigenous people have been mobilizing against the anti-democratic, anti-working class and pro-imperialist government of Jeanine Áñez.
André Ferrari, Liberdade, Socialismo e Revolução (ISA in Brazil)
For almost two weeks, the movement of Bolivian workers, peasants and indigenous people has been mobilizing marches, demonstrations, and more than a hundred roadblocks throughout the country against the anti-democratic, anti-working class, and pro-imperialist project of Jeanine Áñez’s illegitimate government.
The Bolivian Workers’ Center (COB) and the Unity Pact, which brings together several indigenous and peasant movements, called for a day of struggle on August 3. A wide layer of unorganized demonstrators, describing themselves as “self-convened”, have also been motivated to participate in the movement. The trigger that sparked these protests was the third consecutive postponement of the presidential elections originally called for May of this year.
The decision of the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) to cancel the last date set for the elections, September 6, and appoint a new one for October 18 has strengthened expectations that the government that resulted from the November 2019 coup is seeking to remain in power indefinitely, and is unwilling to guarantee free elections in the country.
During the mobilizations, in addition to the demand to keep the date previously established for the elections, calls for the immediate fall of Áñez’s government have been gaining strength.
In addition to state repression and the sordid racist campaign that has been promoted against the indigenous workers’ and peasants’ movements, there has also been the aggressive attacks by fascist groups on the roadblocks and against activists and leaders of the movement. The headquarters of the COB and the Federation of Peasant Women “Bartolina Sisa” in La Paz suffered a bomb attack in the early hours of August 14.
Many of these groups, which have fascist characteristics, like the “Unión Juvenil Cruceñista” from Santa Cruz or the “Resistencia Juvenil Cochala” from Cochabamba, are those that played a similar role, with the connivance of the police and army, in creating the climate of terror that marked the 2019 coup.
After more than ten days of road blockades, mobilizations and confrontations, an agreement between Members of Congress representing the “Movimento Al Socialismo” (MAS), the party of former President Evo Morales and the forces of the right meant that the Plurinational Legislative Assembly approved, on August 13, a law guaranteeing the date of October 18 as definitive, no longer to be amended by any other authority.
Faced with this scenario, at first, the leadership of the COB and the Unity Pact hesitated to accept the agreement. But, in the end, they decided to suspend the mobilizations, but promising to stay vigilant until the date set for the elections.
In some regions, a part of the movement disagreed with the conciliatory stance of the leadership, particularly that linked to the MAS and Evo Morales, and tried to maintain the mobilization a few days longer. But, in general, the movement ended up retreating.
The conciliatory position of accepting the date proposed by the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) was defended from the beginning by Evo Morales, who also emphatically rejected the demand for Jeanine Áñez’s immediate fall.
Racism, repression and the pandemic
Despite this stance by Evo Morales, the government and right-wing forces, seeking to wear down the MAS, have accused the former president of being behind the protests and of being responsible for “social chaos” in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. They are attempting to demonize the MAS for electoral purposes and recover some of the support lost by Áñez among middle-class sectors.
A cynical campaign was conducted denouncing the roadblocks and the MAS as responsible for the lack of hospital oxygen and other medical materials in several regions of the country, and consequently the death of at least 30 people with Covid-19. On many occasions, however, the government chose to use the roads blocked to transport hospital oxygen from Santa Cruz to the rest of the country when it had other options.
This racist campaign, which characterized the struggling indigenous people as “inhuman beasts” who were promoting “biological warfare” by spreading the virus throughout the country, served as the basis for a fierce repressive wave.
Government Minister Arturo Murillo even stated in an interview with CNN that “it would be politically correct to put a bullet in the demonstrators”.
Murillo has a history of cowardly and murderous repression. His hands are soiled with workers’, indigenous and popular blood in the repression of resistance against the 2019 coup, particularly in the massacres in Sacaba in the region of Cochabamba, and Senkata in El Alto. In both regions at least 33 demonstrators were killed by state forces.
What Áñez and his accomplices do not recognize is that the precariousness of the Bolivian health system is the result of this government’s absolute inability to face the pandemic. It is a government that buys hospital respirators that do not work at prices four times those of the market while spending even more on the purchase of tear gas cartridges and other warlike equipment to be used against its own people.
The vast majority of Bolivia’s 36 indigenous groups have been completely abandoned by the government and are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic and the social and economic crisis.
Jeanine Áñez refuses to enact a set of laws already passed by the Legislative Assembly to address the health and social emergency. Among them is a law that guarantees obligatory and free assistance to patients with Covid-19 in private hospitals. The government’s objective is to guarantee the enormous profits of private health during the pandemic.
Pending enactment there is also a law that makes it possible to reduce rents during the quarantine and another that prevents the cancellation of contracts for non-payment of debts by the end of the year. The government’s refusal to enact even these timid laws shows who Jeanine Áñez serves.
The Bolivian workers, peasants and indigenous people suffer severely the effects of the pandemic and the economic and social crisis. It is they who die because of impoverished living conditions and the lack of preventative measures and medical assistance. The number of cases of Covid-19 has already surpassed the one hundred thousand mark, with more than 4,600 deaths officially, in a country of 11.6 million inhabitants.
But we know that these numbers are completely underestimated. The number of bodies found on the streets and in houses has surpassed 400 in just a few days of July. According to the authorities themselves, more than 85% of these cases are related to Covid-19.
At the same time, hunger and a sharp worsening of living conditions during the health and economic crisis are forcing millions of people to seek a way out to survive. Nine out of ten Bolivians saw their income reduced during the pandemic, with four out of ten simply no longer having any income.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Jeanine Áñez was brought to power by a coup d’état exclusively to guarantee the interests of the big capitalists in Bolivia, to pave the way for the exploitation of natural resources by multinational companies, and to ensure the maintenance of power in the hands of reactionary oligarchies.
Therefore, fighting against this murderous government is part of the struggle for survival for the majority of the Bolivian people.
The Coup and escalation of authoritarian rule
The November 2019 coup was promoted by Bolivian reactionary elites and US imperialism. It brought to power Jeanine Áñez along with an entourage of the representatives of the most rotten, racist, authoritarian and anti-working class sections of Bolivian society.
A deeper sense of what happened in Bolivia in 2019 can be grasped in the explicit pronouncement of Elon Musk, magnate owner of the Tesla company, when asked on twitter if his interests in Bolivian lithium were behind the coup. He simply replied: “we will coup whoever we want! Deal with it”.
The coup was planned from the U.S. embassy in La Paz, with the collaboration of the extreme-right government of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and the Organization of American States (OAS) and was carried out using street actions and violent attacks promoted by extreme-right paramilitary groups amid a police riot and with the collaboration of the army.
The coup perpetrators demanded the resignation of Evo Morales and the non-recognition of the election result of October 20, 2019, that gave the Bolivian president another victory in the first round of voting by a small margin of votes.
The allegation of electoral fraud, used by the perpetrators to justify the coup was supported by the connivance of the OAS, which claimed to have identified irregularities in the counting of votes. Soon after, the U.S. State Department denounced Evo Morales’ government and gave carte blanche for the coup.
In June of this year, the New York Times reported that an independent investigation based on data obtained by the newspaper itself ruled out the arguments in the OAS report that served as political justification for the coup.
The coup had a certain social base of support among the dissatisfied sectors mainly of the Bolivian middle classes, but also from some poorer sectors, which, as in other Latin American countries, had been wound up by the propaganda of the right, exploiting the limits, contradictions, mistakes and even betrayals of the so-called “progressive” governments in the region.
After 13 years in power, in which important social and symbolic advances have been made in a society historically marked by deep social inequality and racism, Evo Morales never broke with the dynamics of Bolivian capitalism. This relies on an economic model based on the extraction of materials for export, so harmful to the environment and the interests of the indigenous peoples, and which strengthens the country’s dependency on the richer nations, even if Morales managed to obtain a certain improvement in income distribution.
Evo Morales’ political line has always been to prioritize conciliation with the dominant elites instead of seeking to defeating them based on the organization and struggle of the working, poor, peasant, and indigenous masses.
Gradually, this process escalated into an open conflict between the Morales government and sections of the social movements, including indigenous movements, whose demands implied a much firmer government stance against the landowners, multinationals, and big business in general.
In this context, Evo Morales’ social base found itself disorganized, confused, and without an alternative at the time of the coup d’état. Neither Evo Morales nor the MAS leadership had a clear policy of resistance and ended up accepting the situation and calling for negotiations and an agreement with the pro-coup right-wing.
This, however, did not prevent a broad popular mobilization in the weeks following the coup from taking place against Áñez’s new “de facto”, illegal and illegitimate government.
After very harsh repression, as in the case of the massacres in Sacaba and Senkata, and the promise to hold new elections in May, the leaderships of the social movements ended up accepting an agreement with Áñez’s government. Later, the expansion of the pandemic gave the government an excuse to move further in the authoritarian direction and postpone the elections.
Electoral strategy alone is not enough
The position of Evo Morales and the MAS leadership is reduced to betting everything on an electoral victory to return to power, even in the context of the arbitrary rule, repression and a clear manipulation of the electoral game by the right-wing, the oligarchs and imperialism. It is difficult to believe that they promoted a coup d’état in 2019, only to then simply agree on the peaceful return to power of the same party they overthrew.
A similar mistake was made by Lula and the leadership of the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil, which historically is a country with more stable institutions than Bolivia. After the 2016 parliamentary coup, which revoked the mandate of President Dilma Rousseff of the PT, the party’s central strategy was to place all their chips on Lula’s victory in the 2018 elections.
Despite all their confidence in the stability of Brazil’s “democratic institutions,” Lula was politically persecuted, prevented from running, and ended up arrested at the end of a judicial process full of irregularities headed by Judge Sérgio Moro. This paved the way for the rise to the presidency of the ultra-right Jair Bolsonaro, who in turn appointed Moro as his minister of justice, fulfilling a previous agreement.
MAS argues that the main priority should be to avoid giving pretexts for a reaction from the right, believing that in this way they will be accepted back into the presidency. They believe they need to avoid direct struggle by the workers, peasants, and indigenous people in case it is used by the right-wing as propaganda against the MAS candidate or as justification for a new coup inside the coup.
Despite the unreliability of the polls, there are indications that the MAS candidate, Luis Arce Catacora, is ahead of his right-wing opponents and would have a good chance of winning if the electoral process was democratic and honest. Luis Arce is a former economy minister in Evo Morales’ administration, in his speeches he adopts a moderate position based on the advances and stability achieved by the previous administration.
The right-wing is, so far, divided against him. His main adversary is former President Carlos Mesa, the same candidate who ran against Evo Morales in the October 2019 elections.
Mesa, as vice president of the notorious neo-liberal Gonzalo Sánches de Lozada, earlier served as president after his predecessor was overthrown by a powerful mass movement in a semi-insurrectionary situation in the so-called “gas war” in October 2003. Carlos Mesa himself was overthrown in 2005 by popular mobilizations, which eventually led to Evo Morales’ election victory in 2006.
The illegitimate President Jeanine Áñez also poses as a candidate, trying at all costs to use her position at the head of the state apparatus to boost her candidacy. The ultra-right and proto-fascist leader of the Civic Committee Pro Santa Cruz, Luis Fernando Camacho, is also a candidate representing the most ultra-right forces of Santa Cruz and the Eastern regions of Bolivia.
The division on the right favors the electoral plans of the MAS. At the same time, given the existing social and political polarization, the possibility of a second-round in the elections is most likely and this could lead to some kind of agreement among these reactionary forces against the MAS.
Bolivia remains in a state of emergency after the 2019 coup. All available resources will be used to benefit the right in the electoral process, in addition to the enormous possibilities of fraud and manipulation of results.
At the same time, not only has Evo Morales been prevented from returning to the country and running for Senate, but a new campaign against him has been launched involving all sorts of charges, including rape and human trafficking.
MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce himself is facing several lawsuits that could at some point be used as a way to prevent him from running, winning, or even assuming the presidency if he wins the elections.
Even after the agreement on the new electoral law has been passed by the Legislative Assembly and although mobilizations and blockades by the COB and the Unity Pact have been suspended, the persecution of union, peasant, and indigenous leaders and activists is continuing. There are already 33 judicial cases against leaders of the movement being processed by the Bolivian Public Prosecution service.
The only possibility that the manipulations and arbitrariness promoted by the government and the oligarchs can be confronted is with popular mobilization, using the force of the streets. This has always been the case throughout Bolivia’s history and it will be no different now. Any illusion that the electoral process will be clean and fair and that the elites will accept any result will lead to further defeats and setbacks.
Crisis of direction of the mass movement
The August mobilizations clearly demonstrated that there is no lack of energy and willingness of the Bolivian people to fight against the illegitimate government. The struggle of recent weeks is a continuation of the mass resistance that took place against the coup d’état before the pandemic and shows that the workers are not yet definitively defeated.
What has been lacking in both situations is a strategy and a leadership capable of taking this force and struggle to its logical conclusion.
Even after the decision of the COB leadership and the Unity Pact to suspend the struggle and accept the new electoral law, several sections of the movement rejected the posture of these leaderships.
A “Cabildo abierto” (popular assembly involving all sectors of the movement) in the city of El Alto, held shortly after the new law was passed, decided to continue the struggle and approved a platform that included the immediate overthrow of Áñez and the defense of Bolivian natural resources in the face of the government’s privatization plans. They also demanded guarantees against the persecution of union and popular leaders while denouncing the attitude of the national leadership of the COB and other movements.
In some regions, the blockades and mobilizations continued for some time. But they did not last. Many workers, peasants, and indigenous people must draw conclusions about the role of their leadership in the struggle, and this should feed a process of reorganization of the trade union and popular movements and the Bolivian left, to enable the development of a genuinely revolutionary left political party capable of leading these movements to a socialist conclusion.
The struggle for the immediate holding of free and democratic elections cannot be separated from the struggle for the immediate overthrow of Jeanine Áñez and her government from the assassins and lackeys of imperialism and the local oligarchies.
The struggle for “Down with Áñez, for free and democratic elections now” should also be linked to the most urgent demands of the workers, peasants, indigenous peoples, and the poor in the cities and countryside in a context of pandemic and deep economic and social crisis.
This means fighting to guarantee jobs, wages and safe living and working conditions, massive investments in public services, especially in public health and the nationalization of private health.
Those historic demands raised in the great October 2003 uprising, the gas war, but not implemented by the MAS governments, remain valid. It is necessary to defend the nationalization of hydrocarbons, of all Bolivian natural wealth and all key sectors of the economy with democratic worker’s control.
There is no chance of stabilization of the Bolivian situation in the face of such a crisis and polarization. The struggles will resurface, this time fed by experience and the lessons of recent weeks.