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The November Coup in Bolivia and how to reverse it

KD Tait, Red Flag 33, January 2020

Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, and his Vice President, Alvaro García Linera, were overthrown in a coup, which culminated on 10 November 2019. Both resigned and fled into exile in Mexico. Their resignations followed mutinies in the police force and the Commander-in-Chief of the army, General Williams Kaliman, “suggesting” they resign.

Deputy leader of the Senate, Jeanine Áñez, installed herself in the presidential residence, toting a large bible, exclaiming, “Thanks be to God. He has allowed the Bible to return to the Palace”. Añez, a bigoted catholic, has previously tweeted of how she “dreams of a Bolivia free of indigenous satanic rites”, and that La Paz “is not for the Indians – they belong in the Altiplano or el Chaco”.

The leader of the extreme right wing of the coup, the multimillionaire Luis Fernando Camacho, has links to the fascistic Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, who escorted him into the Palacio Quemado, the presidential residence in La Paz, where he proclaimed, “Pachamama will never return to the palace, Bolivia belongs to Christ”. (Pachamama is the mother earth figure for the native Andean peoples.)

Leaders of Morales’ party, the Movement to Socialism, Movimiento al Socialismo or MAS, took refuge in the Mexican Embassy. MAS MPs and mayors were beaten in the streets and forced to perform acts of self-humiliation by coup supporters. Mobs tore down and burned the Wiphala, the chequered rainbow flag of the country’s indigenous majority that Morales had recognised alongside the Bolivian tricolour, and police and soldiers ripped it from their uniforms.

After Áñez issued a decree exempting the army and police from criminal responsibility for any actions taken to restore order, the military opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in Senkata and Sacaba, killing over 30 of them. These massacres demonstrate that the coup represents a counterrevolution, not just against Morales’ reforms but also against the mass revolutionary struggles of the early 2000s, the so-called water and gas wars, which propelled him into power and ousted the neoliberal regime of the landowning and business elite.

No surprise then that Áñez’ fellow white supremacist, US President Donald Trump, claimed the ousting of Morales was “a significant moment for democracy in the Western Hemisphere” adding, “the United States applauds the Bolivian people for demanding freedom and the Bolivian Army for protecting the Constitution”, and proclaiming that “these events send a strong signal to the illegitimate regimes of Venezuela and Nicaragua”. Trump has of course been doing all he can, short of sending in troops, to encourage similar counter-revolutions in those countries.

What next?

The coup makers, however, obviously did not feel entirely secure in the saddle because they accepted the Catholic Church’s offer to mediate in talks with the MAS, which has a two-thirds majority in the Bolivian National Assembly. In return, the MAS has effectively recognised the coup and the exclusion of Morales from the polls (which in any case is what the constitution dictates and the referendum of 2016 failed to overturn). Áñez has also revoked the decree of impunity for any police/military killings in future, but not extended this to the massacres committed during the coup.

The elections, due on May 3, will not only be for the presidency and vice presidency but also for the congress, regional and local government bodies. However, virtually all the MAS and oppositional workers’ and indigenous media outlets are presently closed.

The golpistas’ main concern is how to continue to loot Bolivia’s natural riches, which include 50 to 70 percent of the entire world’s known reserves of lithium, vital for many high-tech manufacturers like Apple, Samsung, and Tesla. The fact that Morales had recently turned to Chinese companies to work alongside Bolivian state partners probably played a part in US and EU encouragement of the plotters.

Over the centuries, Bolivia has been looted for its silver, tin and copper, as well as natural gas and oil – the “open veins” described in Eduardo Galleano’s famous book – by which the continent has been bled for centuries. Mined by an indigenous workforce in the high plateau of the Andes, the Altiplano, the minerals enriched a tiny elite in the arc of lowland provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, known as the Media Luna, or half-moon, plus, of course, the multinationals in the USA, Europe and Brazil.

The “white supremacist” elite, centred in Santa Cruz de La Sierra which, with a population of 1.4 million in 2012 is the largest and fastest growing city in the country, deeply resent what they see as the diversion of royalties from the country’s minerals and hydrocarbons into the welfare, health and education programmes that benefit the majority of the country’s people.

The old landowning, and the newer business elites of the eastern provinces have repeatedly tried to establish autonomy or even independence in order to hold on to, and indeed increase, their lion’s share of these resources.

Not that supporters of the coup can claim that Morales’ 14 year presidency has ruined the country. He has been praised by the IMF, the Financial Times and the Economist, for building up solid financial reserves, more than balancing the budget, banishing inflation, and starting major infrastructure projects.

According to a 2014 report by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, “Bolivia has grown much faster over the last eight years than in any period over the past three and a half decades”. This economic growth has had positive social effects: poverty has declined by 25 percent and extreme poverty by 43 percent; social spending has increased by more than 45 percent and the real minimum wage by 87.7 percent.

Morales’ fatal flaws

But Morales and the MAS transformed the 2000-2006 pre-revolutionary and revolutionary periods, when power could have been taken by the workers, peasants and poor indigenous communities, from a potential social revolution into a series of reforms. Thus, gas nationalisation actually meant the squeezing of considerably higher royalties from the foreign hydrocarbon extracting multinationals, which were used for infrastructure projects, like the Teleferico, the cable car system linking El Alto, a city of one million largely indigenous inhabitants, to the capital La Paz. Consisting of eight lines and covering 17 miles, it cost $700m (£530m).

The most striking gains from the renationalisation of hydrocarbons and increased royalties have been the social welfare measures, grants (bonos) for mothers, the aged, for school pupils, and the funds for literacy projects and health that have significantly reduced poverty. Since 2006, unemployment has fallen by half to 4.5 percent and the gap between male and female wages has been sharply reduced.

However, at various times since his election, Morales and the MAS have found themselves under attack from “civic strikes” organised by business leaders, evangelical churches, roadblocks by manned by fascistic gangs like the Cruzena youth and threatened police mutinies, against which they were obliged to mobilise their base amongst the workers and indigenous communities. When such mobilisations were followed by rotten compromises, these weakened and divided their base.

There is no doubt that Morales violated the constitution, persuading the Supreme Court to allow him to extend the number of terms he could serve and to ignore the narrowly lost referendum for him to do so. However, he was not the first to do that; under most of his predecessors, the judiciary showed no independence of the executive. When Morales used this against the right, of course, it became evidence of an unbearable dictatorship. In effect, he was trapped by his own cult of personality. He alone could be the candidate; the bonapartist phenomenon common to populism, right or left.

An even more serious criticism of Morales, however, is that, during his 14 years in power, as well as carrying out social reforms and cultural recognition of the indigenous peoples, he diverted the mass movements in Cochabamba and El Alto, which brought him to power, into predominantly electoral channels, demobilising and recently even clashing with sections of them, in pursuit of concessions to international and domestic capital. Indeed, he and Linera split many of the organisations and promoted bureaucratic leaderships, which then resorted to repressive measures against their opponents, driving some of them into the camp of the right wing opposition.

From the outset, Morales resisted the full nationalisation of hydrocarbons demanded by the mass movement and in the end only imposed an increase in royalties and government control over sales. This was the real content of Garcia Linera’s theory of “revolution” which combined “communitarian democracy” and a “plurinational republic” with promoting “Andean capitalism” based on revenues from the export of mineral resources. In essence, this worked for just as long as China, Brazil, and the other BRICS’ rocketing demand drove up the price of these commodities.

Politically, within the Constituent Assembly, which met in Sucre from August 2006 to December 2007, Morales fended off demands for a radical democracy based on assemblies in the workplaces and indigenous communities. Instead, he compromised with the big landowners and industrial and commercial capitalists of the Media Luna and gave them considerable autonomy.

He also rejected the mass movement’s demands for a thoroughgoing agrarian revolution, particularly the nationalisation of the big latifundias. Maduro’s reforms left the landowning oligarchs estates largely intact, but promoting medium sized farms on unused lands for a sector of his indigenous base. Many of these, thanks to their small property owner status have deserted him at the critical moment.

Thus, Morales thwarted the democratic aspirations of the mass of workers and peasant organisations and weakened and split them with a state backed and corrupted trade union and indigenous bureaucracies. Grandiose celebrations of Aymara, Quechua and other indigenous cultures with himself at the centre, were poor substitutes for the movement’s fundamental demands, the satisfaction of which would have necessitated a revolutionary struggle to break the social base of the oligarchs and smash the state machinery that defended their class rule.

In the end it was this refusal to break once and for all with the bureaucratic and repressive machinery of the Bolivian capitalist state and to expropriate the oligarchs of the Media Luna, that is, to destroy their power rather than just countervail it by organising limited mobilisations of his supporters. The armed forces, not the armed people, remained the guarantor of government in Bolivia.

General Williams Kaliman and the High Command are graduates of the notorious School of the Americas, Fort Benning, Georgia, and the police commanders are participants in an exchange programme run from Washington. The investment poured into Latin American militaries by the United States is a central mechanism for maintaining the formally independent but economically and militarily subordinate, i.e. semi-colonial, status of much of the continent. Woe betide any country, like Venezuela or Bolivia, that tries to achieve genuine independence.

Kaliman was appointed as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Bolivia by Morales himself in December 2018 and was thought to be loyal to him and his project. Yet, despite his role in the coup, Añez promptly ousted him a few days later, replacing him with General Carlos Orellana.

Even when finally faced with an increasingly militant right wing coup, Morales pursued a policy of appeasement. He offered to accept an OAS audit, then to replace members of the electoral commission and conduct fresh elections. Last of all, he responded with an attempt to call fresh elections himself. Out of fear of the consequences, he only considered mobilising the people in the most half-hearted way, and at the last minute. His problem was that his more recent policies and authoritarian actions had alienated sections of the working class and youth that had formed part his social base.

For this reason, it seems workers’ assemblies in La Paz and Cochabamba initially declared neither for Morales nor the ‘civic opposition’. This led to a devastating loss of support when the bureaucracy of the main union federation, the Bolivian Workers’ Central, the COB, called for Morales’ resignation, without doing anything to prepare workers to defeat the right wing coup. Since then, the COB has recognised the legality of Áñez’ take over.

This vacillation and appeasement simply encouraged the right wing opposition who just hardened their demands, calling for the resignation of Morales and his former vice president and running mate Álvaro García Linera.

In an important sense, Morales and Linera are victims of the success of his wealth redistribution policy, which has benefitted a new, indigenous middle class now coming into conflict with the MAS strategy of compromise between the capitalist elites and the poor. The consequence of ten years of natural resource-fuelled capitalist prosperity has been the creation of a newly prosperous middle class – a new social force to which his opponents could appeal. The rupture with sections of Morales’ petty bourgeois base began with taxation of the informal economy, 60 percent of GDP, 70 percent of the economy, particularly of the cholos, the indigenous petty bourgeoisie making the transition from country to city. On the other hand, the COB, the factory workers and the miners, were alienated.

The stresses put on him by the Media Luna elites on the one hand and the workers and indigenous peasant communities on the other, eventually led to the collapse of Morales’ project, and his resort to more and more bonapartist measures, including a cult of the personality.

Tasks today

The strategy pursued by the right in Bolivia was a repeat of that tried unsuccessfully against Maduro in Venezuela. First, find a “moderate” presidential candidate who masks the arch-reactionary programme of the real opposition, then cry fraud when he doesn’t win, and mobilise the middle classes on the streets. International liberal opinion will then declare the regime authoritarian or a dictatorship. If all else fails, the US can impose sanctions or a blockade.

The strategy failed in Venezuela because of the loyalty of the army to Hugo Chávez and his anointed successor Maduro, plus the fact that there are significant armed popular militias that could make an army coup a bloody undertaking, not a judicial, parliamentary or electoral coup as was the case in Brazil and Bolivia.

In Bolivia’s case, however, the power of the repeated great movements in El Alto and Cochabamba should not be forgotten, it has not been utterly destroyed. In El Alto, the Federation of Neighbourhood Councils, FEJUVE, unites upward of 600 of these bodies and has always played a major role in mass mobilisation. Certainly, it needs to be purged of the capitulators and a new leadership elected, drawn from the militants who courageously organised strikes and blockades, and faced the guns of the police and army.

There is clearly a need for self-defence organisations, able at the critical moment to launch a general strike, paralysing the economy and the bourgeois state. Militants must do all they can to win over the rank and file of the soldiery, who in turn can disarm the police, and arm and train the masses. The COB and all its unions must be purged of their corrupt and cowardly leaders.

Workers and other popular forces can elect, from the cabildos abiertos, mass open air meetings, delegates to local councils of action. Such bodies can also, once the coup regime is broken, organise elections to a revolutionary constituent assembly that can take the necessary measures to finally deprive the bourgeoisie of its means of repression by putting the working class into power over the economy. A revolution in Bolivia, in today’s conditions, can easily spread to Chile, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela.

What is lacking is a revolutionary party of the working class and the rural and urban poor to lead such a revolution. The founding of the “Partido de los Trabajadores” Workers‘ Party, PT, at a Congress in Huanuni in March, 2013, seemed a major step towards this. It was founded on the initiative of the miners‘ union, FSTMB, and a resolution of the conference of the COB calling for a “political instrument” of the unions.

The programme adopted in Huanuni called for “nationalisation of the banks without compensation”, for “nationalisation of the mining industry and all natural resources” and the “expropriation of major land holdings”. These demands were linked to the demand for “collective workers‘ control”.

But the leadership of the PT remained firmly in the hands of the trade union bureaucracy which, within a year, was back to collaborating (and falling out) with Morales. Plainly they saw the PT as a bargaining agent with the government and the employers, not a contender for power; and this not just at the ballot box but also in the arena of revolutionary class struggle.

How can socialists worldwide help their Bolivian comrades? We should protest against our governments’ support for the coup and demand the release of prisoners and restoration of press freedom. We should expose the White House’s sponsorship of right wing oligarchies trying to turn back the so-called Pink Tide. The victories of right wing candidates, starting in Argentina four years ago and spreading to Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil and Juan Guaidó’s attempted coup in Venezuela, are all of a piece. Events in Bolivia are a symptom of an acute sharpening of the class struggle worldwide.

Down with the racist coup makers!

Victory to a Bolivian Social Revolution!

Down with imperialist plundering of the global south!

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