The Killing of Orlando Gutiérrez Shows the Violent Threat to Bolivian Democracy

Victory for socialist candidate Luis Arce in last month's Bolivian election seemed to turn the page on the overthrow of Evo Morales last fall. But the murder of miners' leader Orlando Gutiérrez just after the election shows that the coup plotters are still a violent threat — and will do all they can to silence working-class Bolivians.

Orlando Gutiérrez, former leader of the Union Federation of Bolivian Mine Workers.

The victory for Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) candidate Luis Arce in Bolivia’s presidential election on October 18 had seemed to mark an end to the wave of repression that had followed last year’s coup against Evo Morales. Yet the death of Orlando Gutiérrez — leader of the powerful Union Federation of Bolivian Mine Workers (FSTMB) — just days after the vote, has shocked the country’s trade union and socialist movement.

Gutiérrez was considered one of Bolivia’s most important union leaders, serving as the executive secretary of the one of the most militant mining federations, as well as a key organizer of the resistance against interim leader Jeanine Añez’s regime. During the early days of the coup following the 2019 election, Gutiérrez led the marches of mining workers armed with dynamite (the traditional symbol of the struggle against dictatorships and military regimes) into La Paz in defense of Morales’s victory.

Similarly, he was one of the leaders of the mass protests and blockades in August this year that nearly paralyzed the country and forced the regime to confirm the election date for October 18. During the MAS electoral campaign, he played a key role in organizing the support of the mining union and other workers’ organizations for both the socialist candidate and the restoration of democracy. This paid off last month as Arce romped to victory, with 55 percent of the vote.

But anti-democratic forces did not slink away. Reports say that the day after the elections, Gutiérrez was attacked by a group of armed thugs, suffering serious head injuries. He spent the next several days in intensive care in a private clinic, before passing away on October 28, aged thirty-six. According to his personal lawyer, Nadesha Guevara, the union leader had been receiving death threats since August due to his involvement in the protests and strikes, and even requested protective measures from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (CIDH) that were never delivered. Some of these threats originated from the Cochabamba-based paramilitary group, Resistencia Juvenil Cochala (RJC).

The assassination of a major union leader, particularly following the election, is unprecedented in Bolivia’s modern history — and marks an important milestone in the far right’s commitment to a path of escalating violence. Assassinating such a key figure in the labor movement illustrates the far right’s desperation to avoid the return of popular power — and its objective of terrorizing and marginalizing both MAS and the social and trade union organizations that support it. It is also further proof of the violent, repressive agenda of the organizers of the November 2019 coup against Morales — and the threat they still pose to Bolivian democracy.

A History of Violence

Over its year in power, the Añez regime unleashed a wave of violence by security forces, state-sanctioned terror through paramilitary groups, the legal persecution of activists, and much more. The November 2019 massacres in Senkata, El Alto, and Sacaba, Cochabamba, which left thirty-five activists dead, were the most prominent examples of state repression.

This was combined with the imprisonment of several former ministers of Evo’s government, the attempted arrest of another nine former ministers  who took refuge in the residency of the Mexican ambassador, and the imprisonment of MAS activists and functionaries, such as Patricia Hermosa (who suffered a miscarriage while in prison), the former chief of staff of communications for Evo Morales.

Other prominent arrestees included trade union and neighborhood committee leaders in El Alto, such as Jesús Vera of FEJUVE, the Federation of Neighborhood Councils (who has been freed since). This came alongside attempts to apprehend union leaders Juan Carlos Huarachi (of the Bolivian Workers’ Central, COB), Andrónico Rodríguez (vice-president of the Six Federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba, the country’s most formidable coca growers’ union), and Leonardo Loza, of the CSCIOB union of rural workers. Journalist René Huarachi, of the Bartolina Sisa radio and TV station, was also kidnapped and tortured by the security forces in March.

In this sense, the regime’s security apparatus was deployed to create a climate of fear and repression that would undermine attempts to rally the social movements and MAS for a renewed bid for power. But the majority of violent actions against MAS activists and supporters on the ground — along with generating intimidation and threats online — in fact owed to state-sanctioned paramilitary groups.

The most prominent of these groups, the Resistencia Juvenil Cochala (RJC), is headed by far-right activist Yassir Molino, and was first activated in the week following the general election in October 2019. It, along with other anti-MAS groups, proceeded to erect blockades, attack and set fire to public buildings, such as the electoral tribunal building in Cochabamba and actively support the police mutiny and military coup that overthrew Morales’ government.

Throughout November 2019 to October 2020, the group has been engaged in a wide range of violent actions, from assisting the police and military forces in repressing the anti-coup protests in Cochabamba on November 11, 2019, to attacking MAS campaign convoys in the recent pre-election period.

The other prominent paramilitary group in question, the Union Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC) is an older organization and has its origins in the country’s “Falangist” movement. This latter movement is inspired by the Spanish dictators Francisco Franco and José Primo de Rivera, as evident in their slogans and gestures — they still perform the “Roman Salute,” beloved by fascist and Nazi organizations around the world.

UJC is also heavily influenced by the fundamentalist sections of the Catholic and Evangelical churches, and has played a historic part in both the Santa Cruz separatist movement and previous unsuccessful attempts at overthrowing Morales’s government in 2008–9. Their actions and tactics run parallel to those of the RJC, although the UJC draws from a much larger pool of support in Santa Cruz, as well as receiving financial backing from the region’s ultraconservative landowning class. Luis Fernando Camacho, one of the leaders of the 2019 coup, and Branko Marinkovic, one of the key figures in the 2008–9 separatist movement, have both previously been leaders of the organization.

Several smaller organizations also operate in the city and the region of La Paz. The La Resistencia group has mostly engaged in protests and blockades, as well as harassment of MAS supporters. Similarly, the “Valkyria” group has violently attacked the offices of the public defense attorney in the capital, due to its constant criticism of human rights abuses under the Añez regime.

No doubt these groups have lost much of their momentum, confidence, and organizing power since the MAS victory on October 18 — not least due to the loss of support they received from the outgoing Añez regime. However, they have remained active in the protests since, demanding that the results of the elections be discarded, and that both retired and active military personnel intervene into the transition process to install a civic-military dictatorship similar to those of Hugo Bánzer (1971–1978) and Luis García Meza (1980–1981).

The Far Right Reorganizes

Once the final results were known, the reaction of MAS’s opponents have been in line with the reaction of the right wing to electoral victories for progressive and left-wing forces across the region: denial, hysteria, baseless fraud allegations, and demands for military intervention. While the key opposition leaders — with the exception of Camacho (the third-placed candidate in the election) — have recognized the final election result, the same cannot be said for the various civil and paramilitary groups that supported the 2019 coup.

The most prominent of these organizations is the Comité Cívico pro Santa Cruz (SCZ). Its leader Rómulo Calvo made a name for himself this August calling the anti-coup protesters “human beasts” who “bite the hand that feeds them.” He succeeded Fernando Camacho as the SCZ president after Camacho initiated his presidential campaign. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Calvo and the committee have been calling for protests against the validity of the elections and the new MAS government. The road blockades across the rest of the country have followed a similar pattern, with similar messages and demands, with the ones in Cochabamba also being enforced by the RJC.

However, unlike the protests organized in late October to early November 2019, these lack the backing of the United States and the Organization of American States (OAS), and do not have a presence by active police and army personnel. This, even though a number of politicians and retired military figures have backed the calls for a military government. Some of these include the far-right legislator from Santa Cruz, Ronaldo Descarpontriez, and the retired military official Jorge Santiestevan. The protesters have also been setting up camp outside barracks and military bases around the country (mostly in Santa Cruz), demanding that the military intervene.

Apart from bringing up false accusations of fraud, the anti-MAS bloc has also focused their energies on another measure implemented by MAS legislators prior to the transfer of power. On October 28, the outgoing deputies of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly and the Senate approved measures to eliminate the two-thirds majority required for passing eleven different measures, including the ability for the legislature to demote and prosecute members of the police and armed forces for crimes perpetrated by the Añez regime.

The two major right-wing candidates in the 2020 elections, Carlos Mesa and Fernando Camacho, along with the country’s private media have (ironically) called this measure “authoritarian” and backed the protests against it. The SCZ and its leader, Calvo, have also been supporting these actions.

Regime Change NGOs

Another group that has been featured prominently in the current protests is a US-funded NGO Ríos de Pie (Standing Rivers). From July through September 2019, it ran the intense social media campaign, #SOSBolivia, in order to implicate the presidency of Evo Morales in the wildfires that raged in the region of Chiquitania in Santa Cruz. The organization also played a prominent role in legitimizing the coup and the government of Jeanine Añez, as well as the violence perpetrated by her.

Strangely, despite their “environmentalist” outlook, the group has been almost completely absent in any efforts to contain the mass forest fires that raged across Santa Cruz throughout 2020 (even bigger than the ones in 2019), and has instead focused its efforts on attempting to delegitimize the results of the 2020 elections and protesting against MAS legislative measures. Most recently, a group of Ríos de Pie activists attempted to hold a protest against MAS at Plaza Murillo in front of the Presidential Palace in La Paz, only to be dispersed (ironically enough) by police forces still administered by Añez.

The group itself is led by Jhanisse Vaca Daza, a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, whose alumni also include individuals like Venezuelan far-right coup leader Leopoldo Lopez and neoliberal economist Ricardo Hausmann. Daza’s resume, however, is more impressive than her academic history. The organizations that she has worked for include the Human Rights Foundation (founded by the libertarian cousin of Leopoldo Lopez, Thor Halvorssen), the National Endowment for Democracy–funded Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), and most prominent of all, the Atlas network.

The latter is comprised of right-wing, libertarian, and far-right political movements from around the world, and has been linked to the creation of hundreds of thousands of fake social media accounts either supporting right-wing regimes, as in Bolivia; destabilizing left-wing governments, such as Venezuela and Nicaragua; or attempting to intervene in electoral processes on the side of the far right, as in the Chilean national plebiscite of October 25, 2020.

One of the organization’s most prominent backers and funders is Spain’s former premier, José María Aznar, at the center of that country’s post-Francoite right. Daza also became one of the key spokespeople for the coup process in Bolivia, appearing during the December 14 OAS meeting and dismissing the existence of a “coup” in Bolivia or any massacres that took place during November 2019. Such claims also played their part in the regime change operation, only now being overcome.

After October 18

MAS’s electoral victory has reinvigorated the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggle in the region, as well as helped to break the cycle of coups, right-wing electoral victories, and the return of neoliberalism. However, this victory could be soured and short-lived if the dangers of the violent right-wing opposition in the country are not recognized and dealt with appropriately.

The assassination of Orlando Gutiérrez was not simply a reminder that violent fascist movements are alive and well in Bolivia. Rather, it must be a wake-up call for all socialists and revolutionaries around the world to realize how desperate the far right are to prevent socialism from returning to power.

The next five years will see a long and drawn-out battle between the democratically elected socialist government of Lucho Arce and David Choquehuanca, and the far-right extremist opposition opposed to the mere idea of being governed by a plurinational majority. In such a struggle, the international left must stand unequivocally on MAS’s side.