Part two in a series about Bolivian de facto president Jeanine Áñez who took over in November 2019 following a civic-military coup d’état which took constitutional president Evo Morales out of power.
A preference for terror
Áñez decorated the military men who committed the massacres of Senkata and Sacaba. That action was also a message to her civilian base who, like the coup president, are deeply opposed to democracy for the Indigenous. On November 15, she increased military spending by more than U.S. $5 million to buy the loyalty of her henchmen. These gestures, it seems fair to suggest, are also designed to incite reactions among the families of those imprisoned by the hundreds, injured, and killed.
On March 5, the thirty-five-year anniversary of the city of El Alto was used for similar provocations. Right-wing politicians arrived to declare themselves the country’s saviors. Áñez was surrounded and escorted by a phalanx of police and soldiers, and apparently, she and her advisors were hoping for more bloodshed, because they had mobilized ambulances and firefighters to be on hand.
That day, cameraman René Guarachi filmed the reaction of the security forces to El Alto inhabitants, when the latter protested the presence of Áñez. They had just held a mass to honor the massacre victims who died in the neighborhood of Senkata. The footage shows uniformed forces firing tear gas on residents while gases poured into a school, causing terror. The crying children were met with police aggression.
Guarachi works with the media outlet of the Bartolina Sisa Confederation, an enormous network of Indigenous and campesina women. He streamed the footage of the repression live on their website and the views climbed from 55,000 in the first minutes to 355,000 in just a few hours, then to 800,000. For transgressing the de facto state censorship, Guarachi was tortured.
Another act of terror was also a personal message to Evo Morales and followed a MAS meeting in Argentina with the exiled president. The meeting planned an electoral strategy to return the poor to power. Marcial Escalante, the vice president of MAS in Yapacani, was kidnapped on December 20 after returning home from the meeting with Evo. Yapacani is a stronghold of MAS resistance in the right-wing department of Santa Cruz, located in the lowlands. Like many MAS cadre, Escalante had not lived in his home since the coup repression started. But that night, he visited. The kidnappers wore civilian clothes. They beat his wife as they seized him. Strangely, he ended up in police custody. He was released because they could not pin any charges on him.
Áñez, when she proclaimed herself president in La Paz, had long since given her blessing to paramilitaries or “shock groups” across the country. Under her rule, these armed bands attacked mothers and wives who wished to present their testimonies of the Senkata massacre to representatives of the United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Countless attacks have occurred against Indigenous women who were guilty of nothing but wearing their traditional dress, the pollera.
In the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, the paramilitaries are mounted on motorcycles, carrying homemade explosives and weapons with which they attack working-class women and anyone who looks uncommitted to Miami values. Áñez praised their efforts and made them a gift of fifteen additional motorcycles.
In a more complicated act of hypocrisy, Áñez has tried to position herself as a protector of women who are victims of violence. She claims to be the key player against femicide, even though it was MAS who launched an extraordinary campaign to halt violence against women – a campaign cut short by the coup regime.
For many, the pain induced by Áñez’s peculiar promotion of womanhood is reflected in the coup government’s decision to release from prison a group of elite young men – among them the scions of oligarchical families of the lowland region of Santa Cruz – who, shortly before the coup, had been tried and sentenced for the gang rape of a young woman they knew personally. Such impunity is standard in countries ruled by the rich, but the vile pattern was changing in Evo’s Bolivia. The young men’s parents are adherents of the most violent faction of the paramilitary right, and probably its richest sector. The victim was hospitalized in agony for weeks, her genital region destroyed, before she died. Áñez stands with the country’s elites, who place blame on the young woman for going out with the rapists.
Those who question Áñez’s claims to represent women face violence. One woman, a graduate student in feminist studies, who voiced her opinions on social media, was subject to death threats. She escaped an attempted gang rape and was forced to go into hiding. Conservative women celebrate her attackers.
All the while, Áñez and the far-right leaders who rule the lowlands have given a hero’s welcome to elite terrorists and murderers. One politician they released from jail was serving time for the massacre of thirteen campesinos. A number of fugitives returning to Bolivia are politicians who fled the country to avoid corruption charges. Others worked hand in glove with the U.S. embassy to stoke civil war and plot magnicide between 2008 and 2009. For the right, they are freedom fighters, recovering the lost paradise of Bolivia’s neoliberal elites.
The axe of Áñez
Quality health care that is free of charge for all – an elusive dream in a rich country like the United States – had just been instituted by MAS before the coup. It is being dismantled by the current government, unconstitutionally. In concert with U.S. designs, Áñez falsely accused, imprisoned and harassed Cuban doctors, then broke relations with Cuba unilaterally. The doctors were flown home to the island to protect their physical safety. Their absence, together with the defunding of government-provided health care, wrought devastation even before the pandemic. After some 700 Cubans were evacuated, and in language uncommonly harsh for Cuban diplomacy, their foreign minister called Áñez “a liar, a coup-maker and a self-proclaimed president.”
Food for nursing mothers and young children, subsidies toward the goal of free universal education, and dietary support for the elderly were all critical MAS policies for many years, embraced by women. Áñez axed the program for mothers and their small children, abandoned elders to their fate, and put education programs on the chopping block. She formed programs with very similar names, but people are protesting for want of food. Hunger has driven some to suicide. Áñez recommended prayer and fasting during the quarantine, and distributed face masks with her party logo.
Axing MAS programs is neither legal nor constitutional. The sole mandate of the interim government was to hold elections as soon as possible. Unlawfully and unconscionably, Áñez is privatizing the entities that funded massive social programs, low-cost credit for farmers and the poor, subsidized housing construction and free gas hook-ups, and systematic infrastructural projects for campesino agriculture.
In the February 8 Peace and Civility Accords proposed by Evo Morales, who is campaign manager for MAS, women’s rights were again central. The MAS proposal has been ignored by the Right. The accords would seek to “eradicate hate speech entirely, and racism and all forms of discrimination.” They would “eradicate fake news” and instead, encourage “debate of ideas and political programs” such as health care and education.
The Peace and Civility Accords would “disarticulate all paramilitary and shock groups” and agree not to attack political campaign headquarters, the Wiphala, the ballots, or the people transporting and counting votes in the upcoming elections. Oddly, the opponents of MAS act like the proposal does not exist.
This vision of MAS is echoed in CARICOM’s (the Caribbean Community’s) call on December 18 for an end to racist violence perpetrated against the Indigenous in Bolivia, which the Caribbean nations managed to get passed in the belly of the monster itself, the Organization of American States.
In Bolivia, marchers against the coup constantly mention the name Túpak Katari, the Indigenous Aymara leader who, alongside his wife, Bartolina Sisa, and his sister Gregoria Apaza, almost brought down the Spanish regime in 1781. To that point in time, it was the most massive revolution in the colonial realms (ten years before the start of the Haitians’ successful revolution). They were campesinos and walked as traders to buy and sell coca leaves. For ten years before the uprising, Túpak Katari traversed the high country and subtropical regions, persuading campesinos of the necessity to take up arms. Their descendants share a collective conscience that is impenetrable to their class enemies. The two women were commanders and critical negotiators who built Indigenous unity: Gregoria united the Quechua and the Aymara.
The descendants of Sisa and Apaza
One of the most striking aspects of Áñez’s unconstitutional presidency is the ability of the poor, who are mostly Indigenous, to roll back the coup regime’s plans. The Indigenous streamed into the cities by the tens of thousands to protest the stolen elections of October and the outrages of the coup regime. Women spoke with rage and passion and continue to do so, knowing that they can be taken prisoner at any moment, to be beaten, tortured, and raped in detention. Such outrages are common and systematic, according to the poor.
Tens of thousands of marchers, together with the MAS majority in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, relentlessly pressured Áñez to overturn Decree 4078, the free-fire permission given to soldiers and police that assures no criminal prosecution for the killing or injuring of civilians. Under tremendous pressure from campesinos and the urban poor, the coup president agreed to remove the military from the streets.
The demobilization of the military was soon reversed by Áñez. In anticipation of the closing date of her interim presidency, January 22, Áñez sent some seventy thousand soldiers to cities and towns all over the nation, attempting to prevent the public from gathering to hear the broadcast of Morales’s speech, organized by MAS, that marked the constitutional end of his presidency.
Her message was clear: that the people who wanted to listen to the words of Evo Morales were terrorists. The women who lead the Six Federations of the Tropics in the Chapare, for their part, called on their leader Segundina Orellana to inform Áñez that her allegations they were terrorists were profoundly insulting.
At times, the humiliations dealt out by Áñez descend into the realm of the absurd. After months of coup-regime forces brutalizing women in polleras in public, Áñez called for a new law that would recognize Indigenous women as part of the national patrimony.
In the second week of March, Áñez faced another setback. MAS legislators forced the removal of her defense minister Fernando López Julio — an extraordinary feat. López had refused to appear before the Plurinational Legislative Assembly despite constitutionally sanctioned requests from that body. The legislators had wanted to question López minutely about the massacres over which he presided. He stepped down. Nonetheless, almost immediately, in a gesture contrary to all democratic logic, Áñez reappointed López to the same post.
MAS legislators had declared their intention to question López, interior minister Arturo Murillo, and then Áñez herself, to demand they answer for their crimes against humanity since November.
On May 21, in an action widely described as “unprecedented,” all the branches of the armed forces gave a chilling ultimatum to the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. It was delivered by the country’s top commanders, who arrived in parliament, uninvited, and in full combat uniform. They informed the legislators that they were deeply insulted by MAS.
The commanders said they would jail MAS legislators seven days from that date, if MAS failed to accept promotions in rank that were mandated by Áñez. De-facto interior minister Murillo and Áñez publicly concurred with that strategy. The MAS legislators replied – and most all the leadership were women — that the Constitution requires them to consider such promotions carefully and according to their own timeframe. Seven days later, the deadline passed without incident.
Fearless voices of conscience against the coup regime are many. The Bartolina Sisa Confederation of Indigenous and campesina women are one of the largest grassroots organizations, in a country that is famous for its social movements. “The Bartolinas,”as they are commonly called, emerged in 1980, helping to found MAS in the 1990s, and have never faltered in their commitments to “land and dignity” for the majority of women. On December 20, they declared they absolutely will not allow U.S. intervention in Bolivia.
Their leadership gave an ultimatum to the national police at a time when the highest coup authorities were threatening to invade the zone of Chapare, where coca farmers have built a seamless unity, and where Evo Morales helped give birth to the struggle as a young union leader. In Chapare, homemade barricades closed off all the roads to protect against Áñez’s security forces.
Áñez claims to believe that every cocalero is a terrorist, even though she is part of the right-wing that massively profited from cocaine in the decades before Evo. By contrast, the cocaleros associated with MAS have led the country in creating solutions based on grassroots control of the enormous legal market for coca leaves, a medicinal, nutritional and spiritual foundation of Andean society. They trucked tons of their tropical fruit, during the quarantine, to people on the edge of starvation outside the Chapare, facing arrest and imprisonment for that solidarity.
In the recent period of curfew, which was enforced by roaring platoons of police on motorcycles and soldiers with assault rifles, negotiations were held that achieved the return of the police to Chapare in exchange for the Áñez government agreeing to reopen banks and gas stations that had been shut and blockaded by the de facto regime.
Characteristic of the battle unfolding between elite and Indigenous women, the Bartolina Sisas had told the police they would be allowed to re-enter Chapare if and when they asked forgiveness of the people for the deaths and injuries they had caused the day of the Sacaba massacre.
Today, Bolivia’s health system is in shambles, and the country has among the lowest rates of testing for the COVID-19 virus anywhere in the Americas. Áñez’s home department of Beni is a COVID disaster zone. There are practically no doctors who are not in quarantine in Beni. Laboratories in the main cities of the country have collapsed. Doctors who voted for the Right are now marching in the streets to demand promised protective gear. Even the president of the Council of Bishops of the Catholic church, Monseñor Ricardo Centellas, criticized Áñez for her trail of broken promises in the fight against the virus.
Her erstwhile right-wing allies have joined the poor majorities in demanding that Áñez allow elections to take place. The only party besides that of Áñez that is trying to avoid elections is the creation of the very rich, corrupt and violent Santa Cruz civic leader Luis Camacho. He is sowing lies in the minds of his party faithful as regards electoral regulations.
MAS leads in the polls, even though the polltakers have never really reached into the Bolivian countryside, which is the heartland of MAS.
When asked if she expected Áñez to start killing them again if MAS won the presidential vote, a campesina woman in the Andean highlands responded, “Yes, of course. But we’re trained,” to resist collectively, and “we’re conscious.” She added what millions of people have been saying in one way or another since November, dozens of them to television cameras: “If they steal the elections again, all of us will take the streets, peacefully. Vast numbers of people are willing to die for this process of change, and we will prevail.”
Cindy Forster is an activist and is part of the Comité en Apoyo al Pueblo de Chiapas. She is a historian at Scripps College and the chair of Latin American Studies department.
Originally published by Jacobin, this version is reedited with new material.