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Commentary on Bolivia: How a coup failed

Commentary by Sean Orr |
October 23, 2020
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Evo Morales (center)
Evo Morales (center)

Chicago, IL - On November 10, 2019, a hastily-assembled coalition of generals, middle class liberals and fascist paramilitaries overthrew the democratic government of Evo Morales in Bolivia. Coming on the heels of a coup attempt in Venezuela and the vicious repression of a people’s uprising in Chile, it seemed to many that the continental struggle against U.S. imperialism had reached a tipping point in the empire's favor.

Today, not even a year later, the official results for Bolivia’s presidential elections were announced. Evo’s comrade and successor Luis “Lucho” Arce received a resounding 55% of the vote. The dictator Jeanine Añez was forced to withdraw from the race a few weeks ago when polls showed her support hovering at 10%. Evo and Lucho’s party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), also won a huge majority in the country’s lower house and Senate.

How did this happen? How did a dictatorship that enjoyed the total support of the United States and its allies allow itself to be voted out of government, not even a year after having seized it?

The answer, ultimately, is simple: they did not have a say in the matter. The Bolivian masses, extraordinarily well-organized, imposed these elections on the reactionary dictatorship.

An unintended coup

Luis Camacho always planned to challenge the results of 2019’s presidential elections, regardless of what they were. The head of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, Camacho’s worldview was that of the cattle ranchers, mine operators and loggers who dominated Santa Cruz’s society. This sector of the bourgeoisie had never abandoned the Catholic reactionaries that dominated Bolivia’s military dictatorships during the Cold War. They doubly hated Evo, both for his ‘communist agenda’ of ending poverty and placing Bolivia’s resources in the hands of the people, and, more fundamentally, because he was an Aymara - a person of indigenous heritage - sitting in the presidential palace.

Morales won the 2019 presidential election with 47% of the vote. This was 14 points below what he’d received in the previous election but still enough votes to prevent a runoff election. It was all the excuse Camacho needed to start street violence. The Civic Committee and allies like the Santa Cruz Youth Union organized demonstrations and attacked MAS supporters under the cry of ‘electoral fraud.’ They were joined by their more cosmopolitan class compatriots in La Paz whose worldview, a liberal one that differed little from urban capitalists and professionals the world over, led them to the same endpoint of opposing the Movement Toward Socialism’s stated goals.

Despite the broader nature of the mobilization, it was clear that reactionary forces were driving the effort. Violence not seen in the country in decades was soon found in every city as union halls were set on fire and elected MAS officials were dragged into the street and beaten. Then, the police in several cities mutinied, allying with the protesters and calling for Morales to resign.

The violence caught the left unprepared. The basis of the Bolivian mass movement - and the basis for MAS' success in government - lay in the strategic unity of two political forces: the MAS, which serves as the political instrument of the indigenous peoples’ organizations, particularly coca farmers, migrant workers and women; and the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), the country’s left-led labor federation. At the time of the protests, there was a dispute between the MAS and the COB over Evo running for a fourth term. Some trade unions, therefore, did not immediately come to the government’s defense. That is not to say that they joined Camacho’s efforts, of course. The working-class and indigenous peoples of Bolivia - i.e., the vast majority of the population - never participated in the right-wing protests and have never been counted on to side with the forces of reaction.

The situation quickly accelerated after the police mutinies. Juan Carlos Huarachi, the general secretary of the COB, called for Evo to step down after he and other top trade unionists received death threats at their homes. Similar threats came to the heads of the MAS, as well - it was later revealed that someone approached one of Evo’s bodyguards with the promise of paying him $50,000 if he assassinated the president.

Then, General Williams Kaliman, a self-described “anti-imperialist” appointed by Evo Morales to lead the country’s armed forces just a year earlier, held a press conference where he called on the president to step down. He later told reporters he had not intended to provoke a coup, but only wanted to try to prevent further bloodshed. Regardless, he blinked in the face of reactionary violence and that was all that was needed. Within a few hours, Evo and his vice president stepped down, stating that their resignations were not over wrongdoing but to try to save the lives of their families and comrades.

It is safe to say that the coup’s success caught everyone, including the coup plotters themselves, by surprise. Most likely, Camacho did not expect Evo’s allies in the military to suddenly falter; but when they did he and his allies did not hesitate. They marched into the presidential palace, rifles in hand, and removed the indigenous wiphala flag everywhere it could be found.

An unconsolidated coup

The strength of the MAS prevented the coup from fully consolidating itself. On the political terrain, they denied the coup any legitimacy under the law. Despite the resignation of Morales and Vice President Álvaro Linera, the MAS still had an undisputed majority in both houses of parliament. They boycotted the far right’s motion to recognize Morales’ resignation and appoint Jeanine Añez as president, meaning that they did not have the legal quorum to carry the motion forward. The coup plotters did anyways, and so Añez became dictator. Throughout the entirety of this year, all of Añez’s actions have been through decree, as the MAS-led legislature opposes her every move.

It was in the people’s struggle, however, that the eventual defeat of the coup lay. Camacho’s violence and the military’s falter had caught the movement off guard. A misstep, however, cannot change the fact that Bolivia’s mass movement is one that rests on an incredible level of organization and militancy.

The component parts of the movement, from the Bolivian Workers Central to the farmers unions, are organizations with decades of militant class struggle. Within two days of Añez’s coup, the capital of La Paz was encircled by armed roadblocks demanding her resignation. Every organization of the MAS declared a general strike until their demands were met. Police forces, with orders from Añez to ‘pacify’ the people, opened fire on demonstrations and roadblocks across the country, resulting in the massacre of ten indigenous people in El Alto and nine in Cochabamba. Countless MAS cadre and trade unionists were arrested, but the roadblocks could not be dislodged. While many elements of the police were willing to go along with the repression, the military by and large stepped back, even after Añez removed Kaliman and placed an ally in charge of the armed forces.

It was clear that a stalemate had been reached. The Añez regime could not break the people’s movements without invoking a civil war, and it was clear that the military could not be relied upon to take such action. So it was announced that presidential elections would be held in May. Añez’s ‘pacification’ campaign had left 31 people killed and hundreds in jail, but the mass movement prevailed. With the MAS fighting her every step of the way in parliament, the organizations of the movement took time to consolidate their ranks, namely to rebuild the unity between the MAS and COB that had wavered in November. The organizations of the MAS announced their new presidential ticket to be Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca, Evo’s two longest-serving ministers and both well-regarded and popular. Work for their election began immediately.

An unpopular coup

The Añez dictatorship never enjoyed national support. In fact, her committed social base never extended beyond the racists of Santa Cruz. This was evident from the start, as most of the ministers of her government came from the city, including Branko Marinkovic, Camacho’s top lieutenant in the Civic Committee and a wealthy capitalist in his own right.

Añez's decrees in office show her agenda was straightforward: to reverse the gains made during the 14 years of MAS government for the sole benefit of the comprador bourgeoisie and U.S. imperialism. MAS had severed all connections with the International Monetary Fund in order to free Bolivia from foreign finance capital. Añez, meanwhile, took out a $327 million loan. MAS had renationalized the mining industry and seized control of numerous other leading industries. Añez privatized as many as she could. MAS had built state-owned facilities to process lithium, of which Bolivia has the world’s largest deposits, so that the country could become the world’s leading producer of lithium batteries and electric cars. Añez has refused to open the facility, and instead continues to export lithium for the sole benefit of monopoly capitalists abroad, like Elon Musk.

Amid this economic whirlwind, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. No relief was offered to the nearly 40% of Bolivians who lost their source of income during the pandemic. Nearly 140,000 Bolivians caught the disease, and nearly 9000 died. In the face of this global crisis, Añez and her friends simply saw another opportunity to strip the state for parts. They were caught embezzling millions of dollars during the purchase of hundreds of ventilators to battle COVID-19. As a result of Añez’s privatization campaign and her failures during the pandemic, over a million Bolivians - nearly 10% of the country - fell into poverty in the past year.

The dictatorship tried to take advantage of COVID-19 to push back the return to democracy. They saw the same polls that everyone else saw. It was clear that any election would only return the MAS to power. When Añez’s regime delayed the presidential elections to September, and even later, the Bolivian masses had enough. The COB, now in unwavering unity with the MAS, declared a general strike and shut down the entire country. Reactionaries and fascists in Santa Cruz attacked demonstrators once again, and the COB’s headquarters in La Paz was bombed, yet the strike endured until assurances were made that the election would indeed be held on October 18. Even then, all trade unions and affiliates of the MAS made it clear what will happen if the election was stolen. “The moment [Añez] tries to carry out fraud,” said Orlando Gutierrez, a leader of the miners’ union, at a rally in September, “is the moment Bolivia lifts its pause on protests and we take power.”

And so, the elections occurred on October 18. As the results came in, television cameras caught Luis Camacho on stage with tears rolling down his face. He had refused to drop out like Añez had, knowing that the liberal agenda of Carlos Mesa was not what he and his friends in Santa Cruz wanted. His vision of imposing a repressive order on the indigenous workers he hated so much was now gone. They had defeated him and defeated him badly. He received only 14% of the vote.

The tasks ahead are historic. Lucho Arce’s government will not only have to undo the economic damage of Añez’s regime - including figuring out what to do about the IMF loans - but will have to tackle the COVID-19 crisis before they can plan on moving Bolivia forward. They will have to figure out what can be done about the numerous figures responsible for massacres and acts of terrorism, both inside and outside of the apparatuses of the state. They will have to determine what must happen to further bind the armed forces to the Bolivian revolutionary process, as has been successfully done by their comrades in Venezuela. And all of this will have to happen under the shadow of an increasingly vicious and desperate American empire.

What is clear is that the Bolivian revolutionary movement now enters a period of profound unity and militancy. Their project was threatened in a way it never had been before, and the lives of thousands of dedicated revolutionaries were put on the line. Tactical disagreements could no longer get in the way of the strategic unity needed to overcome imperialist hegemony. The strength of the working masses, well-organized and aware of the historic task before them, is one that can never be underestimated.