Bolivia Lurches Towards Dictatorship

With the persecution of Evo Morales' political party and the killing of indigenous protestors, Bolivia is fast sliding into a brutal dictatorship that makes a mockery of claims about restoring democracy.

It is just over a week since former Bolivian president Evo Morales was forced to resign in a coup which has dramatically fractured Bolivia’s institutions and left a trail of bloodshed. With eleven people shot dead by state forces and hundreds injured in a week of violence, Bolivia is fast slipping into a violent and militarised regime steered by the emboldened right. 

The new interim president is an unelected religious conservative who has promised to ‘return the bible’ to government. Members of Morales’ party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) have had their homes burnt and have been forced to resign for fear of reprisals.

One of these officials in hiding is Tamara Núñez Del Prado, formerly Deputy of the Ombudsman until 2017, and a prominent MAS-supporting LGBTQ-rights advocate. Núñez del Prado was one of the promoters of the Bolivian Gender Identity Law and was one of the first people to change her name legally to reflect her gender identity.

She comes from a prominent leftist family; her grandfather was a MAS senator and her father Carlos Nunez Del Prado, was a guerrilla with the ELN (Army for National Liberation) in Bolivia. He also fought in the resistance against Augusto Pinochet in Chile, having worked for President Allende before he was ousted in a CIA-backed coup in 1973.

One day after the coup on Sunday 10 November, Tamara received a message three seconds long. “Before killing you, we will rape you, whore,” Tamara tells me from her friend’s house where she is hiding.

She was subsequently warned by an ex-colleague of her father’s that her name had been put on a list of those to be eliminated. It is impossible to verify whether this is indeed true but it speaks to the climate of fear and threats of violence engulfing Bolivia in the aftermath of the coup.

“I remember the dictatorships [of 1964-1982] in black and white, in photographs. Now in the age of technology, it is being lived in colour,” she says. But Núñez Del Prado is adamant: “We have to organise ourselves to resist the coup d’état. We have to resist through peaceful, non-violent means.”

Yet after the interim government immediately ordered the military onto the streets, coordinating this resistance has become increasingly dangerous. On Tuesday 19 November, three people were shot dead and 30 injured in El Alto when state forces dispelled a peaceful anti-government blockade of the Senkata gas plant. 

On Friday 15 November, eight cocaleros (coca growers), a stalwart of MAS support, were massacred by state security forces as they protested against the new government in Sacaba, Cochabamba. Footage has emerged of bullets being fired by police from helicopters and police firing teargas into a fleeing crowd. X-rays suggest those killed were shot from behind. Some newspaper reports cite police who claim the cocaleros were armed with guns and bazukas, though they have provided no evidence.

At the same time, the government granted the military immunity from prosecution if they use force in ‘legitimate defence,’ in a decree leaked on social media by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (CIDH). This, in effect, provides the armed forces with a carte blanche to kill.

The new government assumed power after conservative-religious opposition leader and second vice president of the Senate, Jeanine Añez, appointed herself to the Presidency in a near-empty legislative chamber. Representatives of Morales’s party boycotted the session, withholding the quorum necessary to officially accept Morales’s resignation and approve the interim president. Añez represents the Unidad Democrática party which received just 4.24% of the vote in the election.

Freedom of the press is one of the first things which has been attacked by the new government. The Communications minister declared that the government would expel foreign journalists. The new Minister for Government, Arthur Murillo, also stated that he is drawing up “lists” of legislators and journalists who spread “sedition” and has warned foreigners involved in “murky things” that they should leave.

This has had a tangible effect in stifling media coverage. There is a notable lack of national and international press present on the streets and a poignant slogan of protesters in La Paz is “where is the press, dammit!” At local level, many community radio stations have been shut down. 

Morales’s resignation last Sunday was effectively forced when the head of the Bolivian armed forces ‘suggested’ that he resign following a police mutiny in cities across the country. This was the culmination of two weeks of mobilisation by anti-government protestors, largely organised by ultra-right civic leader Luis Fernando Camacho (“Macho Camacho”), who accused the government of fraud in the elections on October 20.

The popular base for the coup comes from two key sectors; the urban middle classes, including liberals and university students, and the ultra-right business oriented elites based in the lowland city of Santa Cruz.

Morales’s resignation coincided with the release of the report by the Organisation of American States (OAS) which suggested there had been ‘manipulation’ in the vote count. It should be noted that the allegations of fraud have been contested by US think tank, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). In its analysis, the CEPR argues that the OAS’s report does not provide evidence to suggest inconsistencies in the official vote count, but only in the provisional results, (the TREP) which are not legally binding.

Last week saw daily protests against the coup and in support of Morales in La Paz by regional groups of campesinos (land workers), indigenous groups and local associations from El Alto. These invariably ended with the police teargassing protestors, including children, in Plaza San Francisco something which did not routinely occur in the anti-Morales protests. A sign at a rally on Thursday in La Paz poignantly expresses this double standard: “When the rich march, the policy mutiny. When the poor march, they shoot bullets.”

Immediately after the resignation, footage circulated on social media of anti-Morales protesters burning the wiphala, the flag representing Andean indigenous peoples, while police in the city of Santa Cruz were filmed cutting off the wiphala from their uniforms. The wiphala is a resonant symbol of resistance to the centuries of exploitation, racial violence and social exclusion experienced by indigenous peoples in Bolivia. As Aymara writer Jesus Oscuri writes, the burning of the wiphala combined with the ousting of Morales made many feel as if “the Indian was being expelled from power.”

Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia and former coca-grower, was elected in 2005 with his social movement-backed party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). Under his tenure Bolivia has slashed poverty rates, reduced inequality, sustained economic growth while rejecting IMF debt bondage and nationalised key industries. Indigenous and other social movements were greatly empowered under the MAS, although in recent years some have accused Morales of co-opting these movements and undermining their autonomy.

These attacks on the wiphala prompted outrage and compelled a wave of marches in La Paz, El Alto and Cochabamba in which protestors demanded ‘La wiphala se respeta, carajo” (Respect the wiphala damnit), and called for the resignation of Añez.

Moreover, in a country with a long history of racial discrimination, these protests are a reaction to the dark current of racial and gendered violence which the coup has brought to the fore. Immediately after the elections, daubed outside UMSA, the public university in La Paz, were the words “Indians out of UMSA.”

A MAS mayor, Patricia Arce Guzman, was attacked by opposition protesters who forcibly cut off her hair, dragged her through the street and covered her in red paint and dirt. The director of radio for the peasants union CSUTCB – an organisation allied with Morales which represents rural, usually indigenous workers – was chained to a tree while anti-government protesters ransacked the union’s headquarters. In his press conference on Sunday, Morales said, “my sin is to be indigenous, a union leader and a coca grower.”

The defence of democracy was the rallying cry of the disgruntled urban middle classes in the anti-Morales protests. But partly though their efforts, Bolivia now finds itself in the grips of hardline political forces intent on recapturing the state to serve the old oligarchical interests. The poor and the indigenous are the first to protest because history has shown they will be first to suffer.