With the persecution of Evo Morales’ political party and the killing of indigenous protestors, Bolivia has lurched into a brutal dictatorship that makes a mockery of claims about restoring democracy.
Since the 10 November 2019 coup in Bolivia which saw President Evo Morales forced to resign, repression by the new regime against anti-coup protestors has left a trail of bloodshed. 32 people have been killed and 700 injured in the several weeks of unrest which engulfed Bolivia after the presidential elections on 20 October. At the Senkata gas plant in El Alto, nine people including a student were shot dead by state forces on 19 November during a peaceful blockade. Police also dropped tear gas on the funeral march which followed two days later.
The previous week, at least eight cocaleros (coca growers) were massacred by state security forces as they protested against the new government in Sacaba, Cochabamba. In addition, hundreds of foreign citizens have been expelled from the country, including over 700 Cuban doctors and Venezuelan diplomats, and Morales is now in political exile in Argentina after initially seeking refuge in Mexico.
In an extraordinary break with human rights protocol, in November the government granted the military immunity from prosecution if they use force in ‘legitimate defence’, in a decree leaked on social media by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (CIDH). After a backlash, the government rescinded the decree. Bolivian military and police killed more protesters and protest bystanders in November 2019 than in the previous ten years of MAS-ISPS rule, according to research by anthropologist Carwil Bjork-James.
The new regime assumed power after conservative-religious opposition leader and second vice-president of the Senate, Jeanine Añez, appointed herself to the presidency in a near-empty legislative chamber on 12 November. Representatives of Morales’ party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement towards Socialism, MAS), boycotted the session, withholding the quorum necessary to officially accept Morales’ resignation and approve the interim president. Añez represents a party which received just 4.24 per cent of the vote in the October presidential elections won by Morales in the first round but which the domestic opposition and other influential actors such as the US government refused to accept. ‘The Bible has returned to the palace,’ Añez declared, brandishing an oversized bible. An ultra-right Christian fundamentalist, Añez has in the past tweeted racist statements about indigenous peoples and called the Aymara New Year ‘Satanic’.
The purge of MAS officials and local trade unions should be understood as a backlash against the redistributive and pro-indigenous policies enacted by Morales over the past 14 years and as an attempt to annihilate the MAS from public life. The Communications Minister declared that the government would expel foreign journalists, while the new Minister of Government, Arturo Murillo, issued an arrest warrant against Morales and former minister Juan Ramon Quintana for ‘sedition and terrorism’ and vowed to seek the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. He also stated that he plans to arrest legislators and journalists who spread ‘sedition’ and has created a new paramilitary hit squad to weed out ‘terrorists’.
Television channels Telesur and RT were taken off air, along with smaller radio stations such as Kawsachun Coca, which provided much of the coverage of the massacre in Sacaba, in the Chapare region. Additionally, the award-winning political cartoonist for newspaper La Razón, Alejandro Salazar, who goes by the name Al-Azar, was forced to resign due to death threats over his criticisms of the new government. Dozens of Bolivian people have been arrested on spurious charges; in a fresh crackdown on free speech, on New Years Eve journalists Alejandra Salinas (who is also a feminism studies student at La Paz’s UMSA university), Orestes Sotomayor and Yesmy Marquez were detained and accused of ‘inciting’ terrorism and ‘sedition’ for criticising the government on blogs and social media.
Morales’ abrupt removal in the aftermath of the election came after the head of the Bolivian armed forces ‘suggested’ that he resign following a police mutiny in cities across the country. This was the culmination of two weeks of mobilisation by anti-government protestors, largely steered by ultra-right civic leader Luis Fernando Camacho, who accused the government of fraud in the October election. It also coincided with the release of the report by the Organization of American States (OAS) which suggested there had been ‘manipulation’ in the vote count. No proof was offered by the OAS and their claims were contested by US thinktank, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Prior to the election, polls had consistently predicted a victory for Morales over rival Carlos Mesa.
Since the coup , there have been massive daily protests against the new regime and in support of Morales in La Paz by campesinos (land workers), indigenous groups and local associations from the neighbouring city of El Alto. Tear gas is routinely deployed by the police against anti-coup protests. A sign at a rally in La Paz on 14 November poignantly captured this double standard: ‘When the rich march, the policy mutiny. When the poor march, they shoot bullets.’
Immediately after the coup, anti-Morales protesters were filmed burning the Wiphala, the flag representing Andean indigenous peoples. Footage also circulated of police in the city of Santa Cruz cutting off the Wiphala from their uniforms. The Wiphala is a powerful symbol of resistance to the centuries of exploitation, racial violence and social exclusion experienced by indigenous peoples in Bolivia. As Aymara writer Jesus Oscuri writes, the burning of the Wiphala combined with the ousting of Morales made many feel as if ‘the Indian was being expelled from power’.
Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, was elected in 2005 with his social movement-backed party, the MAS. Under his tenure, Bolivia has slashed poverty rates, reduced inequality, nationalised key industries and overseen economic growth while rejecting IMF debt bondage.
Bolivia also has crucially seen the ‘indigenisation’ of the state, that is to say, the elevation of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples and the centring of indigenous belief systems in public life. Morales has made powerful statements on the global stage in favour of redistribution of wealth, the recognition of indigenous rights and protection of the environment. In 2010, Morales championed the ‘Rights of Mother Earth’ law which recognises the earth as a political subject enshrined with, among other things, a right to life. None of this was without opposition from traditional white-mestizo (mixed race) elites and international capital.
The attacks on the Wiphala have prompted outrage and compelled a wave of marches in the capital La Paz, El Alto and the lowland city Cochabamba in which protestors have called for the resignation of Añez and demanded ‘la Wiphala se respeta, carajo” (Respect the Wiphala, damnit). These protests are also, in part, a reaction to the upsurge in racist and gendered violence which accompanied the October elections and their aftermath. On 29 October, smeared on the wall outside UMSA, the public university in La Paz, were the words ‘Indians out of UMSA.’ In the days prior to the coup, a MAS mayor, Patricia Arce Guzman, was attacked by opposition protesters who forcibly cut off her hair, dragged her through the street and covered her in red paint and dirt. The director of radio for the peasants union CSUTCB – an organisation allied with Morales which represents rural, usually indigenous workers – was chained to a tree while anti-government protesters ransacked the union’s headquarters.
Añez’s government has also quickly embarked on a complete reversal of Morales’ progressive economic model. It has announced its aim to privatise the economy and will consider removing fuel subsidies which are guaranteed to hit Bolivia’s poor hard. ‘The government should reduce considerably and give a greater role to private companies’ said interim government minister Wilfredo Rojo in a television interview on 11 December. The coup government has also withdrawn from left-leaning regional blocs, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).
The regime also announced that it would send military forces into the Chapare, a tropical region in Cochabamba which is home to a large sector of coca growers loyal to the MAS. It was here Morales began his political career as a cocalero union leader. The Chapare has witnessed a number of large, democratic events held by the MAS as part of its process of selecting election candidates. It’s fair to assume that the proposed militarisation of the Chapare is designed to suppress political dissent in this highly autonomous MAS-supporting region.
Elections are scheduled for May 2020 – a whole six months after Añez declared herself president. As the killings and the repression by the new regime continues, the urban middle class – who protested so vocally in favour of ‘democracy’ when they wanted to remove Morales – are silent. In post-coup Bolivia, the old fault lines of social conflict have re-emerged with alarming alacrity.
This article was published in Alborada 10, our recent digital magazine. To order your free copy, click here.