Bolivia

Left resurgence in Bolivia

Print edition : November 20, 2020

Supporters of the Movimiento Al Socialismo party at a victory rally in El Alto on October 24. Photo: LUIS GANDARILLAS/AFP

Supporters of the Movimiento Al Socialismo party dance at a victory rally in El Alto on October 24. Photo: AIZAR RALDES/AFP

Luis Arce, Bolivia’s President elect, at a rally to celebrate his electoral victory in El Alto on October 24. Photo: AIZAR RALDES / AFP

Evo Morales, former Bolivian President, at a press conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina on October 22, following the victory of the Movimiento Al Socialismo party in the Presidential election. Photo: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

Jeanine Anez who served as President of the interim government installed by the military in November 2019. Photo: UNTV via AP

Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organisation of American States (OAS). Photo: NORBERTO DUARTE/AFP

The overwhelming victory of the Left in Bolivia’s presidential election is a setback for both the U.S. and the right-wing forces in Latin America which had staged a coup to oust it from power last year.

The landslide victory of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS; Movimiento al Socialismo) party in Bolivia’s presidential election, held in the third week of October, is a sharp rebuke of both the right-wing forces in Latin America and the Donald Trump administration in the United States. In November 2019, the conservative and racist parties in Bolivia had ganged up with Washington and staged a coup to oust President Evo Morales from power. Morales won the presidential election in October 2019 with more than 51 per cent of the votes. But the opposition was determined to see the back of Bolivia’s first indigenous leader who happened to be one of the most prominent standard-bearers of the Left in the region. Morales was also Bolivia’s longest serving President, having been in office for 14 years.

The opposition claimed that the elections were rigged, without providing any credible evidence. Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organisation of American States (OAS), also played a key role in undermining both Morales’ electoral victory and the democratic process in Bolivia. Almagro issued a statement questioning the conduct of the election and the credibility of Bolivia’s Election Commission. The U.S.and Canadian governments, along with the other right-wing governments in the region such as Brazil and Colombia, immediately called for the ouster of Morales and the holding of fresh elections.
Also read: Racist coup in Bolivia

No foul play

Bolivia’s Election Commission as well as international election observers, barring those despatched by the OAS, stated that the election results were accurate and that there had been no foul play. In a report published in June, The New York Times questioned the OAS’ report that declared that the ruling party had rigged the election, and quoted a study by independent researchers from reputed U.S. universities which stated that the OAS’ conclusion was “statistically flawed”. Until recently, The New York Times, along with the rest of the U.S. media, had been a vocal supporter of the de facto coup in Bolivia, and had even stated in its editorial in November 2019 that the “tyrant” Morales had no other option but to leave after having presided over “a highly fishy vote”.

The 100-page study found that the OAS had used incorrect data to reach its conclusions. Both the opposition and the Trump administration seized on the OAS report to demand Morales’ immediate resignation.

This time round, the OAS has been quick to welcome the result of the October election. The President elect, Luis Arce, said that the OAS has to “make amends for its mistakes”. Morales has already demanded Almagro’s resignation and has also said that he will be suing him in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Morales said that Almagro should be “prosecuted and judged” to ensure that in the future the will of the people of Latin America and the Caribbean will be respected. He blamed the OAS chief’s interference in the election process for triggering the year-long violence that claimed the lives of hundreds of Bolivians and grievously injured thousands more. Almagro has also been supporting the Trump administration’s efforts at regime change in Venezuela.

The overwhelming victory of the Left in Bolivia is a setback not only for the U.S. but also for its right-wing allies in the region such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Colombia’s Ivan Duque Marquez. The results are a timely shot in the arm for the socialist governments of Cuba and Venezuela, which are groaning under an inhumane U.S. blockade. The result could help boost the fortunes of the Left in the region and revive the “pink tide” which had, in the last decade, brought most of Latin America under the banner of the Left.
Also read: How Bolivia began reclaiming its natural resources

The victory of the MAS is all the more creditable because the security forces in Bolivia, in cahoots with the right wing, used extremely violent methods in their futile attempts to browbeat the indigenous majority into submission. The “interim” government that assumed power in November 2019, with the backing of the Trump administration, had sworn that it would never allow the Left and the indigenous groups to come back to power. Morales, fearing for his own safety and that of his supporters, was forced to go underground. The intervention of Mexican President Lopez Obrador ensured his safe exit from the country. The Mexican government provided a plane for Morales to leave Bolivia. Morales made it clear at the time that he was leaving the country to prevent further bloodshed and would be returning soon. The interim government, which was installed by the military, went about reversing many of the decisions of the MAS government, especially with regard to foreign policy. Led by the evangelical politician Jeanine Anez from a right-wing party which won only four per cent of the vote in the 2019 election, this government immediately granted the security forces a “full pardon” for crimes committed during the “reestablishment of order” during the post-coup period.

During her year in office, Jeanine Anez tried to push for the privatisation of the country’s natural resources and state-owned companies. Diplomatic relations with Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, among Bolivia’s closest allies in the last decade and a half, were cut off. Hundreds of Cuban doctors were expelled from Bolivia at a time when the country was battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Bolivia has the third highest COVID-19 death per capita rate in the world. Under Morales, Bolivia had declared Israel “a terrorist state”. In less than a month after the November coup, the interim government established diplomatic relations with Israel and used its expertise to suppress “leftist terrorists” in the country.

The right-wing interim government even celebrated the 53rd death anniversary of Ernesto Che Guevara on October 9 in a very provocative way. Che was killed by the Bolivian army and its Central Intelligence Agency advisers in eastern Bolivia. Speaking on the occasion, the interim President Jeanine Anez declared that Che’s death showed that “a communist dictatorship has no place” in Bolivia. She also issued a warning stating that any foreigner coming to “cause problems in Bolivia, whether Cuban, Argentinian or Venezuelan, will meet his death”.

The supporters of the MAS were regularly brutalised on the streets of the capital La Paz and other cities. There were efforts to rewrite the “pluranational constitution” which the country had adopted in 2009. The 2009 Constitution accorded equal importance to Christianity and the indigenous earth god “Pachamama”, as well as rights to the 38 indigenous groups, including equal status for their judicial systems and courts.

While the interim government was not able to undermine the MAS’ achievements in the short time-frame before fresh elections were called, it allowed the pandemic to rage out of control, leaving the people and the economy devastated. The election, which was supposed to be held earlier this year, was postponed twice on flimsy pretexts.

Morales had promised his countrymen that he would return after constitutional law and peace were restored. It has not been a long wait. Morales, who remains the chairman of the MAS, welcomed the results of the election from neighbouring Argentina as a “resounding” victory. He told the media in Buenos Aires: “Sisters and brothers, the will of the people has prevailed. Today we have recovered democracy and the fatherland. We will recover stability and peace.” He thanked the governments of Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Argentina for their help and understanding of the situation in Bolivia. Morales said, “Thanks to them, I am alive today.” He also thanked Pope Francis, who personally congratulated him after the electoral victory.
Also read: Morales' hat-trick

Opposition concedes defeat

The mestizo elite, whose power base is in Santa Cruz in eastern Bolivia, has been forced to beat a retreat in the face of their overwhelming defeat in the election. Given the wide margin of defeat, the opposition has been quick to accept the results.

Luis Arce, the President-elect handpicked by Morales, was the long serving Finance Minister in the MAS government. In fact, the election was viewed as a referendum on the 14 years of the MAS’ rule under Morales. Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the region, saw remarkable changes under Morales. For a start, the indigenous people, who constitute the majority of the population, were treated as equals by the government for the first time. The standard of living of ordinary people witnessed a dramatic rise. Poverty was cut by half and extreme poverty by three quarters. The Morales government introduced a universal old-age pension scheme, built roads and schools in areas that had been neglected by the earlier government, and nationalised the lucrative gas and mineral sectors. The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 50 per cent under MAS rule.

This time, seeing the writing on the wall, the opposition conceded defeat even before all the votes were counted. Arce got more than 55 per cent of the vote in the first round itself, making a run-off unnecessary.

Bolivia’s electoral law precludes a run-off if a candidate has more than a 10 per cent margin of victory in the first round, and gets at least 40 per cent of the popular vote. Carlos Mesa, one of the right-wing candidates, got only 28 per cent of the vote, while Luis Fernando Camacho, another candidate of the right who played an important role in instigating the violent protests against Morales last year, came third with around 14 per cent of the vote.

According to the Election Commission, there was a record turnout of voters despite the country being adversely impacted by the pandemic. Eighty-eight per cent of the electorate turned out to vote. The MAS won a huge majority in both Houses of Congress although it is marginally short of the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution on its own.

The voters had not forgotten the politics that the main opposition espoused in the past. Mesa, who governed the country from 2003 to 2005, was forced to demit office following massive street protests against his government’s moves to privatise the country’s vast natural resources and the continued discrimination of the poor indigenous majority.
Also read: Fire in the plains, fire in the mountains

The new government has promised to “rebuild” the country after a year of turmoil. Arce, an economist trained in a British university, has been given much of the credit for the progress the country made under the MAS government. Although commodity prices are low, the large quantities of Bolivia’s lithium deposits, known as “white gold”, could help bolster the country’s sagging economy. Arce has said that he intends to create 1,30,000 jobs by exploiting the high global demand for lithium. Lithium batteries are essential components in batteries of electric cars, computers and cell phones. The new President has a tough task ahead as he strives to unite a country torn asunder by racial divide.

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