The new book by Linda Farthing and Thomas Becker dissects the rightwing coup that toppled Bolivia’s elected government in 2019.
‘I lived through two past dictatorships. This is even worse.’ The haunting words of a veteran television reporter in November 2019. His is one of the many voices from across the social and political spectrum included in this timely and accessible overview of the coup which devastated Bolivia that year.
Coup: A Story of Violence and Resistance in Bolivia, co-written by journalist-scholar Linda Farthing and lawyer Tommy Becker, vividly documents the coup of 2019 and the processes that unfolded to enable it. A powerful rightwing and middle-class protest movement had mobilised to oust then-president Evo Morales and his party, the Movement towards Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, MAS), in a violent power-grab which would jeopardise the major social progresses of the previous 14 years. By the end of the month, barricades lined the streets of major cities and massacres by state troops left at least 20 civilians dead.
Becker has a background in defending victims of Bolivian state violence, having led the landmark lawsuit against Bolivia’s former president Gonzalo ‘Goni’ Sanchez de Lozada for his role in ordering a massacre of Indigenous people in 2003. Linda Farthing is a well-established reporter on Bolivian affairs in media and academic outlets. Both were eyewitnesses to the events described in the book. (Farthing and I co-authored this article on violence in Bolivia while we were in La Paz at the time.)
The strength of the book lies in its array of vignettes; short and usually anonymous testimonies from scholars, taxi drivers, street sellers and teachers from cities and rural areas. It is speckled with illustrative quotes from scholars and thinkers from Bolivia which enrich and inform the narrative. The powerful photographs taken by Becker are a major highlight.
In chapters three and four, the book addresses the achievements of the MAS between 2005 and 2019. The social transformations initiated by the social movement-backed party are not in dispute, even by their staunchest critics. Maternal mortality dropped by almost 40 per cent, while extreme poverty and illiteracy dramatically reduced. Daily incidents of racial discrimination, it is suggested, are less commonplace today.
The authors outline how the coup unleashed a wave of political persecution and an assault on the progressive gains of the previous two decades: ‘We feel like we’ve gone back forty or fifty years in a week,’ the authors quote one woman in La Paz. The newly-installed regime immediately targeted trade unionists, civic leaders and politicians associated with the MAS. ‘I felt fear like I never had before,’ an anonymous political official says. By early 2020, the coup regime of Jeanine Añez had pressed charges against more than 100 MAS politicians and 600 former officials and their families for ‘sedition’ or ‘terrorism.’
Chapter five, which addresses the massacres of Sacaba and Senkata, is perhaps the strongest section. After the military intervened to ‘suggest’ that Morales resign, rightwing evangelical senator Áñez assumed power, declaring that ‘the Bible has returned to the Government palace.’ She promptly oversaw massacres of anti-coup protesters in Sacaba, near La Paz, and Senkata, in Cochabamba, areas inhabited mainly by Indigenous peoples. The day before the Sacaba massacre, Añez proclaimed Supreme Decree 4708 which granted immunity from criminal responsibility to soldiers. On 11 June 2022, Añez was sentenced to ten years in prison, one of the few occasions in Latin American history of dictators being held to account. The book speaks to the ongoing process of bringing those in power to justice.
The book also testifies to the inspiring resistance of Bolivian social movements to the dictatorship. Massive blockades in August 2020 instigated by the Bolivian Worker Central (Central Obrera Boliviana, COB), the major trade union federation, and the peasant Unique Trade Union Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia (Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia, CSUTCB) were decisive in forcing the return to democracy. In October 2020, the government finally held elections, resulting in a sensational victory for the MAS under now-president Lucho Arce.
As the book sets out, the coup took place under a false discourse of championing democracy and constitutionality. In some ways, there are parallels with the coup in Brazil in 2016 which saw leftwing Dilma Rouseff impeached through the abuse of the judicial system for political persecution. In Bolivia, the army of ‘pititas,’ or the largely middle-class urban protesters who sought the removal of Morales through counter-democratic means, were helped by the notoriously corrupt and unpopular police forces who staged a mutiny during the elections. Pitita discourse compared Morales to a ‘dictator,’ yet proclaimed support for Añez who governed with no legal mandate.
Coup briefly discusses the role of international actors in fuelling this narrative, noting that the protesters’ accusations of fraud intensified after the Organization of American States (OAS) hinted, with no evidence, that there were irregularities in the first round of voting during the elections in October 2019. There is space to develop this further to include analysis on the role of Brazil and the United States, at that time governed by far-right Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump respectively.
Although the Introduction provides helpful context, significant chunks of information on Bolivian history are crammed in which may be onerous for non-specialist readers. Unpacking Bolivia’s complex colonial legacies, racial dynamics and political structures is a difficult task and requires probably more space than this book offers. The book was written quickly and, at times, it shows: big concepts go unexplained or are addressed in cursory detail. The rise of plurinationalism, the ‘pink tide’ phenomenon, Andean racial identifications, Buen Vivir (living well) and fossil fuel dependency are addressed in quick succession, as if to tick off a check-list.
The book is aimed at a general reader and will prove useful for journalists and activists in the Global North interested in the dynamics of rightwing mobilisation in the region. Bestowed with endorsements from political luminaries such as Brazil’s former president (and maybe soon-to-be president), Luiz ‘Lula’ Inacio da Silva, it is vital reading as the region grapples with the rise of the right in Latin America and the challenges this poses for left-backed governments in power.
Coup: A Story of Violence and Resistance in Bolivia (Linda Farthing and Thomas Becker, Haymarket Books, 2021). Order it via the Haymarket website.