The choice is clear: we must oppose the racist Right in Bolivia
14 November 2019
On Sunday 10 November, the thirteen year tenure of Bolivian President Evo Morales ended when the army withdrew its support and called on him to resign. Protests have been ongoing in Bolivia for several weeks over a variety of concerns, including Morales' handling of fires in the Chiquitania region and allegations of electoral fraud. The resignation, along with that of his Vice President Álvaro García Linera and numerous senators with the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS), has sparked a fierce debate over Morales' legacy and what will happen next.
But one thing should be absolutely clear; the army's involvement in Morales' resignation and the growing power of far-right groups among Bolivia's opposition must be opposed. The Bolivian opposition to the MAS is an incredibly broad coalition of disaffected Leftists, agribusinesses elites, student groups, Christian conservatives, environmental NGOs, neoliberals, grassroots social movements and neo-fascists. However, it increasingly seems that it will be the hard-right elements of this group that will determine where things go from here. The conservative Christian senator Jeanine Áñez Chávez has been installed as interim President, promising to call new elections. But her associations with far-right groups, and her declaration that "the Bible returns to the Palace" with her, should be worrying to everyone.
Supporters of global justice across the world must unite in opposition to Bolivia's far-right and must show international solidarity to ensure that any new elections are free and fair, including the participation of the MAS and other Leftist parties. Indigenous communities and progressive social movements have shown that they are willing to protect their rights and stand in opposition to racism. We must stand in solidarity with them and do what we can to help avoid further violence.
Racism and far-right connections in Bolivia's opposition
There has been an increasingly violent, racist and far-right undertone to the protests against Morales as they have escalated in the past week. The former Bolivian President called for an end to the violence in his resignation speech and has now accepted political asylum in Mexico as his safety could not be guaranteed in Bolivia. Numerous other MAS senators and ministers have also resigned, citing personal threats against their families The mayor of Vinto, Patricia Arce, was shockingly attacked, doused in red paint and had her hair cut by masked protestors. There have been scenes of crowds burning the Wiphala flag, which represents the indigenous communities of the Andean region, and of police cutting the Wiphala from their uniforms, to chants of "Bolivia belongs to Christ" and "there is only one Bolivia" (a reference to Bolivia's designation as a Plurinational State which recognises the rights and languages of indigenous communities).
The implication of these actions is clear; many of the protestors are hellbent on taking power in order to attack the rights of indigenous communities and usher in a new era of repression. As Bolivia's first indigenous President, Morales' tenure has represented a significant expansion of the social, cultural and economic rights of indigenous communities. Far-right elements of Bolivia's white and mestizo middle-class are now organising to reverse those gains.
The person who represents this tendency more than any other is Luis Fernando Camacho, a major opposition figure and President of the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz (a wealthier region of Bolivia which has increasingly voiced support for secession in recent years). Camacho, who has been described as "Bolivia's Bolsonaro", comes from a wealthy family which was implicated in the Panama Papers. He has previously had links to an ultra-conservative, Christian fundamentalist neo-Nazi paramilitary group called the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista. Camacho appears to be gaining prominence within the opposition and is increasingly speaking on behalf of them. In contradiction to calls for fresh elections, he has called for a "junta of notables" to replace Morales.
Allegations of electoral fraud
The opposition to Morales, both in Bolivia and internationally, has focused its criticism on allegations that there was significant electoral fraud during the October Presidential election. In part, these allegations stem from the early conclusion of the TREP rapid-count system designed to give an early impression of the outcome of the election, a bit like an exit poll. As this thread explains, the TREP was always expected to release its data when above 80% of preliminary results had been counted and before final results began to be announced. When another release was published the following day, Morales had a greater lead over Mesa than was previously the case. However, this too was to be expected as Morales has a strong base among highland altiplano communities whose votes, due to the nature of Bolivian geography, are often among the last to be counted.
The Organisation of American States (OAS) has also released a report which states it is "statistically improbable" that Morales would have won in the first round without a degree of fraud taking place. However, as the historian Alejandro Velasco has noted, the OAS hardly has a reputation as an impartial arbiter of Latin American politics, particularly when it comes to passing judgement on Leftist governments.
Mixed opinions on Morales' legacy
Whilst Morales was President, illiteracy in Bolivia fell from 13% in 2006 to 2.4% in 2018. Poverty fell from 60.6% to 34.6% in the same period, whilst extreme poverty feel from 38.2% to 15.2%. Morales has increased Bolivia's GDP by more than 4.5 times what it was in 2003 and has reduced external debt whilst increasing spending on social programmes and nationalising key industries.
However, Morales has also faced criticism from Left and Right after he sought constitutional approval to, in effect, ignore a referendum result which would have meant he could not stand in the recent Presidential elections. Many opponents also hold Morales responsible for the vast forest fires which have affected Bolivia's Chiquitania and Pantanal regions this year and have repeatedly called on Morales to declare a national state of emergency. Furthermore, Morales has faced opposition from civil society and indigenous communities over his continued developmentalist approach to government - using the extraction of natural resources to fund social programmes - due to the significant detrimental social and environmental impacts on indigenous communities. Just last week, Morales cancelled a lithium extraction deal with a German mining company (which provides lithium-ion batteries to Tesla) after a wave of protests.
Whilst these are significant and reasonable criticisms of Morales' time in office, indigenous and working class communities have seen a significant expansion of social, cultural and economic rights in the past 16 years. The future under a government led by Carlos Mesa, Jeanine Áñez, or perhaps even Luis Fernando Camacho, would be far more uncertain. But the only way to decide that is through a return to the polls.
The way forward
Right now, Bolivia needs our solidarity to oppose the growing power and racism of far-right groups. To ensure this, we must:
- Condemn and call for an immediate end to violence. The safety of MAS representatives and supporters must be guaranteed and political asylum negotiated where necessary.
- Demand free and fair elections for Bolivia at the earliest opportunity. The MAS and all other Left parties must be allowed to participate. There must also be stringent international observation of these elections with the participation of neutral countries e.g. Mexico, Uruguay.
- Denounce the involvement of the far-right and demand the protection of rights for indigenous communities.
- Stand in solidarity with the Bolivian Left's resistance against the Right and support their continuing struggle for economic, social and environmental justice.