History Shows Us That the Forces Behind Bolivia’s Coup Do Not Warrant ‘Nuance’

by Aidan Nyhus

19 November 2019

Alain Bachellier /Flickr

The social unrest that has surrounded opposition to Evo Morales’s government has been diverse and contradictory.

Strikes, demonstrations, marches, the blocking of highways and the burning down of polling stations have been undertaken by a wide range of actors from across Bolivian society. Some have been content to point out that Bolivia’s urban middle classes and student organisations took to the streets, angered about the democratic and constitutional legitimacy of Morales’s run for a fourth presidential term. Others have pointed out that there is a large indigenous contingent protesting the developmental agenda of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) government – indigenous peoples and organisations from communities who stand to suffer at the hands of large-scale infrastructure and resource extraction projects.

The diverse nature of these protests, and the various interests represented, are undeniable. True, there have been many demonstrations with legitimate cause. Take the protests of indigenous Bolivians, for example, many of whom are from Bolivia’s lowlands in the east of the country. Not only do they have environmental concerns vis-à-vis the extraction of hydrocarbons and the construction of infrastructure projects, but they also have concerns regarding the state and its alliance with agro-business in the lowlands.

In his first term, as a result of promises of agrarian reform amongst other things, Morales faced off with the large landowners of the eastern lowlands, particularly in Santa Cruz where over three quarters of Bolivia’s agricultural production is centred. Yet by 2010, Morales had reached a compromise with the oligarchs which, at the expense of agrarian reform and the indigenous peasantry, saw the government promote the growth of the agri-business sector and alienate indigenous organisations.

With all of that said, the protests have not been short of violence on the part of right-wing elements. Attacks on pro-MAS officials, the ransacking of political offices and symbolic burnings of the indigenous Wiphala flag have been frequent. What ought to be most worrying for leftists and progressives is the military coup that has followed and the fact that it is a coalition of right-wing forces that has seemingly come out on top. In that context, the diverse nature of the protests now matters little.

Whilst Jeanine Áñez recently proclaimed herself Bolivia’s interim president, the party she represents – Movimiento Demócrata Social – and the rightwing forces that have supported the coup are the same forces that have been at the apex of Bolivian politics for around 40 years. They consist largely of the agro-industrial and landowning classes in the eastern lowlands, primarily in Santa Cruz, who are largely the descendents of Spanish colonists.

Since the 1980s, the regional capitalist classes of the eastern lowlands enjoyed access to the highest reaches of state power. Their representatives held ministerial posts in the government and dominated the traditional parties – a position threatened by Morales’s ascendency. Knowing that their political representatives and organisations held significant sway in their eastern heartlands, the oligarchs sought to channel their traditional free-market dogma and anti-indigenous racism through demands for regional autonomy.

When Morales took office in 2006, the regional governors of the eastern departments and the civil society organisations representing lowland capital demanded autonomy. They demanded the right of regional departments to control their own natural resources, to retain large portions of tax revenue from their departments and to be free to control economic policy on a regional basis.

It is no surprise then that Santa Cruz is where much of the recent violence was concentrated. Indeed, Santa Cruz is the historic heartland of opposition to Morales and MAS. In 2008, the formal opposition organised a national confidence vote in an attempt to oust the MAS government. The attempt failed, with 67% of voters expressed confidence in Morales.

However, attempts at destabilisation did not stop there. Led by Rubén Costas, the governor of Santa Cruz and later the founder of Movimiento Demócrata Social, rightwing mobilisations occurred across the east of the country. The offices of government institutions were occupied en masse and transport networks were seized. Costas believed that this was the final nail in Morales’s coffin and called for his resignation.

Much of the regional autonomist struggle and opposition to MAS, both then and now, has been organised by the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee (PSCC), a civil society organisation with significant power in the lowlands. The PSCC represents the interests of lowland capital. As a result, it is a prominent actor in the politics of the lowlands and has significant ties to political figures like the aforementioned Rubén Costas. Indeed, much of the destabilisation efforts in 2008 where coordinated by the PSCC through their political representatives. Equally, the PSCC coordinated much of the street violence – which included the murder of members of indigenous opposition groups – through the Unión Juveñil Cruceñista, a Falangist youth organisation based in Santa Cruz which is notorious for racist violence.

It seems little has changed in a decade. Following Morales’s resignation, the PSCC’s current president, Luis Fernando Camacho – himself a graduate of the Unión Juveñil Cruceñista – entered the Presidential Palace with a bible to proclaim that Christ had returned to Bolivia. Camacho dictated much of the anti-government opposition in the Santa Cruz department and has seemingly been at the forefront of recent demonstrations. Furthermore, he was named in the Panama Papers for his alleged involvement in money laundering and the relocation of financial assets offshore.

But perhaps most worrying of all are the historic ties that lowland capital has with the Bolivian military. Of course, the installation of rightwing political forces following a military coup in Latin America ought to surprise nobody. Yet agro-industrial capital in the lowlands historically formed the social base of Bolivia’s most repressive military dictatorship.

In 1971, General Hugo Bánzer, a native of Santa Cruz, seized power in a coup of his own. He was aided by the United States and Brazil’s military regime. A graduate of the infamous School of the Americas, his dictatorship operated in the mould of Latin America’s various military juntas of the time. Torture, enforced disappearance and extra judicial execution were all common. Various CIA and US government documents suggest that Bánzer himself was a leading individual in Operation Condor, a continental campaign of state terror against leftist opposition on the part of Latin America’s rightwing military regimes.

To consolidate power, Bánzer organised a coalition which brought the Bolivian right under one umbrella, from business organisations to Falangists. Immediately, the regime sought to extinguish the power of indigenous organisations and trade unions across the country. The killing and arrest of students, union organisers and liberation theology-oriented priests were commonplace and the assassination of opposition leaders – including that of former president Juan José Torres in Buenos Aires in 1976 – was not beyond the limits of the junta. Bánzer’s immediate assault on working class organisations, indigenous bodies and his political adversaries garnered significant support from the capitalists of the lowlands. In return, the junta subsidised the activities of the lowland capitalists, enriching them and turning them into the paramount political bloc in Bolivian politics.

Despite the political compromise with lowland capital that characterised Morales’s tenure after 2010, it appears that the oligarchs of the lowlands have taken their chance to once again seize state power amidst the chaos. Their historic ties to the military and grassroots Falangist organisations ought to worry leftists and progressives alike. A reversal of Morales’s progress looks likely if these forces can continue to consolidate power in the near future; an outcome that will be particularly dangerous given the context of Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil.

Aidan Nyhus is a PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool, where he researches transitional justice in Latin America.

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