Bolivia’s Coup Threatens the Struggle for Social Liberation and Economic Justice

by Olivia Arigho-Stiles

12 November 2019

Fernanda LeMarie /Flickr

The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, has been forced from office in a coup following two weeks of civil unrest and a disputed presidential election. 

It is not the US-backed coup many have declared on social media, reading from the script of the recent past in Latin America. But it is a coup nonetheless, steered by the urban middle classes and ultra-right regional elites in Bolivia. It should be understood, in part, as a backlash against the redistributive and pro-indigenous policies promulgated by Morales over the past 14 years.

The decisive moment came when the head of the Bolivian armed forces on Sunday ‘suggested’ that Morales resign following a police mutiny in cities across the country over the weekend.

Morales’s house has since been ransacked (along with his sister’s), the ex-president of the electoral authority has been arrested and paraded on television, and groups of anti-government protesters have taken to the streets to burn the Wiphala, the flag representing indigenous peoples in the Andes.

Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia and a former coca grower, was first elected in 2005 with his social movement backed party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). Under his tenure Bolivia has slashed poverty rates, reduced inequality, overseen economic growth while rejecting IMF debt bondage, and nationalised key industries.

Bolivia also has crucially seen the ‘indigenisation’ of the state – the elevation of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples and the centring of indigenous belief systems in public life. Morales has made powerful statements on the global stage in favour of redistribution of wealth, the recognition of indigenous rights and protection of the environment. In 2010, Morales championed the ‘Rights of Mother Earth’ law which recognises the earth as a political subject enshrined with, among other things, a right to life.

None of this was without opposition from traditional white-mestizo (mixed race) elites and international capital. Bolivia is Latin America’s poorest country, with a long history of economic exploitation by foreign powers and racist discrimination against its majority indigenous population.

Problems began in earnest two weeks ago after the elections on 20 October in which Morales secured victory in the first round but the opposition accused him of fraud. To quell the unrest, Morales invited the Organisation of American States (OAS) to audit the election. On Sunday, the OAS released its report which found there had been ‘manipulation’ in some of the electoral data.

By contrast, analysis by US think-tank the Center for Economic and Policy Research found no evidence of electoral irregularity. Prior to the election, polls has consistently predicted a victory for Morales over rival Carlos Mesa. Moreover, the OAS should not be considered a neutral arbiter in Latin American politics; it is heavily dominated by the US and has a history of tacit interference in left-wing regimes, most notably in Venezuela.

There is, of course, a longer backstory to these events. Looming large is Morales’s decision to defy a 2016 referendum in which the public voted against him running for a fourth term, then prohibited under the Bolivian constitution. Although the supreme court ruled that he could run again, the decision nonetheless generated deep popular discontent and alienated many supporters.

It was not Morales’s first unpopular move. In 2010, the president was forced to back down in a conflict over the construction of a highway through a protected natural reserve home to several indigenous communities. More recently, this summer he faced criticism from both progressive environmentalists and the greenwashing right for his handling of the catastrophic fires which swept the dry forests of Chiquitania.

Yet while the left must always be critical of its leaders in power, Bolivia provides a warning for how legitimate criticism can be co-opted by regressive forces to devastating effect.

The coup does not reflect progressive sectors and the removal of Morales is certainly no victory for the indigenous-left in Bolivia or Latin America. The past two weeks have seen the rapid ascendancy of a faction of ultra-right conservatives from the lowland city of Santa Cruz – the historical nexus of regional-class antagonism to Morales and the MAS – directed by businessman Luis Fernando ‘El Macho’ Camacho, the leader of the business group Comité Pro-Santa Cruz and reportedly a former member of a fascist youth group which recently released a video of its leaders making a Nazi salute. He was not a candidate in the election, yet he has managed to exploit the political instability to emerge as a key political player; on Sunday, flanked by armed police, he entered the Palacio Quemado in La Paz with an evangelical ally clutching a bible.

Since the election there has also been an upsurge in racist and gendered violence. Smeared on the wall outside UMSA, the public university in La Paz, were the words “Indians out of UMSA”. A MAS mayor, Patricia Arce Guzman, was attacked by opposition protesters who forcibly cut off her hair, dragged her through the street and covered her in red paint and dirt. The director of radio for the peasants union CSUTCB – an organisation allied with Morales which represents rural, usually indigenous workers – was chained to a tree while anti-government protesters ransacked the union’s headquarters.

International solidarity is pouring in, with the coup receiving widespread condemnation from the likes of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Amlo in Mexico, Chilean communist Camila Vallejo and US congresswoman Ilhan Omar. But where now for Bolivia? There is currently no government, with the president, vice-president and the president of the Cámara de Diputados all having resigned. Despite Morales’s party having a majority in the legislature, it is widely expected that Jeanine Áñez, an opposition senator, will now assume the helm.

In an emotive press conference on Sunday, former vice-president Álvaro García Linera declared: “We will return and we will be millions” – paraphrasing the last words of Tupac Katari, the Andean rebel who was brutally executed by the Spanish after leading an anti-colonial uprising in 1781. Yet recent developments suggest the struggle for social liberation and economic equality is now deeply imperilled in Bolivia.

Olivia Arigho-Stiles is a PhD candidate currently based in La Paz researching 20th century indigenous movements in Bolivia.

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