Bolivia’s Post-Coup President Has Unleashed a Campaign of Terror

In November, Evo Morales was forced out of office in a right-wing coup. He was trying to avoid a campaign of terror from the Right — but under Bolivia’s new ultraconservative president, Jeanine Áñez, that terror, now carried out by paramilitaries, is still escalating.

Interim president of Bolivia Jeanine Áñez speaks during a press conference at the presidential palace on November 15, 2019 in La Paz, Bolivia. Gaston Brito Miserocchi / Getty

When Evo Morales was forced to resign the presidency last November, Bolivia received its second female head of state in its history. Technically an “interim” president, Jeanine Áñez has sought to consolidate her grip on power, and in the six months since receiving the presidential sash from the army, she has waged a ferocious war on the country’s most marginalized sectors — among them the indigenous populations and the country’s poor and working-class women.

An ultraconservative Catholic senator, Áñez hails from the thinly populated Amazonian department of Beni, a region whose indigenous peoples first made the demand for a constituent assembly in the 1990s. But Áñez is no ally of indigenous Bolivians. She believes indigenous spirituality to be a sign of Satan, and upon seizing power in the days after November 10, she declared the national government to be “at last” free of paganism. Her partisans trampled upon and burned the Wiphala — the banner of indigenous unity — prompting tens of thousands of indigenous people to pour into the streets in protest.

The Bolivian Right

Áñez’s actions have a broader context in the region. In recent years, class hatred among Bolivian conservatives has turned very ugly, and it now resembles that of the protest mobs in Venezuela that in 2017 killed over 120 people, many of whom were set on fire. There, conservatives claimed their violent protests proved the socialist government’s ineptitude. The Bolivian right, for their part, have made constant threats to burn people alive, going so far as to target high-level officials from Morales’s former government.

This dovetails with a broader political project, directed from Washington, to destroy the Movement toward Socialism (MAS), led by Evo Morales. For twenty-five years, Morales has repeatedly been a target of their assassination plans. The dirty war of the United States reaches into every corner of Bolivia.

Long before the elections of October 20 last year, right-wing political parties had been sowing lies about the MAS government. It is a matter of record that the most egregious narco traffickers are closely tied to the oligarchy, but the Right claims that MAS is a gang of drug lords. Similarly, Bolivia’s neoliberals are tremendously corrupt, yet they pin charges of corruption on MAS.

When it comes to women’s rights, the Morales-led government of 2006 to 2014 made more progress than any other presidency, yet some urban and international feminists accuse MAS of irremediable sexism. The civic committees held up by the Right as heroes of democracy train middle-class and elite youth to attack the poor. Their rage against indigenous women is ferocious. Today in Bolivia, millions of women are fierce adherents of the country’s Right. Indeed, for centuries, middle- and upper-class women in Bolivia have identified as European, and have been loyal allies of their menfolk in upholding the country’s cruel labor systems and extracting inordinate privileges. It was this arrangement that MAS shattered when it came to power in 2006.

The Usurper

In the first days of the coup, when escalating violence forced Evo Morales from office despite having won the general election, Jeanine Áñez was there to fill the position. Hailing from the Amazonian cattle-ranching region of Beni, she has a law degree but has mostly worked as a local television personality. Her first husband was mayor of Beni’s capital and, until his recent death, had a string of corruption charges following him.

Her current husband, Héctor Hernando Hincapié Carvajal, is a far more ominous figure. A failed politician from Colombia, he is nevertheless a high-level political operator in Colombia and, like Áñez, comes from a rural area deeply enmeshed with the narcotics trade. He has been a member of four political parties notorious for their close association with drug traffickers and describes himself as a partisan of Álvaro Uribe, the Latin American leader of the ultraright and two-time president of Colombia. Even so, Hernando Hincapié roundly criticized Uribe for not being sufficiently right-wing, since as president, Uribe failed to “renovate the Supreme Court and left us a cancer.”

Áñez’s political party, the Movimiento Demócrata Social, is called center-right, but the party is the voice of lowland business magnates who promoted the division of the country, which most would define as an act of treason. Their desires are often enforced by paramilitary groups of long standing with open fascist sympathies. In the last elections before the coup, Áñez won the party’s only senate seat (out of thirty-six senators in total), and the party won four house seats (out of 130 in total).

Despite her own narrative, supported by corporate media in Bolivia and internationally, Áñez was never in line for presidential succession. The army and police command nonetheless ordered a national blockade so that she could implement their joint plan. Áñez said she would mobilize the official fleet of helicopters to bring all parliamentarians to the capital, La Paz, but the helicopters only brought the right-wing representatives to the Plurinational Legislative Assembly.

The coup-makers prevented MAS legislators, who have a two-thirds majority of seats, from returning; they were instead forced to come by land and so faced paramilitary pursuit and harassment at coup regime checkpoints. In La Paz , MAS legislators had to literally fight their way into the Assembly, as their offices were being ransacked.

Áñez’s lies continued to multiply: an agreement between MAS and pro-coup legislators was made to convene parliament. Into that agreement, the pro-coup people inserted a false statement that both sides had accepted Áñez as interim president. Anti-MAS media published the lie everywhere. MAS denounced it, but they were drowned out by the corporate broadcasts.

In terms of freedom of expression, Áñez’s presidency smacks of the era of Bolivia’s modern dictatorship, which lasted from the 1960s to the early 1980s. Censorship of progressive media began in the run-up to the coup and escalated onward, with some fifty community radio stations attacked, as well as popular print media. Áñez has banned the MAS digital library, an impressive project of the MAS vice president and renowned intellectual Álvaro García Linera. Journalists were killed, tortured, and driven underground. Áñez nonetheless asserts that under her rule, Bolivia has passed from dictatorship to a thriving democracy.

Áñez has decreed special privileges for police and military forces across the country. Her Presidential Decree 4078, issued just two days after the coup, gave soldiers and police protections from any legal consequences for violence they might commit in pursuit of what Áñez terms a recovery of “civilized” society.

With that in place, five days later, she ordered the first massacre in a place called Sacaba, near the city of Cochabamba. People were shot from the ground and shot from the air, where helicopters hovered. Security forces targeted streams of protestors pouring in from the coca region of Chapare, the base of Evo Morales’s struggle from the time he was a young union leader. The coca farmers under Evo’s leadership generated the policies that most effectively lowered coca cultivation that is dedicated to cocaine production, as compared to the rest of the continent.

Another massacre took place four days later at the Senkata gas plant in El Alto, an indigenous city that gave more than sixty lives to bring down a neoliberal president in 2003. The victims of the Senkata massacre say that bodies were sequestered by authorities so as not to be counted, including those of a peasant woman and a young girl. Again, the interim president denied the government hurt anyone.

Under Áñez’s presidency so far, thirty-six demonstrators and innocent bystanders have been killed by soldiers and police. But Áñez swears the security forces have not fired a single bullet. She claims that the massacre victims were shot by their peers or by foreign agents. It is an open secret that a team of CIA and State Department personnel advise the interim president’s every move.

Toward Dictatorship

In a coded message to her conservative base, Áñez decorated the military men who committed the massacre. On November 15, she increased military spending by more than $5 million to buy the loyalty of her henchmen. These gestures, it seems fair to suggest, are also designed to incite violent reactions among the families of those killed, injured, and imprisoned.

On March 5, the thirty-five-year anniversary of the city of El Alto was used for similar provocations. Right-wing politicians arrived to declare themselves the country’s saviors. Áñez was surrounded and escorted by a phalanx of police and soldiers, and apparently, she and her advisers were hoping for more bloodshed, because they had mobilized ambulances and firefighters to be on hand.

That day, cameraman René Guarachi filmed the reaction of the security forces to El Alto inhabitants when the latter protested the presence of Áñez. They had just held a mass to honor the massacre victims who died in the neighborhood of Senkata. The footage shows uniformed forces firing tear gas on residents while gases poured into a school, causing terror. The crying children were met with police aggression.

Guarachi works with the media outlet of the Bartolina Sisa Confederation, an enormous network of indigenous and campesina women. He streamed the footage of the repression live on their website, which was ultimately viewed by 800,000 people. For transgressing the de facto state censorship, Guarachi was tortured.

Another act of terror was also a personal message to Evo Morales and followed a MAS meeting in Argentina with the exiled president. The meeting planned an electoral strategy to return the poor to power. Marcial Escalante, the vice president of MAS in Yapacaní, was kidnapped on December 20 after returning home from the meeting with Morales. Yapacaní is a stronghold of MAS resistance in the right-wing department of Santa Cruz, located in the lowlands. Like many MAS cadre, Escalante had not lived in his home since the coup repression started. But that night, he visited. The kidnappers wore civilian clothes. They beat his wife as they seized him. Strangely, he ended up in police custody. He was released because they could not pin any charges on him.

Áñez, when she proclaimed herself president in La Paz, had long since given her blessing to paramilitaries or “shock groups” across the country. Under her rule, these armed bands attacked mothers and wives who wished to present their testimonies of the Senkata massacre to representatives of the United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, the paramilitaries are mounted on motorcycles, carrying homemade explosives and weapons with which they attack working-class women and anyone who looks uncommitted to Miami values. Áñez praised their efforts and made them a gift of fifteen additional motorcycles.

Since Áñez came to power, countless attacks have occurred against indigenous women who were guilty of nothing but wearing their traditional dress, the pollera. The paramilitaries are armed and ready to inflict this kind of terror whenever their political bosses give the order.

In a more complicated act of hypocrisy, Áñez has tried to position herself as a protector of women who are victims of violence. She claims to be the key player against femicide, even though it was MAS who launched an extraordinary campaign to halt violence against women — a campaign cut short by the coup regime.

For many, the pain induced by Áñez’s peculiar promotion of womanhood is reflected in the coup government’s decision to release from prison a group of elite young men — among them the scions of oligarchical families of the lowland region of Santa Cruz — who, shortly before the coup, had been tried and sentenced for the gang rape of a young woman they knew personally. Such impunity is standard in countries ruled by the rich, but this vile pattern was changing in Evo’s Bolivia. The young men’s parents are adherents of the most violent faction of the paramilitary right, and probably its richest sector. The victim was hospitalized in agony for weeks, her genital region destroyed, before she died. Áñez stands with the country’s elites, who place blame on the young woman for going out with the rapists.

Those who criticize Áñez or question her claims to represent women face censorship and violence. One woman, a graduate student in feminist studies who voiced her opinions on social media, was subject to death threats. She escaped an attempted gang rape and was forced to go into hiding. Conservative women celebrate her attackers.

All the while, Áñez and the far-right leaders who rule the lowlands have given a hero’s welcome to elite terrorists and murderers. One politician they released from jail was serving time for the massacre of thirteen campesinos. A number of fugitives returning to Bolivia are politicians who fled the country to avoid corruption charges. Others worked hand in glove with the US embassy to stoke civil war and plot magnicide between 2008 and 2009. For the right, they are freedom fighters, recovering the lost paradise of Bolivia’s neoliberal elites.

The Ax of Áñez

Most women in Bolivia want quality health care that is free of charge for all, an initiative that had just been instituted by MAS before the coup, but which is — unconstitutionally — being dismantled by the current government, along with much of the MAS program.

In concert with US designs, Áñez falsely accused, imprisoned, and harassed Cuban doctors, then broke relations with Cuba unilaterally. After the evacuation, and in language uncommonly harsh for Cuban diplomacy, their foreign minister called Áñez “a liar, a coup-maker and a self-proclaimed president.” The doctors were forced to return to Cuba to protect their physical safety, but their absence, together with the defunding of government-provided health care, has already wrought devastation before the pandemic.

Food for nursing mothers and young children, free universal education, and dietary supports for the elderly were all critical MAS policies for many years, embraced by women, who benefited directly from them. Áñez axed the program for mothers and their small children, abandoned elders to their fate, and put education programs on the chopping block. Now she claims to be forming programs with very similar names, but people are protesting for want of food. Most recently, Áñez distributed face masks with her party logo.

In the February 8 Peace and Civility Accords proposed by Evo Morales, women’s rights were again central. His proposal has been ignored by the Right. The accords would seek to “eradicate hate speech entirely, and racism and all forms of discrimination.” They would “eradicate fake news” and instead, encourage “debate of ideas and political programs” like health care and education.

In keeping with a sentiment often attributed to women, the Peace and Civility Accords would “disarticulate all paramilitary and shock groups” and agree not to attack political campaign headquarters, the Wiphala, the ballots, or the people transporting and counting votes in the upcoming elections.

This vision of MAS is echoed in CARICOM’s (Caribbean Community’s) call on December 18 for an end to racist violence perpetrated against the indigenous in Bolivia, which the Caribbean nations managed to get passed in the belly of the monster itself, the Organization of American States (OAS).

In Bolivia, marchers against the coup have been chanting the name of Túpac Katari, the indigenous Aymara leader who, alongside his wife, Bartolina Sisa, and his sister Gregoria Apaza, almost brought down the Spanish regime in 1781. For ten years before the uprising, Túpac Katari traversed the high country and subtropical regions, persuading campesinos of the necessity to take up arms. Their descendants share a collective conscience that is impenetrable to their class enemies. The two women were commanders and critical negotiators who built indigenous unity: Gregoria united the Quechua and the Aymara.

The Descendants of Sisa and Apaza

In all this, the poor, who are mostly indigenous, are not completely powerless. Indigenous people streamed into the cities by the tens of thousands to protest the stolen elections of October and the various outrages of the new regime. Women spoke with rage and passion and continue to do so, knowing that they can be taken prisoner at any moment, to be beaten, tortured, and raped in detention. Such outrages are common and systematic, according to the poor.

Even so, concessions have been wrung from the de facto government. Tens of thousands of marchers, together with the MAS majority in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, relentlessly pressured Áñez to overturn Decree 4078, the free-fire permission given to soldiers and police that assures no criminal prosecution for the killing or injuring of civilians. Under tremendous pressure from campesinos and the urban poor, the coup president agreed to remove the military from the streets.

Despite these gains, the demobilization of the military was soon reversed by Áñez. In anticipation of the closing date of her interim presidency, January 22, Añez sent some seventy thousand soldiers to cities and towns all over the nation, attempting to ban the public broadcast of Morales’s speech that marked the constitutional end of his presidency.

The barrage of insults intensified. After months of coup-regime forces denigrating and brutalizing women in polleras in public, Áñez called for a new law that would recognize indigenous women as part of the national patrimony.

In the second week of March, Áñez faced another setback. MAS legislators forced the removal of her defense minister, Fernando López Julio — an extraordinary feat. López had refused to appear before the Plurinational Legislative Assembly despite constitutionally sanctioned requests from that body. The legislators had wanted to question López minutely about the massacres over which he presided. He stepped down. Nonetheless, almost immediately, and in brazenly anti-democratic fashion, Áñez reappointed López to the same post.

Today, Bolivia’s health system is in shambles, and the country has among the lowest rates of testing for the COVID-19 virus anywhere in the Americas. Laboratories in the main cities have collapsed. Doctors who voted for the Right are now marching in the streets to demand promised protective gear. Even the president of the Council of Bishops of the Catholic church, Monseñor Ricardo Centellas, criticized Áñez for her trail of broken promises in the fight against the virus.

Her erstwhile right-wing allies have joined the poor majorities in demanding that Áñez allow elections to take place, something Áñez has been paying lip service to but trying to postpone ever since she entered the National Palace. MAS leads in the polls, even though the polltakers have never reached into the Bolivian countryside.

Most Bolivians recognize that ultimately, the future of the country lies in the hands of millions of indigenous people, campesinos, and urban workers who are organizing to dethrone Áñez and any other usurper.

The Bartolina Sisa Confederation of indigenous and campesina women has become perhaps the most outspoken voice of conscience against the coup regime led by Áñez. One of the largest grassroots organizations in a country that is famous for its social movements, “the Bartolinas” emerged in 1980, helping to found MAS in the 1990s, and have never faltered in their commitments to “land and dignity” for the majority of women. On December 20, they declared that they would not allow US intervention in Bolivia.

Their leadership gave an ultimatum to the national police at a time when the highest coup authorities were threatening to invade the zone of Chapare, where coca farmers have built a seamless unity, and where Evo Morales helped give birth to the struggle as a young union leader. In Chapare, homemade barricades closed off all the roads to protect against Áñez’s security forces.

Áñez claims to believe that every cocalero is a “terrorist,” but the cocaleros associated with MAS have led the country in creating solutions based on grassroots control of the enormous legal market for coca leaves, a medicinal, nutritional, and spiritual foundation of Andean society. Now they are trucking tons of their tropical fruit to people on the edge of starvation outside the Chapare, and facing arrest and imprisonment for that solidarity.

During the quarantine, which is enforced by roaring platoons of police on motorcycles and soldiers with assault rifles, negotiations were held that achieved the return of the police to Chapare in exchange for the Áñez government agreeing to reopen banks and gas stations that had been shut and blockaded by the de facto regime.

Characteristic of the battle unfolding between elite and indigenous women, the Bartolina Sisas had told the police they would be allowed to reenter Chapare if and when they asked forgiveness of the people for the deaths and injuries they had caused the day of the Sacaba massacre. Áñez is up against a tidal wave of dignity.

When asked if she expected Áñez to start killing them again if MAS won the presidential vote, a campesina woman in the Andean highlands responded, “Yes, of course. But we’re trained, we’re conscious, and if they steal the elections again, all of us will take the streets, peacefully. Vast numbers of people are willing to die for this process of change, and we will prevail.”