Evo Morales, the coup and popular resistance

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Evo Morales allowed an opening for the right. Pic: Eneas De Troya

A combination of local capitalist forces and US imperialism lies behind the coup in Bolivia. But, as Andy Brown explains, the picture is more complicated, with Morales’s own political aims being partly to blame for his lack of support, giving the right the opportunity to overthrow him.

Evo Morales, the first indigenous person ever to be elected as president in Latin America, is today in political asylum in Mexico. He has been forced from office by the Bolivian armed forces higher command, the police and a cabal of right wing politicians, who have claimed irregularities in the recent presidential election and mobilised against him.

This is a coup. It is backed by the reactionary oligarchy, especially in the east of the country, by the Organisation of American States and by the Trump administration, which is hell-bent on bolstering the right in Latin America and reclaiming US dominance across the region.

There can be no doubt that the US is involved in the moves against Morales. Therefore there can be not the slightest doubt where socialists stand on the issue. There is no such thing as a socialist who is not an anti-imperialist and we are unequivocally against US interference in Latin America, as we always have been on every occasion on which this has happened. We are also against the multinational companies who seek to exploit the natural wealth of the continent and the labour of its people for their own profit.

Bolivian capitalists

But there is a very important extra point to be made alongside this and one which is overlooked by some. Imperialist interests are undoubtedly at work here, but we must also point out that there is a powerful Bolivian ruling class and there are key Bolivian capitalist interests at play alongside the imperialists and inextricably linked to them. Crucially we are talking about the capitalists in what Bolivians call the Media Luna, the group of eastern provinces which form a half moon in the lowlands. They are centred on the city of Santa Cruz. Their interests are mainly in agro-industry such as soy and cattle ranching, as well as oil and drugs. They have bitterly opposed the Morales government all through its existence, at times threatening secession, fomenting disorder and using gangs of right wing thugs to attack left-indigenous organisations and demonstrations.

Alongside their economic interests lies a deep and vicious racism, directed above all at indigenous people who form the majority in Bolivia. Race and class are very closely linked in many Latin American countries. Broadly speaking, the ruling class is much whiter than most working people and there is a very open racism expressed in class politics. In Bolivia, since the very beginning of the colony, there has been systematic discrimination against indigenous people, written into the fabric of the Republic after independence. In response, most Bolivian working people see their indigenous identity as intrinsic to their resistance to both exploitation and oppression.

This is why Morales’s election in 2005 was so historically important, as was the subsequent declaration by his government that Bolivia is a plurinational state. Part of the motivation for ruling class opposition to Morales is asserting racial superiority and putting the indigenous majority firmly back in its place, as the ruling class sees it.

Yet the situation is more complicated than this. Alongside the capitalist opposition to Morales there has also been opposition from some sectors of working class and indigenous organisations. These have included trade union organisations like the Central Obrera Boliviana and the mineworkers union, the indigenous organisation CIDOB and influential women’s organisations such as Mujeres Creando. There has been a decline in enthusiasm and political support for him among working people. It is this which gave the right its opportunity and was decisive in Morales going into exile. We need to be honest about this and we need to examine critically the role of Morales himself, the project of his MAS party and indeed the record of left wing governments in Latin America which dominated the political picture in the years after 2000, known as the Pink Tide.

Uncritical support

The Morales governments brought often uncritical support from many across the world, who proclaimed that these were revolutionary models of socialism for the 21st century. This was not the case. They were reformist governments which in the end were faced with the same economic pressures and same class choices as all other governments at a time of economic crisis.

A whole series of Bolivian social movements reversed water privatisation in 2000 in Cochabamba, defended coca production and indigenous land rights, stopped the export of gas, demanded nationalisation and overthrew two governments in 2003 and 2005. Undoubtedly these did challenge not only the neoliberal economic project but also the capitalist state in Bolivia. They were amazing, widely coordinated, militant and insurrectionary. They used popular assemblies to direct the action and ignored the structures of the state, rendering them impotent in the face of popular mobilisation.

Morales played an important role, particularly as a leader of the coca growers in Cochabamba, but from quite early on his focus became an electoral one through his party, MAS. Morales’s role by 2005 had become that of conciliator with the old order. Along with the church, he sought to offer a field of compromise which ostensibly made concessions to popular demands but in fact stabilised the capitalist state and curtailed the power of the mass movement. His deputy and ideologue Alvaro Garcia Linera explicitly called for “a version of Andean capitalism”. He envisaged a government which would mediate between the demands of the mass movement and those of domestic and international capital. When amid the chaos of tumbling governments a new presidential election was proposed, Morales and his party grasped it eagerly and were instrumental in swinging the mass movement away from revolutionary demands and popular organs of power and back towards a capitalist state with parliamentary institutions.

Morales was elected president in December 2005, with Garcia Linera as vice-president. He claimed that his was a “government of the social movements” but it was not — it was a reflection of the social movements, but their direct representation was excluded. Similarly, the new constituent assembly which had been a key demand of the social movements explicitly diminished their participation by demanding that its members be representatives of political parties. Many popular leaders and activists became incorporated into the state machine and distanced from the activism of their base, reducing the independence and dynamism of the movements.

There was a protracted battle between the government and the eastern bourgeoisie from 2006 to 2009, ending in a set of economic and political compromises which left their interests intact, even when these directly contradicted the interests of working and indigenous people. These have now come back to haunt Morales.

There has also been the development of “Evoismo”, a cult of personality in which Morales was named father of the nation. This personalisation led away from active democracy from below and towards an attempt to allow him to stand for president beyond the two term limit. This was rejected in a referendum, but ignored by Morales, which has further moved the regime away from its origins in direct, participatory democracy.

The controversy around the recent election reflects this, as many people (not just on the right) believed there was fraud when the count was mysteriously suspended, then reinstated with Morales exceeding the threshold for re-election.

Economically Morales has not fundamentally challenged the power of either domestic or international capital. He renegotiated the terms of trade between Bolivia and the multinationals, with much increased royalties and taxes and more government control, but without nationalisation much less expropriation. In the early years of his government he was able, like the other governments of the Pink Tide, to use the commodities price boom to boost growth rates and direct considerably more resources towards state provision of welfare services. This was a big achievement, of benefit to many, but has changed since the effects of the 2008 crisis hit Latin America. With class choices having to be made, it is the Bolivian workers of city and countryside who are paying the cost. It has also meant the Bolivianisation of the economy, but with the new capitalist layers often relying on exploiting cheap labour in their own interests.

Model of development

The model of development in Bolivia remains dependent on agro-industry and extracting and exporting oil, gas and minerals, which prevents much diversification of the economy and certainly does not lead towards production for need not profit. It is financed by foreign investment and loans. Environmentally it is a disaster, as the forest fires raging in the Bolivian Amazon bear witness, with 5.3 million hectares destroyed to make way for cattle ranching and export agriculture. Its victims are the indigenous people driven from their lands and repressed when they defend them, of which the most startling example has been the driving of a huge infrastructure project funded by Brazilian capital through the TIPNIS national park in 2011.

What is required in the short term, whatever criticisms there may be of the Morales governments, is a fighting unity from below against the coup and the rich and powerful who are behind it and will benefit from a right wing government. Some, such as FEJUVE, the neighbourhood organisation in the indigenous city of El Alto, have mobilised strongly against the coup, though not necessarily endorsing Morales himself or his actions.

The social movements have been demobilised and in some cases even attacked and repressed by the Morales government, with police used against demonstrators and leaders imprisoned. They are weaker than before, though still have a massive potential for organising resistance. Pablo Solon, once an ambassador for the Morales government and now a left-indigenous oppositionist suggests that, “We have to rebuild something different and learn from our mistakes. We are talking about rebuilding the fabric of the social movements and of new actors so they can begin to self-govern and self-organise.”

It is a complex picture, but it is one which socialists must seek to understand critically. There are lessons that need to be learned first in order to fight against the right now and second to ensure that in future battles the same mistakes are not repeated.

Further reading:
The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same, Jeffery Webber (Pluto 2017)
The Ebb of the Pink Tide, Mike Gonzalez (Pluto 2018)