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Learning the Lessons from Bolivia – Richard Burgon MP exclusive

“Today we celebrate this victory of the Bolivian people, but over the coming weeks & months it is essential that we also continue to offer solidarity – just as they’ll continue to offer us hope!”

Richard Burgon MP

On 18 October, Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism party secured a huge victory in the country’s presidential election, securing more than 50% of the vote and a 20% lead over its nearest rival. The election took place just one year after a military-led coup ousted legitimate President Evo Morales, soon after his 2019 election victory. Morales is the long-time leader of the Movement Towards Socialism but was forced to flee the country.

Below we reproduce an edited and extended version of a speech by Richard Burgon MP at the recent Friends of Bolivia solidarity meeting celebrating this election victory.  

The huge victory of socialist candidate Luis Arce in Bolivia’s presidential election this week not only signals a brighter future for the Bolivian people but gives hope to progressive movements the world over. 

I want to pass on my congratulations to new President Luis Arce, to Evo Morales and to the whole Movement Towards Socialism (MAS).

And I would like to pay special tribute to the heroic struggle and resistance put up by the Bolivian people over the past year since the military-led coup.

These elections were won in the face of widespread repression. Since last year’s coup and in the run-up to the elections there’s been violence and intimidation including against the Movement Towards Socialism

This included attempts to ban its candidates, to jail its activists alongside trade union and indigenous activists, as well as violence from actual fascist street movements.

We should never forget that people have lost their lives in this struggle against military dictatorship.

The victory of the left was the result of an enormous struggle by Bolivia’s socialist, trade union and indigenous movements.

In fact, the elections themselves were only granted after a general strike by trade unions in August and a nationwide highway blockade.

Despite all of the repression, the Bolivian left showed great bravery. Once again they proved that democracy, justice and equality are only ever won through struggle – never handed over voluntarily.

As well as offering solidarity with Bolivia, I think it is important that we in the international left movements learn the lessons from this victory.

An important lesson from Bolivia is that we need to build movements inside and outside of parliament – we need to link up the parliamentary struggle with the grassroots struggle, the political with the trade union struggle. That’s how we secure change.

Another lesson is the need to keep struggling for justice and a better world, despite the setbacks and adversity that our movements will sometimes face. Sometimes when change looks almost impossible it can be much nearer than you think

The struggle against neoliberalism and authoritarianism

This election results show that two decades after the rise of the new socialist left in Latin America, the right-wing there still can not win popular support for its project of privatisation and neoliberalism

That is why neoliberalism and authoritarianism there increasingly go hand in hand.

As Evo Morales had warned it would, the coup government set about overturning many of the progressive gains achieved in the last decade in Bolivia.

It plundered the collective wealth by trying to privatise the state-owned companies that Evo’s government had nationalised to help grow Bolivia’s economy. A decree from earlier this year proposed a return to the past proposing to privatise electricity, telecommunications, and even parts of health and education.

The disastrous consequences of imposing neo-liberal solutions were also clear in Bolivia’s appalling response to Covid, which has left Bolivia with one of the highest death rates in the world and with people struggling to access food and medicines.

The simple fact is that these neoliberal policies are unpopular and that is why the Bolivian right has had to resort to coups, violence and repression in Bolivia.

The anti-democratic nature of the Latin American right was also clear in the fact that it chose as its coup president someone who branded Bolivia’s indigenous majority as “satanic”. In contrast under Evo, Bolivia had its first indigenous leaders which allowed the country’s long-excluded indigenous majority to finally take centre stage.

But it’s not just Bolivia where the right can not win a popular mandate for its neo-liberal agenda: it’s why Lula was jailed in Brazil – because the right knew it couldn’t win free and fair elections. It’s why Ecuador’s Rafael Correa was recently banned from standing in the coming elections there.

The truth of the matter – no matter how uncomfortable it is for their cheerleaders in this country – is that in Latin America it’s right-wing neo-liberal movements that pose the greatest threat to democracy and human rights. 

Bolivia’s successful socialist model

Another key lesson from Bolivia is that it has exposed the lie that socialism can’t be successful.

The election results show not only the failures of neoliberalism. It shows the success of socialism.

The record of the Government of Morales was extraordinary – with significant social and economic gains for the long-excluded.

The country’s GDP grew an average of almost 5% a year under Evo with unemployment well below the region’s average.

But it’s also important to note that that growth was shared with the people – the percentage of the population living in poverty almost halved and the number in extreme poverty fell even further. The minimum wage went up many-fold.

There was massive social investment addressing the social debts of decades of colonialism and then neoliberalism. Huge increases in public healthcare and education but also electricity brought to large numbers of rural homes, special programs that halved infant mortality, and a special payment to hundreds of thousands of older Bolivians, who would otherwise receive no pension.

All this and more is why Evo Morales and his coalition of supporters won so many elections and why the MAS won again this week – because its socialist policies have delivered for the many.

The need for international solidarity 

Another important lesson is the ongoing importance of international solidarity.

After the coup, Evo took refuge in Mexico – which now has a left-wing government. The Mexican government acted bravely to ensure Evo could get out of Bolivia alive and well and granted him political asylum.

Then Evo went to Argentina – which neighbours Bolivia – after the left-wing government won there late last year. Argentina has been active in not only providing sanctuary but applying pressure for the democratic wishes of the Bolivian people to be respected

On election day itself, the large presence of international observers – from the Progressive International organisation and others such as the leader of Brazil’s Workers Party – helped apply some pressure to ensure that the results were respected. 

This all shows the ongoing importance of international solidarity and why we have to ensure that we are building a left that offers support to – and learns from – struggles all over the world. The struggle against capitalism is a global one.

For an ethical foreign policy

In contrast to the progressive solidarity shown in Latin America, our government and the US government acted shamelessly in this affair. Their actions were at best turning a blind eye towards events there and at worst helped to consolidate a military-led government.

When the coup occurred the US said Morales’ ousting was “a significant moment for democracy” and that the “The United States applauds the Bolivian military for abiding by its oath.”

And in the US, the Washington dominated Organization of American States played a key role in justifying the 2019 coup by giving legs to baseless claims of fraud by Evo Morales. The OAS used a deliberately inaccurate interpretation of preliminary election results – that have been widely proven as false – to build a case that the ousting of Morales by the army was somehow not a coup.

Our government was not much better. It lapped up the false claims of the OAS and in its official statement, it congratulated the coup president on taking office.

When the coup occurred last year, and myself, Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and others offered solidarity we were attacked by the Tories and their allies.  Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab even accused Jeremy of “putting Marxist solidarity ahead of democracy”!

All this shows why we need to step up our fight for a new ethical foreign policy. All too often our government stands on the wrong side of global justice and equality.

Bolivia’s future 

Over the coming weeks, the government of Bolivia will face new challenges and opposition. From international financial institutions unhappy with the new government’s plans to abandon neo-liberalism. Opposition from domestic elites unhappy with the policies that will more evenly share Bolivia’s wealth. Opposition from fascist organisations unhappy with the empowerment of Bolivia’s indigenous populations. And from Washington, unhappy that a government has been 

elected that wants to pursue an independent path in what the US still regards as its own backyard.

Today we celebrate this victory of the Bolivian people, but over the coming weeks and months it is essential that we also continue to offer solidarity – just as they’ll continue to offer us hope!

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