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Bolivia’s Resistance Shows the Way Forward for the Left in 2021

In 2020, Bolivia's social movements were faced with a brutal right-wing coup regime. Instead of retreating, they rebuilt – and won the struggle for democracy against all odds.

The pandemic has ensured 2020 has been something of an annus horribilis for the world over. However, while this year also brought extraordinary pressures for Bolivia as Latin America’s poorest country, it heralded the heroic recapture of state power by popular movements after a short-lived dictatorship. As 2021 now beckons, Bolivia’s social movements stand once again as an inspiration to the international Left.

The political crisis began in November 2019 when ex-President Evo Morales was ousted in a coup enacted by right-wing urban protestors and aided by the police and military. A ‘transitory’ government was installed under right wing evangelical Jeanine Áñez. It promptly inflicted two massacres of 21 anti-coup protestors at Senkata and Sacaba and was embroiled in corruption scandals, including the alleged multi-million-dollar fraudulent purchase of unsuitable ventilators at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. At that time Bolivia had one of the highest death tolls of coronavirus in the world.

In the new fascistic climate, arrest warrants were issued against critical journalists and Movement towards Socialism (MAS) supporting trade unionists and politicians. MAS adherents were smeared as ‘savages’, invoking old racialised fears of insurrectionary Indian mobs. Press scrutiny vanished as anti-coup journalists found themselves mercilessly harassed. Notably, the famous La Razon newspaper cartoonist Alejandro Salazar, better known as Al-Azar, was forced to resign in December 2019 after a barrage of threats by pro-coup individuals.

Overturning the Coup

As elections were repeatedly delayed ostensibly due to the pandemic, Bolivian social movements regrouped in highly challenging conditions to challenge the regime. In August 2020, the major trade union federation, the Bolivian Workers’ Centre (COB) and affiliated unions called a general strike, with protests, marches, and road blockades bringing the country to a standstill to demand fresh elections and the resignation of Áñez.

The COB was joined by the preeminent land workers’ union, the Unified Trade Union Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB) and its women’s wing, the Bartolina Sisas, which initiated a ‘permanent mobilisation’ in protest at the repeated delay of elections by the electoral authority, and against a government which continued to inflict economic chaos and political repression with impunity.

In October 2020 presidential elections finally took place, a year after the disputed elections a year earlier. They saw an unexpected landslide victory for MAS candidate Luis Arce over right-wing Carlos Mesa, and a record voter turnout of 88.4 per cent. The were a resounding vindication of the MAS progressive political project, (the ‘proceso de cambio’) and ended a year of rule by oligarchs marked by rapacious greed and shambolic mismanagement.

Back to the Grassroots

The Bolivian Gramscian theorist René Zavaleta Mercado in 1977 described Bolivia’s elites as ‘rancid’, existing in a social world far ossified from indigenous and popular masses. They could not identify with a national political project because they were embedded in private networks of enrichment. Zavaleta’s words remain as poignant as ever.

Previous accusations of corruption by masistas swiftly paled in comparison with the plunder of state resources initiated by the regime in 2020. According to the NGO Fundación Tierra, over 2,000 land titles were mysteriously doled out by Anez to private unnamed individuals. Fascist-sympathiser Branko Marinkovic served as a Minister under Anez and was awarded 33,000 hectares of land earmarked for land reform to himself and members of his family.

In December Fundación Tierra lodged a petition with the Bolivian Senate and Courts to challenge the illegal sale. Marinkovic, the millionaire son of Croatian émigrés, was involved in a 2009 attempt to assassinate Morales but went into exile in the United States before he could face charges.

However, the resurgence of social movements this year reveals much about what went wrong for the MAS in 2019, when reactionary protest in urban centres was met with insufficient resistance from the party bases. In the years preceding the coup, too few fresh faces were able to rise the ranks of the MAS. As the party became detached from its base, its relations with allied social groups drifted into clientelism and stifling bureaucratisation.

In contrast, 2020 brought new figures to the fore; the charismatic cocalero (coca grower) union leader Andrónico Rodríguez, now head of the Senate; Eva Copa who stepped in to become Senate leader during the dictatorship (although she is currently embroiled in a conflict with the party over the local elections); and a new nineteen year old Sports Vice-minister, Cielo Veizaga Arteaga. As such, the political crisis emerged as a space where left-indigenous-popular forces were able to recreate alliances to challenge a new array of authorities, including within the MAS as their political instrument.

Radical History

There is a long history of resistance to neoliberal policies by campesinos (peasants), miners and workers in Bolivia, but not all successful. In 1974, exacerbating the hardship caused by the devaluation of the Bolivian currency in 1972, and its attendant pay freezes, the right-wing dictator Hugo Banzer Suárez introduced a decree which led to a crippling rise in food prices. Thousands of Aymara and Quechua-speaking campesinos (peasants) arose in the valleys and highlands and blocked roads in protest. Their efforts to overthrow the regime were brutally crushed when state forces massacred at least 100 Quechua-speaking peasants in Cochabamba, in what became known as the Massacre of the Valley.

More recently, a cycle of mobilisations that began with the ‘Water War’ in Cochabamba in 2000 and peaked in the ‘Gas War’ of 2003 led to the fall of the neoliberal Gonzalo ‘Goni’ Sánchez de Lozada.  Sánchez de Lozada is currently embroiled in a protracted law suit brought by human rights lawyers for his role in the death of at least 50 unarmed indigenous people in a massacre known as “Black October” in 2003. This series of conflicts saw social movements fiercely contest neoliberal privatisation policies  and demand greater public control over the country’s natural resources.

On the back of this social unrest, Morales was elected in 2005 as the first indigenous president in Bolivia, a country historically structured around race. His socialist government was internationally lauded for implementing social welfare programmes, wealth redistribution and the partial nationalisation of the lucrative gas sector, a vindication of the years of protest.

Democracy from Below

After the victory of October, the MAS and its support base now are looking to the local and regional elections which are coming up in March 2021. They may present a different picture from the national of course, as historically the electorate tends to vote for individual candidates rather than strictly on party lines. In 2015, the MAS came out on top but suffered a setback from previous years as opposition parties secured several key mayoral and governor posts.

Coronavirus continues to claim lives although the numbers are vastly fewer than during the peak in July. In December, Arce announced the government will procure 5.2 million doses of the Russian vaccine. Arce, whose reputation as a prudent technocrat did much to endear him to voters, has also announced a new tax on the super-rich.

But while the future is uncertain, it is clear that Bolivia in 2020 provided much to inspire the international Left. For Bolivia’s people, the memory of past struggle undoubtedly serves as a powerful mobilising force in the present. The re-election of the MAS highlights how effective resistance in a crisis comes through diligent organisation by progressive social sectors and a commitment to internal democracy within party structures. Above all, Bolivia shows that democracy is made – and re-made – through struggle from below.