Bolivia for the record: the people speak

Just a week ahead of local elections in Bolivia and on the tail of a coup threat from far-right leader Luis Fernando Camacho, activist and historian Cindy Forster takes a deeper look at how the Bolivian people rose up against the coup regime and won a historic victory to recover democracy.

March 02, 2021 by Cindy Forster
In August 2020, for over a week, Bolivians blockaded major highways and roads across the country to demand that the coup-installed government reverse its decision to delay the general elections in the country. Photo: Kawsachun News

Last week, yet again, a right-wing leader in Bolivia threatened to oust a leftist president, in this case Luis Arce of the Movement toward Socialism (MAS). Arce won in a landslide 4 months ago after the masses –the protagonist at the heart of Bolivia’s revolutionary process– compelled a coup regime to permit elections.

A cautious observer might point out that the current coup threats come from far-right candidate Luis Fernando Camacho who only won 14% in the national elections of 2020, after he led the most violent moments of the 2019 coup. He has since called for similar protests whenever the turn of events did not suit him. The more troubling reality, however, is that the entire spectrum of right-wing and centrist leaders has closed ranks behind the actions of coup-makers such as Camacho, time and again.

The people of Bolivia are organizing for the March 7 elections of governors, mayors, and regional assemblies. They are relentless, even as leaders like former president Evo Morales fell ill with COVID in January, coming close to death with a pernicious pneumonia, or when the last Bolivian guerrilla who fought with Che Guevara Osvaldo “Chato” Peredo died at age 79 as he helped lead the MAS campaign in his home region, Santa Cruz, where Luis Camacho is now running for governor.

Last year in Bolivia, the US embassy was intending to repeat recent histories of resurgent neoliberalism, such as those of Honduras after the 2009 coup d’etat or the aftermath of parliamentary coups in Paraguay in 2012 and Brazil in 2016. Now, the US has the same designs in Ecuador and Haiti. Yet the Bolivian people derailed those plans with peaceful roadblocks. Then they voted out a de facto government. The poor, who are overwhelmingly Indigenous, were the ones who risked their lives on the barricades.

Ironically, in Ecuador today, a sector of the Indigenous movement is protesting for very distinct reasons. At the same time, thousands of Maya in Guatemala are marching in common cause with the Bolivian masses, expressing their desire to adapt to their own needs the plurinational platform of the MAS party in Bolivia.

This article chronicles the strategies of the Indigenous in Bolivia. They offer trenchant analyses. In their own words and actions, they cast light on their victories. Further, they challenge the poor majorities and Indigenous organizations of the world to achieve profound structural change and join forces across borders.

Their words challenge us to rethink the nature of contrary tendencies within the Movement toward Socialism. The poor express grassroots assessments of both their newly elected leaders and their historic leader, former president Evo Morales Ayma.

Credit where credit is due: The actions of the poor in Bolivia thwarted the plans of the coup government and they have gone on to build a new era of popular democracy. My knowledge of their actions relies on the extraordinary film reporting and writing of Valeria Brañez, Radio TV Soberania, Jhonny Peralta Espinoza, Resumen Latinoamericano more broadly, teleSUR’s Freddy Morales, Camila Escalante, Sin Mordaza Digital and Horacio Martínez, and Ollie Vargas of Radio Kawsachun Coca, among many others.

Two realities converge at today’s crossroads in Bolivia. One is right-wing coup threats that have grown so routine they are often not reported outside the country. One of the last times such threats became international news was in late December, when Latin America’s most famous Indigenous leader, ousted president Evo Morales Ayma, warned of another coup in the works, engineered by the same murderous elite that devastated the country in 2019. The coup regime imposed its will through violence across eleven months. They aimed to re-privatize the economy.

On the other side of the balance are the people who voted massively in mid-October last year for the return of MAS-IPSP, the Movement toward Socialism, Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples, whose historic leader is Evo Morales. They act collectively, and define themselves both as MAS, and as a force that is much older and larger.

Common sense would dictate that a coup regime never cedes authority to a party striving toward socialism after having driven it from power. Indigenous peoples, working-class and even middle-class Bolivians saw no reason to accept that kind of common sense.

Evo Morales’ warning of a coup was not new, but one would never know it from the coverage of the international corporate media. On November 16, 2020 we learned from Morales that the oligarchy appears to have accepted the victory of the Indigenous, but in fact, they do not intend to hand over power to the people.

One week earlier on November 8, we learned from Morales of a coup attempt that narrowly failed. The neoliberal elites had launched a second coup d’etat on November 5, he said, three days before the inauguration of MAS president Luis Arce. Such attempts cannot occur without the support of the United States. Among the generals charged with carrying out that coup, one stepped forward and refused to obey because he “belonged to MAS.” He was followed by others who said the same. The plans of the oligarchy fell like a house of cards – in a gathering of generals.

The masses are ready to resist if it becomes necessary. Exactly what that entails, we learned from July 28 to August 15 of 2020. The poor in Bolivia are always speaking their minds. Most of their radio stations were destroyed during the coup but those remaining, together with grassroots journalists, make a practice of recording the people.

Part I: A People Who Won with Only Their Word

MAS’s pattern of dramatic electoral wins was habitual since 2005, the year Bolivians voted out an elite that had been perfect pupils of Washington. In November of 2019, conservative forces sealed years of plotting with a paramilitary offensive and successful coup.

Under the iron rule of Bolivia’s oligarchy, the economy’s commanding sectors returned to neoliberalism in 2020. The moneyed classes cohere around their commitment to transnational control of lithium and subsoil resources, which are immense, while MAS had nationalized that wealth and used the profits to end the suffering of hunger. MAS cut poverty by half. The US state understands that such behavior, if imitated in other countries, will spell the eventual demise of imperial power.

Jeanine Áñez seized power on November 12, 2019 claiming she would call elections in 90 days, that in the end stretched to May 3, a date which was postponed due to COVID, then she managed postponements of the elections set for August 2 by the legislature and the date of September 6 agreed upon by different branches of the government. Her COVID-19 quarantine felt more like a state of siege than a public health campaign – Bolivia’s COVID indicators under Áñez were among the worst on earth. She then proposed the postponement of elections to October 18, and if necessary in her judgment, to the year 2021.

Voter suppression was another constant strategy. Bolivians living in Venezuela were never given the opportunity to vote there, nor in Panama or in northern Chile. Over 40,000 people who voted outside Bolivia in 2019 disappeared from the 2020 rolls, in a pool of some 300,000 Bolivians registered to vote in the exterior (out of some 7.3 million registered voters). Bolivians living abroad in South America are for the most part working-class and overwhelmingly vote for MAS.

In November of 2019 when Evo Morales chose exile to halt the violence of the Right, one could see that progressives had clung to their two-thirds majority for the MAS party in the Plurinational Assembly, in both the upper and lower chambers, rendering the coup very curious by Latin American standards. One could see that time and again, a vast groundswell of campesino (peasant) and proletarian rage emerged in waves of courage. Their only weapons were their words. After the massacres of November 2019 –committed by security forces, under Áñez’s decree that protected them from any legal consequences– paramilitaries carried out most of the right-wing repression from that point forward while the police looked on.

How Did the Poor Bring Down a Coup Regime?

One way of answering this question is to create a timeline that allows the mapping or sketching out of the contours of grassroots mobilization. In late July of 2020, the poor and Indigenous took matters into their own hands. Their resistance, lasting two weeks, derailed the plans of the dictatorship. The trigger in late July was the decision to again postpone elections, pushing back the date from September 6 to October 18. Poor urban neighborhoods and rural Indigenous networks put out the call for mass assemblies. Tens of thousands took to the streets and converged on the cities.

Many campesinos wore their ceremonial Indigenous dress, dancing as they marched. They were not entering La Paz, the center of governance, though they had repeatedly processed from El Alto to La Paz to celebrate during the years that MAS held the executive. They had also marched from El Alto to La Paz with the coffins of their dead, killed by the security forces in November of 2019, when the coup authorities treated the mourners as an invading force.

In July of 2020, the Indigenous were using the neighboring metropolis of El Alto as their physical line of defense. El Alto is the city that won the Gas Wars in 2003 through unarmed protest, against security forces that killed over sixty civilians.

As people poured into the streets, former MAS president Evo Morales reported that he had received word that the regime was positioning snipers to fire on the protesters. Through the television cameras, marchers said to the coup president Jeanine Áñez that if she brought out the tanks against them, as she had in the past, they would march in the countryside for as long as it took to end her illegal rule.

Bolivia’s famous instrument of struggle, the bloqueos or roadblocks, started appearing. The geographic emergence of blockades and occurrence of marches is instructive:

By July 28, campesinos from the subtropical Yungas below the Andean plain where La Paz is located, others from Chuquisaca that drops in altitude near Argentina, and Indigenous from the freezing countryside of the department of Potosí, joined the marchers in El Alto.

Mestiza women who identify as feminist in La Paz, a city that is built within an enormous canyon, took to the streets and united their demands to those of the campesinos gathering above them on the high plateau in El Alto. Indigenous peoples of the lowlands, for their part, charged the coup government with genocide because the pandemic ravages nations of small numbers and Áñez, who comes from the Amazon –or what remains of it given the actions of her cattle ranching associates– failed to put in place any protective measures before her home region of Beni became the site of some of the country’s worst devastation from COVID.

On that same day, an enormous assembly in El Alto declared a general strike. They did so in advance of the date announced by leaders of the Pact of Unity (an alliance of the mass organizations that had been formed in an assembly with the aim of challenging the coup government) and Juan Carlos Huarachi, who is the leader of the two-million-member Confederation of Bolivian Workers (COB). The polls never reach deep into the countryside where MAS has its greatest strength, but even so, 71% of the individuals polled urged the legally sanctioned election date of September 6, that had been agreed upon by all the powers of the state.

In short, the people outpaced their leaders. More lawsuits were slapped on MAS and the COB in the days following to try to halt the protests, although the protests were not, in fact, under their control.

Evo Morales was charged, falsely, with planning armed violence. Andrónico Rodriguez from the Cochabamba coca regions, the charismatic 30-year old candidate at the time who now heads the Senate, started talking more plainly to the Áñez government. He told the Minister of the Interior, Arturo Murillo, who is notorious for his chilling threats against the poor uttered at every turn, that Murillo is “a shameful authority, a fool and a complete liar.”

Chemical agents laced the tear gas that doused protesters, the purchase of which Murillo claimed as one of his great achievements. He said they had bought “tear gas, rubber bullets, munitions, that will last through six months of repression against the people,” in the words of COB’s Huarachi, spoken to Gigavision Television. The military supplies were overpriced by two million dollars, and it is suspected that the excess payment went to Murillo and his associates.

“Do they think that tear gas cures COVID?” the protesters asked the television cameras. “Why are they buying tear gas instead of medicine?” People in many marches were spacing themselves out and wearing masks.

Everywhere, women were speaking from the roadblocks. At one night-time march, a huge banner read, “Revolutionary Indigenous Youth.” By the 3rd of August there were 75 road closures in five out of nine departments, and by the 4th, barricades were mounted all over the country, through the nights. In front of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, university students launched a hunger strike to demand elections on September 6. The students were attacked by right-wing youth, and protected by street vendors.

Said a young woman on a blockade in the rural highlands of Cochabamba: “We want a government that has some affection for the people of this country, a government that feels sympathy toward poor people, a legitimate government. No medical personnel have come to our communities. We have no more food.”

A man on the same barricade told reporters, “Here, the people are dying in their homes from COVID.” Many working-class people said their only hope was to cure themselves with medicinal teas and lemon, with garlic, ginger and honey.

Said the young woman quoted above, “We are here to defend our gas and our lithium. To defend our beloved Bolivia.” It was not a point lost on the coup authorities: Videos showed police beating up marchers.

COB’s leader Juan Carlos Huarachi, not always an ally of MAS, insisted the people are “within their rights to make demands on the government.” He charged, “They’re tapping our cell phones. And by decree they’ve cancelled and closed the school year, leaving 60,000 families of teachers in the streets.” Rural teachers are among the sharpest critics of the Right. The shutdown of rural schools is seen as a measure that opens the door to privatization. Only children and teenagers in private schools could study via internet.

“They have robbed us of [our right to] education,” said an Indigenous campesino. “The way they are teaching now, they put a blindfold over our eyes, they tie a gag over our mouths so we will never again talk.”

Families

In the first days of August, television cameras captured a new sentiment: “For the love of our children and the sake of our future,” the protesters said, “Hear our demands or we will encircle La Paz,” cutting off food and gas supplies. “This crossroads will decide the destiny of our country.”

Middle-aged women were filmed in the Aymara pollera or full skirts, coming in from the countryside in long lines, two abreast, jogging. They were running zig-zag amidst stones carpeting the highway as far as the eye could see –that they themselves had probably arranged there– to block the passage of the vehicles of the security forces.

A marcher in an assembly of the people of Paratani and Tapacari explained that campesinos and miners march in unity and will stand strong “with our children who are professionals, thanks to the government of Evo Morales, but who are now forced to work without biosecurity protections.” Peasants who seemed to be arriving as couples and adult family members lined the sides of the road, clapping for campesinos newly arrived. Their only weapons were slingshots with which they herd their flocks and hunt birds, and sometimes aim stones at security agents who are attacking protesters.

One of thousands of Indigenous women on the blockades said, “This woman Áñez came in crying, saying she was going to pacify the country.” Another woman said at a different moment, “Áñez is not the constitutional president: she is self-proclaimed. She came in through the window.”

A different report filmed in El Alto shows for the record a woman saying, “The mayor of El Alto,” Soledad Chapetón, “does not stand with the people. She is a traitor. Chapetón stands with the president.” Like Áñez, Chapetón cast her political fortunes with the generation of neoliberals that preceded MAS. Protesters in El Alto charged that the municipal authorities had created a scarcity of gas precisely to force people to wait in “immense lines to buy cooking gas,” intentionally “exposing them to COVID.”

It was reported during the blockades that Áñez placed at least 17 of her relatives in official positions. This according to a former vice minister of communication in the government of MAS, Sebastián Michel, who was serving on the MAS campaign team. Áñez’s daughter, he said, her daughter’s Harvard-educated partner Mohammed Mostajo Radji – then head of a ministry that was invented for him, and their friend in common employed at a consulate in Spain, had created a mafia to pull off “a great heist” in the purchase of non-functioning respirators from Spain. They were overpriced in the amount of some two million dollars.

In El Alto an Indigenous woman introduced herself as a neighborhood leader and said to the camera, “The people are conscious. We are not MAS, as the interim government claims.” Their memory is much longer ancient, in fact. “It must be the people who decide who will rule. The people must control the finances of the state.”

To be continued.

Cindy Forster is an activist and is part of the Comité en Pro del Pueblo de Chiapas. She is a historian at Scripps College and chair of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies department.

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