Capitalism strikes again in Latin America
Calling a coup a coup
On Nov. 10, 2019, Bolivian President and leader of the socialist party “Movement Towards Socialism,” (MAS) Evo Morales, resigned following a right-wing coup. Morales, who is Indigenous, and whose policies of industrializing and nationalizing Bolivia’s mining and natural gas industries have lifted millions of Bolivians out of extreme poverty, has been the leader of the country since 2006. The November coup d’etat came after three weeks of unrest following an election on Oct. 20, 2019 that was contested by Morales’ opponent, former Bolivian president Carlos Mesa. Morales offered to hold another election but the offer was not accepted and he was ultimately forced from office, saying he wanted to “avoid a massacre,” after generals in the Bolivian Army appeared on television and demanded his resignation and arrest. At least eight Bolivians have been killed since he went into exile, most, if not all of whom were shot to death when the armed forces opened fire on a group of Morales’ supporters. As of press time, Morales has sought – and been granted – asylum in in Mexico and right-wing Jeanine Añez, who was formerly the second vice-president of the Bolivian senate, has been declared President.
In the days since the militant takeover, mainstream English-language news outlets – and nations – have been reluctant to call the coup a coup. But Miguel Sanchez, a University of Regina professor who fled Chile and came to Canada as a political refugee during the Pinochet regime, is clear. “It was a coup d’état,” he said. For Sanchez – who stressed that he is not an expert on Bolivia, but rather an invested observer – the accompanying reluctance to name the coup for what it is, is only natural. “How else do they justify the violence they want to exert?” He added that the coup was “not from nowhere.” Although Morales’ ouster came on Nov. 10, the unrest that led to it had been building for weeks, even before the October election.
In 2017, in Morales’ third term as president, he decided he wanted to run for a fourth, although Bolivian law did not allow this. A referendum to determine whether leaders should be able to run for more than three terms was narrowly defeated, with 51 per cent of the population voting against. That same year, Bolivia’s highest court ruled that term limits were unconstitutional, and Morales ran again in 2019. His decision to do so has been cited by some as one of the reasons for the coup. Mesa went so far as to accuse him of being an “illegal candidate” on Twitter However, Morales’ run violated no laws, and he did not attempt to hold onto his power without an election. When the votes were tallied, MAS won by a not insignificant margin.
Whatever the causes, tensions were high leading up to the October election and so the Organization of American States (OAS) sent observers to monitor the election. OAS was first formed during the Cold War as a coalition of anti-communist countries. It ostensibly represents all 35 states in the Americas, although Sanchez calls it “an instrument of U.S. policy in Latin America.” Bolivia has a somewhat complex way of counting votes, and it was during the counting of the votes – before polls had even closed – that Mesa cried foul over the (not yet fully returned) results, and the OAS backed him up.
“OAS has played such a horrendous role here,” said Sanchez. “They followed the lies of Mesa. They gave the impression that something wrong was happening when the reality is very different.” Neither the leaders of the coup nor the OAS has provided any evidence of election fraud, although the non-partisan Centre for Economic and Policy Research has provided a detailed statistical analysis showing “no evidence that irregularities or fraud affected the official result that gave President Evo Morales a first-round victory.”
Sanchez says this isn’t the first time that Mesa has allied with the US against the people of Bolivia. In 2002, Mesa was elected vice-president alongside Gustavo Sanchez de Lozada. They ran against MAS, and beat them by 24,000 votes. Bolivia has large stores of natural gas, and following his election, de Lozada made moves to sell those gas reserves to the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Bolivians converged on Le Paz, Bolivia’s de facto capital, and other major Bolivian cities to protest that decision and to demand that the country’s natural gas be industrialized nationally for the benefit of the people. Evo Morales and MAS were among them.
In 2003, as protests and demonstrations continued in what would become known as the “Gas Wars;” de Lozada was forced to resign after more than 60 Bolivians demonstrating against the government were shot dead by the military. He fled to the US, where Sanchez says he was granted political asylum. De Lozada was found guilty of the extrajudicial killings in a Fort Lauderdale court in 2018, however the Bolivian government’s efforts to have him extradited from the US to face trial in Bolivia have so far failed. After de Lozada fled, his vice-president, Mesa, assumed the presidency. But in the end, the people did not want Mesa either. He resigned in the late spring of 2005 while protests continued to rage. Evo Morales was elected that same year.
Sanchez said that for many years before Morales’ presidency, coups were common in the country. “We knew Bolivia for instability,” he said. Landlocked and bordered by five other countries, Bolivia is rich in lithium, a mineral that is probably best known for its role as a treatment for bipolar disorder (the Indigenous people of the region understood its medicinal properties long before it was “discovered” by colonizers), but is also necessary for the production of many “green” technologies, like hybrid and electric cars.
“Lithium is key,” when trying to understand what is happening in Bolivia, said Sanchez. Resource wealth has exacted a price on Latin American countries in the form of what he calls “the permanent intervention of the United States in our affairs, in order . . . to get our natural resources.” He says the US allowed Morales’ government to carry on without interference for so long because the country didn’t have anything they wanted. “[Morales] was not very important because lithium was not very important.”
In the years before green capitalism made lithium important, Morales governed Bolivia into a period of stability and even prosperity, particularly for Indigenous people. His progressive policies included nationalizing the country’s natural gas industry and requiring all government communications be written in Spanish and at least one Indigenous language. The Bolivian constitution states that all Bolivians have the right to health, and that health care in the nation is to be “universal, free, equitable, intra-cultural, intercultural, and participatory,” and administered “with quality, kindness and social control.”
Under Morales’ leadership rates of poverty among Bolivians – who were once the poorest citizens in South America – have been reduced by 42 per cent and rates of extreme poverty (living on less than $1.90 per day) by 60 per cent. In 2009 Morales instituted a new a new constitution. Along with policies ensuring the right to healthcare, education, and “a dignified old age that has quality and human warmth,” the 2009 constitution declared that an essential function of the Bolivian state was to “construct a just and harmonious society, built on decolonization, without discrimination or exploitation, with full social justice, in order to strengthen the Pluri-National identities.”
The Government of Canada has not condemned the coup, saying instead that they will “support” the government that has been formed in its wake, although they have expressed “concern” over the violence that has broken out in Bolivia. Violence that includes the deaths of eight of Morales’ supporters, who were killed after the Bolivian armed forces opened fire on them in an echo of the Gas Wars. “They are exercising incredible violence,” Sanchez said.
The Canadian government’s failure to advocate against the coup is not surprising in the context of this country’s history in the region. Canada, and in particular Canadian mining interests, has long put profits before the Bolivian people, and the people of Latin America at large. Canada’s role in Bolivian politics is “not protecting the social rights of the people in Latin America, but protecting the economic interest of the Canadian operations [in Bolivia],” according to Sanchez, who added that the way Canada is operating south of the equator is “making a huge difference in the way that people in Latin America see Canada today.”
Although serving the needs of corpocratic countries like Canada and the US is an important part of essentially every coup in Latin America over the past thirty years, the role that anti-Indigenous racism plays in the Bolivian conflict is enormous. Although Bolivia has the largest population of Indigenous people in South America, Morales, an Aymaran, was the country’s first Indigenous president. In the days following the election, the wiphala flag – Bolivia’s second flag, which represents Indigenous people – was burned and desecrated in the streets. Añez, the new president, once tweeted, “I dream of a Bolivia free from Satanic Indigenous ceremonies. The city isn’t for Indians. Go back to the altiplano or the hills.”
Sanchez said that immediately after the Army demanded Morales’ resignation and arrest, “right wing paramilitary groups got out on the streets and violently attacked neighbourhoods and anybody that looked Indigenous.” This kind of ferocious violence against Indigenous people is a horrific – but unsurprising – settler response to the decolonization and indigenization of lands that have long been ruled by the doctrine of colonizer supremacy.
Although Morales is in exile and Añez has been installed as president, neoliberal, conservative powers have not yet won in Bolivia. Far from being passive victims, crushed beneath the weight of imperialist oppressors, the people of Bolivia – and of other Latin American countries like Chile, Haiti, Honduras, and so many more – have a long tradition of resistance. Sanchez said, “they are people who have said ‘no more.’” They will not simply give up and go home. Although countries of the so-called “global north” have deposed so many of the leftist governments in Latin America, it is the people who have brought those leaders into power, and it is the people who will restore them. But Canadians must not turn away.
“The people are going to prevail in Bolivia,” said Sanchez. “But we cannot be accomplices against them.”