Bolivia

Racist coup in Bolivia

Print edition : December 20, 2019

President Evo Morales during a television interview in Mexico City on November 18. Photo: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg

Interim President Jeanine Anez, after enacting a law to hold a fresh election, in La Paz on November 24. Photo: Juan Karita/AP

Supporters of Morales protect themselves from teargas shells fired by the police in La Paz on November 15. Photo: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

Right-wing forces effect a violent regime change in Bolivia forcing Evo Morales to quit as President and seek asylum in Mexico.

EVO MORALES, the first indigenous President of Bolivia, was forced to resign and leave the country on November 10 after the right-wing political elite backed by the military refused to accept the verdict in the October 20 presidential election. Morales and Vice President Alvaro Garcia reluctantly accepted the offer of political asylum from Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador after the opposition, supported by the Army and the police force, went on the rampage, targeting supporters of the ruling MAS party (Movimiento al Socialismo, or Movement Towards Socialism).

Obrador was among the first world leaders to condemn the coup in Bolivia. Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were the other governments in the region to join in the condemnation. The President-elect of Argentina, Alberto Fernandez, said the events in Bolivia returned the region “to the bad days of the 1970s”, the era of the United States-backed right-wing military rulers and dictators in Latin America. Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour leader, was quick to condemn “the coup against the people of Bolivia”. Right-wing leaders in the region, such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, welcomed the violent regime change in Bolivia.

The chiefs of the Bolivian Army and the police had issued a virtual ultimatum to Morales to quit. The parliament was not allowed to meet to name a caretaker President. Threats of physical violence were issued against families of the Members of Parliament and members of the Cabinet.

Morales, speaking after his arrival in Mexico, said that his only crime while serving as President was to be indigenous and “anti-imperialist”. He promised to return to the country and said that he remained committed to the idea that “peace can only come with social justice”.

During his 14 years at the helm of affairs, the country witnessed a dramatic rise in the standard of living of the indigenous and the poor. The country’s vast mineral resources were exploited mainly for the benefit of the poor during his tenure. Poverty rates dropped from 59 to 35 per cent. South America’s poorest country became its fastest growing.

Morales’ forced departure has sucked Bolivia into a vortex of violence. The political vacuum created by the ouster of the elected government was sought to be filled by politicians who had very little public support. The right-wing opposition, which has its base in Santa Cruz, the country’s biggest city, started its protests even before the counting of the ballots in the presidential election began. The opposition realised that it was impossible to defeat Morales via the ballot box as he continued to have the support of the indigenous people, who constitute more than 50 per cent of the country’s population, and trade union movements.

Carlos de Mesa, the opposition candidate, announced as soon as the counting process started that a second-round run-off was necessary, accusing the MAS of rigging the election and being hand in glove with the country’s independent election commission. When the results were released by the election commission, Morales had a 10 per cent lead over de Mesa, thus avoiding the need for a run-off.

The U.S. and the Organisation of American States (OAS), which it controls, were quick to support the opposition’s claims. Immediately after the preliminary results started trickling out, the OAS issued a statement questioning the legitimacy of the electoral process. The OAS, along with other organisations, had sent election observers to Bolivia. Despite the negative stance adopted by the OAS, Morales had invited the organisation and other agencies to do an independent audit of the election results. The OAS participated in the audit and alleged that it had observed some irregularities in the conduct of the election without actually disputing the scale of Morales’ victory. So far, there is no credible proof to back the claims of the opposition that the final election results were tampered with by the election commission. Despite a landslide victory, Morales had offered to hold fresh elections in order to restore normalcy in the country. The U.S.-backed opposition rejected that offer, too.

Effecting regime change in Bolivia has been the U.S.’ long-cherished dream ever since Morales came to power in 2005. This was the time when the so-called “pink tide” swept across Latin America. Morales, along with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and a host of other leaders, was part of the anti-imperialist grouping in the region. The pink tide started ebbing in the beginning of this decade but seems to be on the verge of roaring back. Huge street protests have rocked the right-wing governments in Chile and Colombia. In Brazil, Lula da Silva, the iconic leader of the Left who was released on November 8 after 580 days of imprisonment, is attracting huge crowds. Lula said the coup against Morales was instigated by the “rich elite”. The Workers Party government in Brazil was ousted through the means of a “constitutional coup”, which had the support of the local elite.

The stage-managed events in Bolivia, which led to the forced exit of Morales, has resulted in the power grab by the extreme Right, whose leadership is in the hands of a racist white and mestizo elite. When Morales was growing up, indigenous people used to be doused with pesticides before they entered government buildings. When Morales first assumed office in 2005, he promised “to end the colonial state and the neoliberal model” in Bolivia.

Senator Jeanine Anez, who has claimed the presidency, is a white Christian fundamentalist whose party has never polled more than 5 per cent votes in national elections. The first thing she did on declaring herself President was to swear in a Cabinet full of coup plotters and evangelical Christian radicals. The interim government is supposed to hold a new election within 90 days, but it is taking its time in announcing a date for the election. In the last week of November, the legislators of the upper and lower houses met and approved a Bill calling for a new election law that would exclude Morales. The new law forbids anyone who has served two terms in office from contesting for the presidency, thus ruling out the candidature of Morales.

Meanwhile, the right wing has made its intentions of reversing the progressive policies initiated by Morales very clear. After coming to power, Morales had revised the Constitution, making Bolivia a “plurinational” state. The Constitution gave equal status to the 36 indigenous groups and the languages they spoke. Equal weightage was given to the Christian god and “Pachamama”, the earth mother worshipped by the indigenous people. Coca cultivation was legalised. Morales made his first mark in politics as a radical leader of the coca growers unions. Fernando Camacho, the rabble-rousing right-wing “born again” leader from Santa Cruz, speaking after the coup, said that “the Bible has re-entered the presidential palace” in La Paz. The right-wing coup in Bolivia comes at a time when left-wing forces are in the ascendant in the region.

The U.S.’ role

The role of the Donald Trump administration in the destabilisation of the democratically elected government in Bolivia is getting clearer by the day. Washington has been openly supporting the right-wing groups operating from Santa Cruz ever since Morales came to power. The U.S. embassy in La Paz supported the bid of the Santa Cruz-based separatists to split Bolivia into two. Santa Cruz, the commercial capital of Bolivia, made an abortive bid to split away from the rest of the country in 2008. Now, the separatists have got a shot in the arm after leading the protests to overthrow the elected government in La Paz.

The U.S. has also been encouraging putschists in the Bolivian Army. A 2007 WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. embassy in La Paz talked about the Army being divided and reluctant to follow orders from the civilian government. The current Army chief, Williams Kaliman, was trained in the infamous School of the Americas. The police chief, Yuri Calderon, who was the first to raise the banner of revolt against Morales, was also trained in the U.S. Luis Fernando Camacho, the extreme right-wing leader who has been in the forefront of the violent protests, hails from Santa Cruz and has received direct funding from U.S. agencies.

Trump did not waste time in recognising the illegitimate regime installed in Bolivia. He actually praised the Bolivian Army for protecting the country’s Constitution. Trump said that the turn of events in Bolivia had “sent a strong signal to the illegitimate regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua that democracy and the will of the people will prevail”. Washington’s efforts to destabilise the democratically elected governments in these countries have failed miserably.

Support for the MAS

In Bolivia, all is still not lost for the MAS. The party has grass-roots support among the indigenous people. The ouster of Morales and the strong-arm tactics of the security forces to suppress protests has angered them. The early November coup sparked massive protests. A national strike was called demanding the resignation of the interim government. The security forces killed many protesters in El Alto, a town located near La Paz. The town, dominated by indigenous Bolivians, is a bulwark of support for Morales and the MAS. Morales said the killing of “his brothers and sisters” reminded him of the days of the military dictatorship in the country.

In retrospect, Morales made some mistakes. His insistence on running for a third term despite losing a constitutional referendum on the issue two years ago, was a political misjudgement. The Constitution allows only two consecutive terms. A constitutional court later allowed Morales to run for a third term, sparking protests even among some of his own supporters. Morales also did not designate a political heir or successor. This has left a vacuum not only in the politics of the country but also within the ranks of the Left.

The Bolivian leader’s decision to leave the country when his supporters were putting up a fight has been criticised. Morales said he agreed to leave Bolivia to save the lives of his supporters and at the insistence of his Cabinet Ministers. There were credible threats to his life by the putschists. The MAS party leadership negotiated with the interim government for his exit. Morales has since acknowledged that going into exile voluntarily was not a step a revolutionary should take. Morales, however, expressed hope of returning to Bolivia and completing his current term, which ends in January 2020.

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