“Jeremy Corbyn urged the audience to think about what Bolivians have taught us through their struggles & to continue to act in international solidarity.”
By Tim Young, Friends of Bolivia
Friends of Bolivia, with support from Labour Friends of Progressive Latin America and a range of solidarity and labour movement groups, held an event this week, Bolivia – People Power, Hope & Solidarity, marking six months since the Left’s historic election victory and defeat of the coup in Bolivia.
Labour peer and Latin American activist Christine Blower chaired the meeting, setting the context for the five speakers’ contributions.
Six months ago, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) won a historic election victory in Bolivia’s Presidential election, kicking out the military-led coup regime that had ousted President Evo Morales in November 2019.
Throughout its 11 months’ duration, that illegitimate coup regime led by Jeanine Añez was characterised by widespread repression, corruption and incompetence.
The coup unleashed systematic political and judicial persecution against the MAS, its leaders and activists, brutal repression against the social movements associated with it and racist violence against indigenous peoples – including massacres at Sacaba and Senkata.
But despite this savage repression and amid the pandemic, heroic resistance against the regime continued, buoyed by international solidarity challenging the mainstream media narrative that this was not a coup.
With that stunning election victory – by 55% to the nearest challenger on 28% –the new government led by President Luis Arce has begun to make good on his inauguration promise to rebuild Bolivia: kick-starting the economy by increasing people’s spending power and public investment; tackling the COVID-19 pandemic; rebuilding dismantled links with allies and partners; and beginning the process of holding to account those who committed human rights abuses and other serious crimes during the coup regime.
The first speaker, Miriam Colque, a Bolivian activist in London who campaigned extensively against the coup, provided more detail on the coup regime’s repression.
This had included attacks deliberately targeting indigenous women, who had become increasingly visible in public life since the new constitution introduced by Evo Morales’s government in 2006 had guaranteed women’s rights and political participation. The racist nature of the coup was evident from the chants of “the Indian must go” in La Paz and other cities.
She recounted how the regime had used paramilitaries to unleash a wave of violence against those protesting against the coup, leading to 37 deaths, 800 injured and 1500 imprisoned.
Despite this repression and amid the devastation of the pandemic, those bravely resisting the regime finally managed to force it to commit to an election date, on which the Movement for Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS/IPSP) won a landslide victory.
Ollie Vargas, a Bolivia-based journalist who presents a daily show on a Bolivian radio station, noted how the initial wave of interest in the coup and its immediate aftermath, with its appalling images of brutal assaults, the burning of Wiphalas and the massacres at Sacaba and Senkata, did not disappear.
Concern and international solidarity were sustained through the desperate days when unemployment under Añez tripled and 92% of the population lost income as the pandemic took hold.
Now, under President Arce, economic reconstruction is taking place. State industries that were closed are being reopened, and investment made in new enterprises. Food sovereignty has been boosted enormously through the revival of a government agency providing tools and technical advice to farmers.
But Ollie noted how this rebuilding of the economy after the neo-liberal chaos of Añez’s regime and the new government’s pursuit of justice against Añez and other coup personnel is putting Arce’s administration on a collision course with the US. President Biden’s new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, has called for Añez’s release, even though she is on trial for corruption and other examples of misconduct in public office.
What is developing is a new US discourse that is accusing the new government of seeking vengeance, of disregarding the law and of being authoritarian. But, Ollie concluded, although the US might want impunity for its proxies, the government is listening to its own citizens’ demands for accountability for all those culpable in the coup – and those voices for justice should be supported.
Bolivian experience of opposition to the neo-liberal agenda before Evo’s election victory in 2005 provided some lessons for the organising and defence against the coup regime that enabled resistance to be sustained and ultimately to win – and a similar task of remodelling and rebuilding faces Bolivia today.
Alex Main, the US-based Director of International Policy at the Center for Economic & Policy Research, focused on US relations with Bolivia, observing how the US had been very hostile to the MAS and Evo Morales from the beginning.
After MAS’s victory in 2005, the US intensified its destabilisation activities, channelling money to NGOs and business elites to promote them as the legitimate voices of civil society, while dismissing or stigmatising the social movements supporting MAS.
Despite Wall Street predictions of economic catastrophe, Morales’s programme of nationalising key industries and redistributive policies (to which the renationalisation of hydrocarbons in 2006 was key) led to an economic transformation and social progress. Poverty fell from 60% in 2006 to below 35% by 2018 and extreme poverty from 38% to 15% over the same period.
Regionally, Morales supported UNASUR and worked with Venezuela, Cuba and others to strengthen the ALBA trading alliance, to supplant the influence of the Washington-aligned Organisation of American States (OAS).
Alex noted how this challenge to US hegemony and interests led, as the WikiLeaks cables show, to the US escalating its attempts to put pressure on Morales and his government over the several years leading up to the coup in 2019 – a coup aided by the OAS’s false claims of electoral fraud.
Now that MAS is back in power and reasserting Bolivia’s sovereignty and independence, a key question is what position the new Biden administration will be taking.
Biden himself said nothing when the coup occurred – unlike Bernie Sanders who opposed it – and the US is now voicing its concern about ″anti-democratic behaviour and the politicisation of the legal system” in Bolivia following the arrests of Añez and others.
This, he observed, is very much in line with US policy and practice for the past 100 years or more, with the objectives remaining the same: maintaining US hegemony and stopping countries from exercising their independence.
While the good news is that MAS won a stunning electoral victory and the social movements remain a vital force, the danger is that US methods of achieving those objectives are always evolving and posing new challenges. Although this time the US has failed to keep MAS down, it will surely keep trying to do so. International solidarity will be needed more than ever.
Claudia Turbet-Delof spoke for Wiphalas Across the World, an alliance of over 30 cultural and social Bolivian groups, mostly in Europe, who joined forces to form Wiphalas across the World as an international response to the racist, fascist coup in Bolivia.
Their combined grassroots experience in activism, trade unionism and the defence of human rights enabled them to join forces to build international solidarity with the struggle for democracy in Bolivia, in the context of the pandemic and the mainstream media silencing of the voices of the victims of the coup.
She noted that Añez had a long history of racism and separatist values, and had led a coup regime that systematically targeted indigenous people, unleashing paramilitaries who went on the rampage and beat up and brutalised indigenous people, primarily targeting indigenous women.
In addition to the beatings and the massacres at Sacaba, Senkata and Zona Sur in La Paz, the regime imprisoned many people. Media outlets were also persecuted: over 50 indigenous radio stations were closed and over 60 journalists arrested. Other journalists were paid hansomely to present a favourable, false narrative about the coup.
Wiphalas Across the World (WATW) has constantly challenged this misinformation and colonial practices used to stereotype and normalise the dehumanisation of Bolivian people, especially native indigenous people.
WATW also collected 17 pages of victims’ testimonies and video evidence to present to the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, challenging the mainstream media’s narrative denying a bloody coup was taking place in Bolivia.
Looking forward, Claudia referred to how WATW support the ‘Process of Change’ in Bolivia and want education, justice and respect for all Bolivians, including indigenous multi-ethnic communities. This would build on the struggles, in which indigenous women played a massive role, underpinning the 2009 constitution that greatly expanded citizens’ rights, including the provision for gender equality in political representation at national level.
In conclusion, Claudia dedicated WATW’s work to all victims of the coup, including the 37 people killed, 860 injured and 1500 imprisoned. She warned that fascist forces are still at work to again topple Bolivian democracy, and offered international solidarity to MAS, President Arce and Vice-President David Choquehuanca and the government’s agenda.
Jeremy Corbyn spoke of his real and special affection for Bolivia, which he first visited in 1969, not long after Che’s death there. He noted that while Spanish colonialists and others had drained enormous wealth from Bolivia, the colonial regime had not been able to destroy indigenous peoples’ culture, so Bolivia today contains the diversity that Simon Bolivar had always wanted Latin America to encompass.
Some time after Evo Morales’s victory in the 2005 presidential election, which had built on the successful struggles against water privatisation in 2002 and the gas conflict in 2003, Jeremy had led a parliamentary delegation to Bolivia. He recalled how greatly impressed he was by the new constitution and its principles, most of which was drawn from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But recent history showed that the wealthy and powerful were not going to sit back and see their power and control of resources be challenged by these developments, which ultimately led to the removal of Evo through the coup in 2019.
Jeremy gave due thanks to Mexico’s President, AMLO, and to Mexico’s Foreign Minister, for assisting Evo to leave the country safely and make his way to Argentina where he could contribute to the resistance and fightback against the coup.
Jeremy urged the audience to think about what Bolivians have taught us through their struggles, and to continue to act in international solidarity with Bolivia. As the mission statement of the Peace and Justice project (of which Jeremy and Christine Blower are Directors) puts it: “we need to build solidarity beyond borders and across communities and solve our common problems together.”
Jeremy concluded by dedicating the meeting, above all, to those that went through the bleakest days of the coup and had come out now to a brighter and better day.