“Acts of torture were committed against them—the victims tell us that police as well as soldiers and even foreigners committed these acts.”
Yomar Sánchez, Quechua journalist from Potosí.
From “Memoria y Justicia” program of Bolivia TV, February 25, 2022, 16:12
Jeanine Áñez was scheduled to face her first day of trial in February, on accusations of staging a coup d’etat in Bolivia in 2019 that plunged the country into an inferno. Traditional elites at the top of the justice system were among those who engineered the coup. Her trial was postponed.
The grounds for that postponement are troubling—attorneys had apparently miscalculated the required number of days to allow the defense to prepare their arguments. On March 29, her new date of trial, she suffered a crisis of nerves and won another postponement, to April 4. The poor and working people of Bolivia say that functionaries are obstructing justice.
A United Nations rapporteur named Diego García-Sayán was sent to assess progress on reforming the justice system, in the same interval that Áñez’s trial was first scheduled. Hardly any convictions have emerged from Bolivian courts, the rapporteur concluded, sixteen months after the de facto regime of Áñez was voted out of power. That vote on October 18, 2020 amazed the world—but not Bolivians, who understand that the vote of the poor is organized and massive. García-Sayán heard testimonies from survivors of the massacres by Áñez’s government. In his preliminary report, he stated that the poor cannot really expect justice in Bolivia. “The results have been few,” García-Sayán said. The right-wing actors who enacted the coup now say they are suffering persecution from a government run by and for the poor. In response, García-Sayan observed, “I have not received information that supports the assertion that political persecution exists now.”
The preventive detention of Jeanine Áñez took place one year ago. Áñez had gone into hiding after attempting to flee the country in a small aircraft, ultimately being prevented from doing so by Indigenous women. Áñez stands accused, among other charges, of ordering massacres of the Indigenous in the urban districts of Sacaba and Senkata, located on the outskirts of major cities where migrants from the countryside settle.
The terrorism of the Bolivian right
The coup regime ruled from November 2019 to November 2020, committing atrocities including 180 documented cases of torture. According to prisoners, there were likely hundreds more tortured among the 1,800 individuals falsely imprisoned and accused of terrorism and sedition.
One of the first people to file suit against coup president Áñez was Lidia Patty, from the Indigenous region of the La Paz Department. In 2019, Lidia Patty served as an assembly person of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), the party which was overthrown in Áñez’s coup. When Áñez was jailed last year, Patty spoke of the de facto government on public radio and television networks. “There were tortures, protesters had their fingers cut off,” she said. “Women in the protests were man-handled by the soldiers, their intimate parts groped—just like in colonial times. In the jail cells, our sisters were raped.”
Lidia Patty has expressed concern that a legal system so warped by the Bolivian white elite has made justice impossible. One of the same judges who jailed protesters on terrorism charges was assigned last month to rule on the question of Áñez’s guilt. For now, the selection of that judge, also a woman, was overturned.
Right-wing women despise Lidia Patty. As Patty describes, “There have been many people who have persecuted me, insulted me, even hit me. It’s gone to that extreme.” While these attacks have been filmed by TV cameras, aggression against an Indigenous ex-parliamentarian does not make headline news.
“Part of the right has dared do this because they say I am lying. Apparently, they did not notice the coup d’etat. To this very day, I have suffered when I am outside the office of the public prosecutor, they scream at me. Two women attacked me and tried to run me out of there, shouting that I am a liar and on the payroll of the government. But I’m going to continue with this lawsuit. The prosecutor must speed up the investigation. I am doing this on my own, with the help of my lawyer, while the right continues to persecute me,” said Patty.
The hatred of the right toward the Indigenous of Bolivia is beyond description. But the United States, and Bolivia’s entire right-wing apparatus, embrace Indigenous people who are neoliberal.
Terrorism of all kinds was inflicted during the year of the coup. Usually, those who record human rights violations do not make explicit the dimension of class. The practice of rape against protesters, for instance, is not accurately understood through an all-inclusive definition of women or gender. Perpetrators defined their targets as the Indigenous majority, but equally important, the poor in their entirety were seen as enemies by the coup regime.
Four days before the Indigenous president, Evo Morales, was forced to resign, the right expelled women wearing an Indigenous skirt, the pollera, from the city of Cochabamba where thousands had joined a march of peasant women calling for peace. According to international human rights experts selected by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), “Indigenous women were left in their underwear, their polleras torn off” by people in the right-wing civic committees. “Women fleeing out of the city toward Vinto were pursued by [paramilitary youth] on motorcycles. The press reported over 60 people injured on that day.” Some of the paramilitary leaders are now facing criminal lawsuits for those actions documented on film, including a woman who is one of their main leaders and who now argues she is the mother of a young child and incapable of hurting anyone.
In the days following the attacks on Indigenous women, the Catholic hierarchy and representatives of the main neoliberal factions met in a Catholic university in La Paz and asked Jeanine Áñez to proclaim herself president. Considering the historic animosity between MAS and the United States, it is safe to assume that the right either knew or believed it enjoyed US backing. Former US president Trump recognized the coup regime soon after it seized power.
Sexual threats and attacks were widespread, and experts from the IACHR singled out gendered violence as one of the most egregious crimes of the de facto government. We will likely never know the true extent of the rapes of poor, working class, and Indigenous women. Policewomen or right-wing women were often present for those sexual assaults, detaining the victims, beating them, and “man-handling” their intimate parts.
The paramilitary youth were murderous everywhere, but the Union of Cruceño Youth (UJC) acted for the longest stretch of time with complete impunity in the lowland city of Santa Cruz, the largest in the country. The UJC is now embroiled in corruption scandals on the order of many millions of dollars involving right-wing politicians, presumed to have financed the coup. The current governor of that department, Luis Fernando Camacho, once led the UJC. Later, he led the adult wing of the same organization, which was made up of white supremacist elites who believe their wealth gives them the right to rule. Their symbols are unapologetically fascist and shared with the Venezuelan right, as well as the Eastern European right.
The eyes of the Bolivian people are on the trial of Áñez. To some degree, she still has the ear of the worldwide corporate media. High-ranking coup leaders who managed to get out of the country are now calling for US and NATO sanctions against Bolivia, their own homeland, on the grounds that the MAS government is promoting human rights violations by urging peace in Ukraine. The irony of such accusations is not lost on the people of Bolivia.
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.