Bolivia’s Coup Government Is Looking for Excuses to Avoid Elections
With Bolivia’s coup government delaying presidential elections for the third time, the country's largest union federation is threatening to launch a general strike this Monday. In an interview with Jacobin, the labor federation's leader explains why trade unions are fighting to ensure the vote goes ahead.
- Interview by
- Anton Flaig
Nine months after much of Western media hailed the “return of democracy” in Bolivia, the transitional government led by Jeanine Áñez has again put off the planned presidential elections. Despite the violent military coup that overthrew Evo Morales in November, in recent weeks the candidate for his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), Luis Arce, had been polling around 40 percent for the first round — triple the score for right-winger Áñez.
MAS supporters feared that the election would be somehow cancelled; and this week, the Áñez regime announced the poll will not take place on September 6 as planned, but October 18. Social movements are furious. Bolivian Workers Central (COB) executive secretary Juan Carlos Huarachi has issued a seventy-two-hour deadline to reverse the decision, or else Bolivia’s largest union organization will begin a general strike, accompanied by nationwide road blockades, on Monday, August 3.
A miner, Huarachi is the highest representative of the country’s trade union movement. He spoke to Jacobin contributor Anton Flaig about the conditions for workers since November’s military coup, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the country, and the Right’s efforts to prevent the MAS from returning to power.
How is the situation for Bolivian workers at the moment?
Already in the last months of 2019, many state companies were closing with considerable deficits, and the first effects of a both internal and global economic crisis are now being felt. This will surely hit us directly. So, we have hard days ahead. Today, we are seeing massive layoffs, not only in the public sector but also in the private sector.
The government has publicly said that there will be no dismissals, but they have failed. They were the first to begin firing workers. The ministries of culture, sports, communication, and other vice ministries and directorates have been closed.
There are large numbers of laid-off workers, and worse, in the productive sector, wage cuts. We are getting more complaints, day by day.
According to former president Evo Morales, the crisis caused by COVID-19 could turn into a humanitarian crisis. How do you think you can get out of this crisis?
We have always proposed that the government response should be coordinated with the country’s social organizations. In this case, it was important to coordinate these issues before the first decrees issued by the government during the health emergency and quarantine, since the population was not prepared for it.
There are still many sectors of Bolivian society who are wondering if the coronavirus exists or not. That is our concern. It is important to coordinate and also consider how we can reactivate the real economy.
There is a large percentage of the population in the informal labor sector. What do you think about their situation, in the middle of the pandemic?
For the government, giving an allowance of 500 bolivianos [$70] to a family is a supposedly unprecedented achievement. But for Bolivians who work, day by day, those 500 bolivianos mean nothing. There are families of four, five, six, or even ten individuals. Unfortunately, that is the reality that our country is experiencing.
The first sectors to be hit economically were tourism, hospitality, gastronomy, and of course informal trade. Their income has been reduced, and that has affected them a lot — and may be impossible to recover. Informal workers are also irreversibly hit. Another area affected is transport, where the bulk of the state’s economic contribution is concentrated.
Supposedly, there is a decree to reactivate the productive apparatus with a proposal for an employment plan. First, they told us 600,000 jobs would be created. But then they told us it would only be 11,000…
The economic development that the state has lost in these months is irreversible. That is going to be recovered, at a minimum, in a five-year administration. Bolivia is an exporter of natural resources — unfortunately, that is our reality, we are not an industrialized country. So, to restart economic growth, we need a plan.
What measures will the COB take if there are no elections in September?
Right now, the political situation of the state is changing every moment, day, and hour, but there is a limit. We are experiencing a true economic and health crisis. So, the workers are calling for elections.
From the elections, surely, we will have a democratically elected government and be able to discuss our social demands, sector by sector, with new policies, with new programs. That is the least Bolivians expect.
You met former Minister of Economy Luis Arce, who is the MAS candidate in this election. How was the relationship between the minister and the COB?
Each year, we have always come to the government with the labor sector’s demands for a salary increase. So, in recent years, we have had discussions with Luis Arce, who has always tried to take care of the state’s economy.
From the first Evo Morales government until 2019, there were, indeed, salary increases, and Bolivia was the top country for economic growth and development across South America. It’s not me saying that, but international organizations. And as a candidate for the presidency, you surely have to have strong proposals to, in some way, reactivate the economy.
So now, with the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, is Arce a good candidate for the COB?
It’s plain to see who has governed us well and who has governed us badly. The economic model the state goes by is surely quite important for reactivating the productive apparatus. Today, the Bolivian people are aware that in the last fourteen years we have had increased income. We have generated income at the same time as developing and taking a fundamental step towards industrialization.
Now this crisis, this pandemic, has come along, which has finally become a global crisis. I’ll repeat — it will surely not be easy to revive the economy. The question for us is not just a matter of the ideal candidate, but the most professional and technically minded one, so that we can reactivate the economy.
What are the differences between COB’s relationship with the current government and the previous government under Evo Morales?
This current government has not met with us at all. It’s as simple as that. Notes have been sent, the request for the plans for 2020 has been presented. We have not got any answer, either publicly or formally. The other demands of the different sectors — in terms of production, mining, manufacturing, construction, hydrocarbons, and oil — have also not been responded to, nor our social demands.
With the exception of the Ministry of Labor — which, under pressure, has somewhat engaged with the legal issues of many union organizations affiliated to COB — we have not even been called in for a meeting. Not even to discuss the structural issues facing the country’s workers, despite their importance to the Bolivian economy.
By comparison, how were the meetings with the cabinet of former President Evo Morales?
Every second Tuesday of the month, Evo Morales made an agenda to meet with many social organizations, to discuss structural issues. He was also coordinating with departmental authorities, because workers don’t only rely on the central state. There are workers who depend on the private sector, as well as the governors and the municipal mayors.
I always say that any social demand in any sector, big or small, always becomes a matter of the wider economy. A demand will not be [met] 100 percent, but we have always passed 60 or 70 percent of social demands [during Morales’s government].
We could do that thanks to the economic and political stability. The social demand is satisfied with money. With Evo, historical, structural efforts were made in these last two years, creating the most important thing: free health care for all Bolivians.
The right-wing parties in Bolivia have shown they are ready to join together, to confront the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). What do you think of this?
After seeing the reality and the electoral-political context that the country is experiencing, I think that we already have a line set. MAS is going to win the elections in the first round. So, the right wing is looking for an alternative in order to cope with this situation.
They are all united, all the Right, all the opposition [against MAS]. The transitional government is making a lot of mistakes, not only with acts of corruption, but endless things. But they have no other choice than to combine the forces that they have.
The transitional president says elections could cause a health emergency . . .
It is just another excuse to avoid the elections on September 6. They have even sent notes to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to show that the conditions aren’t there for the vote to take place. But this doesn’t respond to what Bolivians need and expect.
Instead of making political excuses, they should be doing the work of raising social awareness. After all, elections have been carried out in the Dominican Republic and in other countries.
There are families suffering harsh realities that no one would want. But what we are experiencing, surely many countries have [as well]. So, we also stand in solidarity with many brothers at the international level.