The political crisis in Bolivia

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A violent attempt is underway in the country to reorganize the political field, with the articulation of traditional elites, and persecution and repression of opponents

By Rafaela Pannain*

Thrilled, Silvia Riveira Cusicanque spoke for about thirteen minutes on the first day of the meeting of the Women's Parliament, on 12 November. This renowned Bolivian intellectual and activist indicated her disagreement with the two hegemonic interpretations of recent events in Bolivia: the “hypothesis of triumphalism”, represented by those who celebrate a supposed return to democracy after the fall of Evo Morales, and the “hypothesis of the coup of State” which, in his words, “simply wants to legitimize the entire government of Evo Morales, in his moments of greatest degradation”.

The complaints about the “terror policy” of the current government and the ambiguity of the legacy of the Movement to Socialism (MAS) government also appeared in the speeches, and in the crying, of many other participants in the Women's Parliament - a space convened by the feminist collective Mujeres Creando in those days in La Paz, and which it has been reproduced in other cities since then. It is from this double critique present in these testimonies that I reconstitute some aspects of the current political crisis in Bolivia.

A violent attempt is underway in the country to reorganize the political field, with the articulation of traditional elites, and persecution and repression of opponents. Analyzing this scenario also implies bearing in mind the criticisms of the Evo Morales government pointed out by a large part of the Bolivian left and by sectors of the subaltern classes. Although they do not explain the motivations of the main actors in the overthrow of Morales, these criticisms indicate possible explanations for the fact that this left, and many of the social organizations that supported the government in its early years, have now not taken to the streets in its defense.

The military in politics and on the streets

On November 11, even before proclaiming herself president, Janine Áñez appeared in a video summoning the armed forces to act in the repression of the "hoards of delinquents" that would be "destroying all of La Paz". The night before, after the announcement of the resignation of Evo Morales, fear spread through the middle and upper class neighborhoods of the city. For weeks now, its residents have been blocking streets in protest over suspicions of fraud in the October 20 elections. With the resignation, the news spread that “hordes” of MAS supporters and residents of El Alto, a neighboring city formed mostly by an indigenous population, would descend on La Paz.

In the eyes of these urban sectors, rumors with clearly racist tones, combined with real acts of violence – such as the attack on the house of the rector of the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, a powerful voice critical of Morales’ reelection – would justify the request for military intervention made by the chief of police in La Paz on November 11. In Áñez's voice, this request took on the tone of a threat against the then commander of the armed forces, Williams Kaliman; the same as the day before "suggested" resignation of Morales to “pacify” the country.

Until then, Evo Morales seemed to have a good relationship with the military high command, with whom he met every Monday. Morales renewed the leadership of the armed forces in 2006, forcibly sending three generations of generals to the reserve, seeking to align them with the nationalist and anti-imperialist discourse of his government.

Kaliman's declaration on the afternoon of November 10 was a clear interference by the military in the political field, awakening the worst memories in a continent marked by the terror of civil-military dictatorships.

In recent interview, Morales stated that he had already decided to resign before this declaration. In the announcement of his resignation, the deposed president made it clear that the police riot that started on November 8 was fundamental in the coup, confirming, however, that the lack of support from the military was decisive for his decision.

Some reviews published shortly after the resignation suggested that the military refused to confront police and demonstrators who had risen against Morales for fear of an end similar to that of the generals who led the repression against the popular mobilizations of 2003; sentenced to sentences of up to 15 years in prison for the murder of dozens of people.

In fact, on the 24th of October, a letter allegedly written by army officers calling for military non-intervention “in the tasks of repression against our fellow citizens” and recalling the “bloody” events of that year. That same day, reserve soldiers declared its support for the mobilizations against the government of Evo Morales. circulated News about a disagreement between the commanders of the three forces and General Kaliman; anonymous reports supposedly from high command military suggest that Kaliman asked for Morales' resignation pressured by generals who, in turn, were being threatened by a revolt of colonels.

The class loyalties of the officers, representatives of a white economic elite, may have influenced their choice to support the coup against Morales. Many analysts also point to the possibility of outside influence.

On November 16, the day after the murder of nine peasants participating in a march in support of Morales in Sacaba, President Janine Áñez signed a decree exempting the military from criminal responsibility for their actions in the repression. On November 19, military and police attacked demonstrators occupying the Senkata gas plant, ten people were killed and many others were injured; the scene of the repression was the city of El Alto, one of the main scenes of demonstrations against the new government and in defense of the whipala, a multicolored flag claimed as a symbol of the indigenous nations of the altiplano, and of the plurinational state. Since Morales resigned, more than thirty people have been killed in protests.

institutional policy

If the election of Evo Morales in 2005 displaced an elite that had historically combined economic power and political power from the center of the political field, his overthrow has indicated an attempt to reorganize institutional politics based on the strengthening of this former elite, with old and new actors.

Among the well-known names in Bolivian politics in the new government are former president Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, appointed “special delegate”, and former senators opposing the MAS, and now ministers, Arturo Murillo, Yerko Nuñez, Victor Hugo Zamora and Maria Elva Pinckert. Furthermore, several opponents of Evo Morales have announced their return to Bolivia. This was the case of Manfred Reyes Villa, former governor of Cochabamba convicted of illicit enrichment; Branko Marinkovic, businessman, landowner and former president of the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee – an entity that brings together the political and economic elite –, accused of being one of the masterminds of the frustrated coup d'état in 2008; and Mario Cossío, former governor of Tarija, one of the cradles of opposition to Evo.

Among the new names of the former elites, Luís Fenando Camacho, former president of the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee, stands out, who presents himself with a strongly religious conservative discourse. The support of the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) – the most important Bolivian political party in the XNUMXth century – for Camacho's candidacy for the presidency in the next elections is yet another example of this ambition of former actors to return to the center of the political field. Equally indicative of this attempt to reorganize the countryside is the persecution of former members of the MAS government and party militants. announced by government minister Arturo Murillo.

While the police and armed forces occupied the streets, the interim government began a process of negotiation with MAS legislators for the elaboration of the “Law of Exceptional and Transitory Regime for the holding of General Elections”. Approved unanimously, the law was presented on November 24th by Janine Añéz and Eva Copa, a MAS senator who took on a leading role in the negotiation. Although it maintains a large majority in the Plurinational Assembly, the MAS participated in these negotiations clearly weakened; the ban on a second re-election being agreed, thus excluding the possibility of Evo Morales running in 2020. Añéz and his ministers met with representatives of peasant, indigenous and workers' organizations.

The ambiguity of the MAS government

A image The best known of the first phase of the crisis is that of Patricia Arce, mayor of Vinto affiliated with the MAS, kidnapped on November 6th and subjected to numerous violence. However, it is not possible to reduce the opposition to the government of Evo Morales and his re-election to just a “racist right”, as suggested by some interpretations.

Silvia Rivera's intervention that opens this article illustrates a very critical position towards the government shared by a large part of the Bolivian left and indigenous organizations. The construction of the hegemonic position of the MAS in the Bolivian political field was accompanied by its progressive withdrawal from some sectors that contributed to its rise and to the stabilization of the Evo government during its troubled first years. 

Since the victory of the MAS in 2005, the Bolivian state has become more present in the economy – through the nationalization of companies in different strategic sectors, the creation of new state-owned companies, the adoption of a policy to encourage agricultural production, etc. The state's political reorientation, the renegotiation of hydrocarbon exploration contracts and the high price of raw materials on the international market made possible a radical increase in public investment. They have improved the living conditions of large sectors of the Bolivian population. Government programs and infrastructure works under the “Bolivia hace, Evo cumple” program have spread across Bolivian territory. Here, without a doubt, resides the great source of support from a huge part of the population to the government of Evo Morales and the MAS.

The president's face stamped everywhere – from billboards for infrastructure works to the computer cases distributed to public school students – confirms that the government started to condense the image of the change process in the very figure of Evo; erasing, in a way, the collective origin of that process of change, managed by different sectors of the subordinate classes during the cycle of popular mobilizations that began in 2000.

In addition, the MAS power project became heavily dependent on the economic model adopted, generating conflicts with indigenous organizations due to infrastructure projects and exploitation of Bolivian territory. The repression of the VIII Indigenous March in 2011 – against the construction of a road that would pass through the center of the Indigenous Territory and Isiboro Sécure National Park (Tipnis) – highlighted the lack of openness of the government to actors who questioned these megaprojects, and consolidated the rupture of part the left and indigenous organizations with the government.

A history of little or no trading with the affected actors was reproduced in other territories where there are hydrocarbon exploration projects, lithium, construction of hydroelectric plants, etc. Repeating a practice of previous governments, the Evo government divided critical organizations, leading to the emergence of parallel directories in the main indigenous organizations.

In 2019, while the international community denounced the fires in the Brazilian Amazon, representatives of indigenous nations and the Bolivian left sought to give equal visibility to the tragedy experienced in the country. Leasing a tanker plane was not enough to put out the fire that spread over thousands of hectares, nor to overshadow criticism of the government's negligence in protecting these territories. Worse, his policy of expanding the agricultural frontier is directly related to the disaster in the Chiquitanía region.

This policy favored migrant peasants, but mainly large landowners, who had just benefited from the agreement that guaranteed increased meat exports to China. The rapprochement with the Asian country and with the economic elites, confirmed by Evo Morales himself, was also criticised. Finally, the insistence on running for another presidential term – even after the defeat in the 2016 referendum, when the possibility of a third consecutive term was rejected – is perceived by many as yet another proof of the authoritarianism of the government and the appropriation of a process that was collectively created.

The election and the political crisis

If the police uprising from November 8, the articulation of part of the elite, and the interference of the Organization of American States (OAS) were central to the course of the current political crisis, the actions of other sectors gave legitimacy to this process in the eyes of opponents to the left of the MAS.

While the representatives of the economic elite and the old politics had a clear intention of taking back control of the state, different motivations seem to be behind the mobilization of the urban middle sectors, the main actors of the street blockades between October 20th and November 10th. The flag was the defense of democracy, against possible fraud in the elections and in respect for the result of the 2016 referendum. It cannot be denied, however, that part of those who organized themselves to call for new elections – and, later, the resignation of the Evo – were motivated by racism, or a resentment for considering themselves neglected in a country where new actors occupied positions that were almost exclusive to the white population of the middle and upper classes.

Actors who had already staged demonstrations against the government in 2019 also participated in the post-election mobilizations, such as the Qhara Qhara Nation, which organized a march with demands related to the implementation of indigenous autonomy. Marco Pumari, the son of a miner and one of the protagonists of the opposition during the crisis, is president of the Civic Committee of Potosí, a department that was mobilized questioning the government's plans to exploit lithium. Mining sectors, as usual, were divided between supporters and opponents of Evo Morales.

From the elections on October 20 to November 6, the day the mayor of Vinto was attacked, those injured in clashes between opponents and supporters of the Evo government already numbered in the hundreds, and three people had died, two protesting against Morales. Two hundred and twenty was the number of people detained by the police. Each side of the conflict denounced the violence of the other. A caravan of opponents of the government that was heading to La Paz was attacked by peasants, leaving countless people injured. MAS opponents and supporters were attacked; even the president's sister became a target.

On November 10, Evo Morales denounced a “civic coup” with the support of sectors of the police, and stated that he was resigning to try to stop the persecution against leaders of his party.

Developments

It is still difficult to say the impact, in the current political crisis, of the MAS's interference in social organizations, or the extent to which the Evo government's image has deteriorated in the general population. It must be remembered that, even if the allegations of irregularities pointed out by the OAS are confirmed - there are different analyzes that disagree with this interpretation – there is no doubt that Evo Morales was in first place in the elections, and that his party, although it lost votes in relation to previous elections, was the most voted for parliament. However, allegations of fraud and the post-election crisis weakened the government; the own Central Obrera Boliviana who, days before, had carried out a march in support of Evo, on November 10, asked for his resignation.

I understand that it was a coup d'état that overthrew Evo Morales and that opened up the possibility of old actors returning to occupy central positions in the Bolivian political field. The participation of police and military was central, and the coup became even more evident as all of Morales' constitutional successors belonging to the MAS, and many party authorities –such as governors, mayors, senators – were forced to resign. However, I tried to reconstruct some aspects of the political crisis in Bolivia, attentive to the concerns of Bolivian intellectuals and militants that I respect, admire, and with whom I share so much; without erasing the mistakes of the Evo government.

On November 29, the decree exempting the military from criminal responsibility in the repressive action against demonstrators was annulled. Janine Áñez's government seems to have managed to temporarily deny the role of the streets in the dispute over the course of the current political crisis.

Let's hope that the subaltern classes manage to resume their role in the construction of an emancipatory political project.

* Rafaela Pannain is a postdoctoral researcher at Cebrap

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