[Marxism] What next for Bolivia?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 11 07:44:40 MST 2019

LRB, Vol. 41 No. 24 · 19 December 2019
pages 14-15 | 2208 words
What next for Bolivia?
Tony Wood

The crisis that led to Evo Morales’s forced removal as president of 
Bolivia began on the night of Monday, 21 October. Presidential and 
parliamentary elections had been held on Sunday, and according to a 
preliminary tally released by Bolivia’s electoral authorities that 
evening, Morales had a lead of 8 per cent over Carlos Mesa, his nearest 
rival – not quite enough to avoid a run-off. This was an unofficial 
count, based on 84 per cent of total ballots cast, and on Monday the 
Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) suspended it in order to begin 
releasing official counts. Under pressure from the Organisation of 
American States, however, the TSE resumed the unofficial count, and late 
on Monday released a revised tally. This time it was based on 95 per 
cent of ballots and showed that Morales’s lead was just over 10 per 
cent. If confirmed, that would have been enough to hand him a fourth 
consecutive presidential term.

Was this shift in the unofficial tallies itself evidence of fraud? 
Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) tends to have more supporters 
in rural areas than Bolivia’s other parties, so it wouldn’t be 
sociologically or statistically surprising for its tally to improve 
markedly late on in the count. Morales’s opponents, however, denounced 
the whole election as illegitimate; Mesa was claiming fraud even before 
the elections began. This wasn’t surprising either: Bolivia’s elites 
have been implacable in their opposition to Morales since he first took 
office with a landslide victory in 2005. But healthy MAS majorities in 
2009 and 2014 and a period of sustained economic growth have made 
Bolivia one of the success stories of the ‘Pink Tide’, the swing to the 
left in Latin American politics over the last twenty years. Poverty and 
inequality were drastically reduced, and steps were taken to undo 
centuries of discrimination against the indigenous majority (around 62 
per cent of the population), including the drawing up of a new 
‘plurinational’ constitution, ratified by referendum in 2009, and a 
massive expansion in education and employment for Quechua and Aymara 

In recent years, however, support for Morales among the middle classes 
has dwindled, and there have been divisions within the popular movements 
that first brought him to power. Some of the indigenous organisations 
allied to the MAS were angered by the government’s commitment to the 
extraction of natural resources; its plan to build a road through the 
Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park was a flashpoint 
in 2011 and again in 2017. Yet he retained substantial support, and the 
MAS was still by far the most popular party. On 21 February 2016, the 
government was narrowly defeated (51 per cent to 49) in a referendum on 
whether to amend the constitution to allow Morales to run for a fourth 
term. This was the opposition’s first nationwide electoral victory 
against MAS. In 2017, Bolivia’s constitutional court effectively 
overturned the referendum result by abolishing term limits – allowing 
Morales to run again – on the absurd grounds that preventing anyone from 
doing so was an infringement of their human rights. At the time, many on 
the Bolivian left denounced this as a terrible blunder. It certainly 
strengthened the hand of MAS’s opponents and lost Morales more 
middle-class voters. Even so, a string of polls conducted in the run-up 
to the 2019 elections gave Morales a plurality of the vote, with an 
average 12-point lead over Mesa. The question was whether the lead would 
hold up on election day.

The official result, announced on 25 October, gave Morales a lead of 
10.57 per cent. But by this time large protests had already erupted 
across Bolivia, drawing people from a range of social groups. Crowds 
stormed the offices of the electoral authorities in some areas, forcing 
a suspension of the official count in La Paz, Cochabamba, Chuquisaca, 
Potosí, Oruro and Beni; in Potosí, Pando and Tarija they set TSE offices 
on fire, destroying all the ballots. The opposition – spearheaded not by 
the defeated Mesa, but by hard-right groups led by the Catholic 
conservative Luis Fernando Camacho – wasn’t demanding a recount or a 
second round: it was gunning for Morales’s removal. MAS supporters also 
took to the streets in defence of Morales.

On 30 October, in the face of continued protests, the Morales government 
agreed to an OAS audit of the election. This was a remarkable 
concession: the OAS has a long record of furthering US and local elite 
interests (most recently it led the failed charge for regime change in 
Venezuela). The OAS had already inflamed the situation by expressing 
‘deep concern’ about the unofficial tallies and calling for a run-off 
vote. Its initial report, released on 10 November, went much further, 
impugning the entire electoral process. It referred to a string of 
‘irregularities’ – poor handling of server security, some anomalous 
tallies – though without providing any evidence that these would have 
affected the outcome. (The final report, released on 7 December, was 
more thorough but still could claim nothing more than ‘there cannot be 
certainty over the margin of [Morales’s] victory’.) Nevertheless, 
Morales agreed to the OAS’s recommendation that fresh elections be held. 
Protests had continued to mount, however, and in the days preceding the 
release of the report the police in several of Bolivia’s departments had 
gone over to the opposition. Having lost the police, Morales soon also 
lost the support of key allies in the trade unions, the Central Obrera 
Boliviana, and then the army. On the afternoon of 10 November, Williams 
Kaliman, the head of the armed forces – a presidential appointment – 
‘suggested’ that Morales resign. Two days later, Morales and his vice 
president, Alvaro García Linera, fled into exile in Mexico after 
anti-MAS protesters looted their houses and torched those of other MAS 

By any sensible definition, what took place in Bolivia on 10 November 
was a coup: Morales was forced out of the country at the prompting of 
the army, two months before the end of his third presidential term. What 
happened next confirmed that his opponents wanted not just to suspend 
constitutional democracy but to strangle it. On 12 November, Jeanine 
Añez, an ultra-conservative Catholic senator from Beni, declared herself 
president. Her party, the Movimiento Democrático Social, had scored 4 
per cent in the election. The two people in line to replace Morales and 
his vice-president, the heads of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, had 
both resigned in protest, leaving the succession unclear at best; but 
the vote to install Añez as head of the Senate, and then as interim 
president, was conducted without a quorum in either house – in part 
because key MAS deputies were physically prevented from entering. The 
White House rushed out a statement saying: ‘Morales’s departure 
preserves democracy.’

Añez moved swiftly to consolidate her unconstitutional position. On 13 
November she fired Kaliman and installed a new army high command, and 
the following day she selected a new cabinet. It includes a number of 
hard-right conservatives: Camacho’s lawyer, Jerjes Justiniano Atalá, now 
secretary of the presidency; the interior minister, Arturo Murillo, who 
has vowed to ‘hunt down’ specific MAS officials ‘like animals’; the 
communications minister, Roxana Lizárraga, who has threatened Bolivian 
and foreign journalists reporting on the situation with prosecution for 
‘sedition’; and the foreign secretary, Karen Longaric, who has vowed to 
send Morales to The Hague for crimes against humanity.

Añez’s seizure of power and the composition of her cabinet point to the 
most significant and alarming fact about the Bolivian crisis: while the 
20 October election was the trigger, it is not Mesa’s centre-right 
coalition that has benefited from Morales’s removal, but the hard right, 
who aggressively stoked the protests and who seized control once Morales 
was removed. Bolivia’s new interim leaders combine two varieties of 
revanchism: a religious conservatism, bringing together evangelicals and 
Catholics, that is gaining ground across Latin America, and a 
reassertion of the racial and class privileges of Bolivia’s traditional 
elites. In sharp contrast to the Morales administration, the new cabinet 
initially had zero indigenous members. Photographs show the majority of 
them making the sign of the cross at the swearing-in ceremony. On the 
day of the coup, Camacho strode into the presidential palace carrying a 
Bible and a rosary; Añez, who in 2013 tweeted that indigenous rituals 
were ‘satanic’ (she has since deleted that tweet, along with another 
mocking indigenous people who wear shoes as inauthentic), carried an 
ostentatiously large Bible on her first appearance as president. In the 
immediate aftermath of the coup, many policemen ripped the 
chequered-rainbow wiphala, the flag of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, 
from their uniforms. The wiphala was recognised under the 2009 
constitution as an official national symbol. Reversing the gains made by 
the indigenous majority under Morales – appealing to whites and mestizos 
resentful of the disruption of age-old racial hierarchies – is central 
to the right’s agenda.

Camacho, who brands himself ‘Macho Camacho’, is the figure in whom these 
ugly tendencies converge. He began his political career in the early 
2000s as the leader of a far-right youth group in his native Santa Cruz, 
the heartland of Bolivia’s landed elite and a cradle of opposition to 
MAS. Earlier this year, he was elected head of the Civic Committee of 
Santa Cruz, a body that for decades has co-ordinated elite interests in 
Bolivia’s eastern lowlands and had close ties with the country’s 
military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s. In some respects, he is a 
similar figure to Venezuela’s Juan Guaidó, a student leader from the 
far-right fringe of the conservative opposition suddenly elevated to 
lead it; though Camacho is also clearly modelling himself on Jair 
Bolsonaro, in the hope of emulating his march to the presidency.

What next for Bolivia? In the days following Morales’s departure, MAS’s 
congressional deputies began to regroup, and entered negotiations with 
the Añez government over new elections. According to a law passed with 
MAS support on 24 November, new electoral authorities must be appointed 
within a month, and elections held within 120 days of that, most likely 
in early March. The same law stipulates that neither Morales nor García 
Linera can run; several people are currently being mooted as possible 
MAS candidates. Mesa has confirmed he will run again, as has Chi Hyun 
Chung, a Korean-born hard-right evangelical pastor who scored a 
surprising 9 per cent in the October presidential vote. Camacho, too, 
has announced his candidacy. It’s hard to say how this divided field 
will fare over the coming weeks: with Morales out of the picture, will 
Camacho rise in the polls, as Bolsonaro did once Lula was barred from 
running in Brazil? Or will the MAS be able to rally its supporters 
around a new candidate? Will the far right be able to convert its 
non-constitutional advantage into legitimate power, or will the left 
regain its democratic mandate?

These were not the alternatives anyone in Bolivia asked for or 
anticipated on 20 October. The situation is being watched nervously 
across Latin America: the Bolivian crisis may represent a tipping point 
for the region as a whole. The original momentum of the Pink Tide has 
ebbed away, and the battle underway now is over what will succeed it. 
The achievements of the Pink Tide governments have been impressive, but 
they have also had numerous shortcomings, and any continuation of their 
redistributive policies would require tackling these – not least the 
dependence on environmentally destructive commodities (oil, gas, metals, 
soya and so on). A sharp turn to the right would bring a highly 
reactionary social agenda, harsh economic measures, and a massive 
increase in the use of force against those who resist.

There can be no doubt that the right is willing to spill blood to get 
its way: since the October elections, at least thirty people have been 
killed and more than seven hundred injured by the Bolivian security 
forces, who have proved only too willing to crack down on protests 
against the Añez government. Yet the very need for this repression 
points to an upsurge of popular opposition to the new government. Recent 
weeks have brought recurrent street demonstrations and blockades of 
major roads in El Alto, La Paz’s twin city, originally a bastion of MAS 
support. These tactics represent a rerun of those used to bring the 
Bolivian government to its knees in 2003, prompting the then president, 
Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, to flee to Miami. (As it happens his vice 
president, who then served as interim president, was Carlos Mesa.) These 
radical social movements were crucial to Morales’s rise, and while they 
may have lost some of their vibrancy during the MAS’s time in power, 
they may be quick to recover it if faced with a hard-right government. 
The MAS itself is far from a spent force, but its supporters and 
candidates are currently being subjected to intimidation and repression. 
Community radio stations and media outlets supportive of the MAS have 
been shut down. It’s already clear the next round of elections will be 
neither free nor fair.

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