Bolivia’s Indigenous Masses Have Changed the Course of History

Fifteen years after Evo Morales was first elected president of Bolivia, his socialist party has returned to power. The far right hasn’t given up — but the indigenous masses that reversed the right-wing coup and forced elections have proven themselves a formidable force for justice and democracy.

Supporters of former president Evo Morales block a road to a Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) oil refinery as part of a protest against Jeanine Áñez on November 17, 2019 in El Alto, La Paz, Bolivia. (Gaston Brito Miserocchi / Getty Images)

Two realities collide today in Bolivia. One is the power of a murderous, kleptocratic elite that overthrew an elected government last November, employing violence to impose its will and reprivatize the economy. The other is the people who just voted massively for the return of Movement toward Socialism (MAS), the electoral arm of a socialist movement rooted in indigenous politics that long predates the party itself.

Common sense would indicate that a right-wing coup government never voluntarily cedes authority to a government striving toward socialism. Indigenous peoples, working-class, and even middle-class Bolivians saw no reason to accept that notion.

And on November 16, Evo Morales Ayma — the historic indigenous leader of MAS, who served as president for almost fourteen years — insisted publicly that the coup regime is not ready to retire. The oligarchy appears to have accepted the MAS victory, he said in an interview, but they do not intend to hand power over to the people.

The plans of the Right are therefore far from clear, even two months after MAS’s crushing electoral victory. Earlier this month, police warned the new government not to put them on trial for committing massacres under the orders of the coup authorities. Last week, President Luis Arce told the army generals that rumors of a coup are unacceptable. And international experts who represent the Inter-American Court system arrived recently in Bolivia to investigate responsibility for the massacres of the Áñez regime.

It is clear that the Bolivian masses are ready to mobilize if necessary. Their actions earlier this year — particularly from July 28 to August 15, in the lead-up to October elections — have already changed the tides of history.

“Like Ants That Appear Alone by Day and Come Together at Night”

Ordinary Bolivians in the Andes are often said to be frugal with their words, yet they never stopped blasting the coup government through eleven months of repression. “Evo did not resign, he was forced out,” a young woman said matter-of-factly in March. Elderly women in the marketplaces unleashed streams of invective at police who tried to make them go home at curfew, which fell at high noon. Older men who retained some semblance of reserve all last year expressed their fury after the elections: “Evo Morales ended racism, but the government of that señora brought it back with a vengeance. The coup regime singled out polleras” — indigenous women — “for humiliation.” They were talking about their mothers, sisters, and wives.

Within days of taking power in November 2019, coup president Jeanine Áñez ordered the killing and jailing of protesters. When the pandemic hit, she reduced to misery the majority of the population by imposing a draconian quarantine — permitting only six hours each week outside one’s home, for months, in a country where some three-quarters survive on their earnings day-to-day.

“This is so important” — the gentleman, dignified, struggles for the right words in Spanish, since his world is Aymara — “they never respected us before MAS.” He is a master technician who had told me about the workings of mines and electrical systems to while away the hours of the quarantine; that day, he was giving me directions to the MAS victory celebration.

Through the long night of the coup regime, indigenous people organized “like ants that appear alone by day and come together at night,” in the words of one campesino, “or like the bird that dives and attacks in the piedmont where coca grows. Like a mass of fleas.”

An indigenous community leader told us as the polls were opening, “We are thankful to you for being here. Before this last year, we experienced fourteen years in which we were governed by a state that was very stable.” MAS was putting in place universal health care when it was overthrown. “Now, we have no access to doctors.”

Bolivia suffers one of the highest mortality rates from COVID-19 in Latin America, 6.2 percent as of November 12, and the third-highest rate on Earth. Despite imposing severe restrictions, the government provided virtually no testing during quarantine; logically, many COVID deaths went uncounted. Quarantine was continually extended from March through July and policed by arrogant, officious security forces who practiced no social distancing themselves, often on motorcycles with long firearms, descending on stores like an occupying army at noon or racing uphill in serpentine chains to shut people down. The lockdown was more a state of siege than a sanitary measure.

A woman gestures and shouts during the funeral of people killed during clashes between police and supporters of Evo Morales in the entrance of a major fuel plant, at San Antonio de Asis Church on November 20, 2019 in El Alto, outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia. Gaston Brito Miserocchi / Getty Images

The coup government drove out seven hundred Cuban medical providers in one of its first acts. (Cuba has the lowest COVID-19 contagion and death rates in the hemisphere.) Corpses of the poor overwhelmed the capacity of the cemeteries and ambulances; many were abandoned in the streets.

For months before the 2020 elections, La Razón, the country’s newspaper of record and hardly a radical rag, accused the Right of lying and blocking elections to support an openly authoritarian government. The coup government’s election authority was so divorced from the Bolivian majorities that it prepared a public service announcement encouraging people to vote where it described indigenous protesters as “violent mobs.” In the image, a woman in a pollera was seen waving the sacred symbol of the Wiphala — the multicolored banner of indigenous unity — that was trampled by the right wing as they consecrated their coup with violence.

Said a protester in August, “With COVID-19, we are learning how to live with it, but with this de facto government, we are destined to die.”

The 2020 Elections, According to the Poor

On October 18, MAS’s Luis Arce won by a landslide: 55 percent. The other candidates were varying shades of right-wing. The US embassy’s choice, Carlos Mesa, garnered 29 percent, while the far-right loose cannon Luis Camacho won 14 percent and still refuses to concede. Immediately, Camacho partisans set up road blockades and camped out in front of military bases, demanding that the army and police “carry out another coup.” Mesa and his followers joined them whenever the pendulum of fake news provided an opportunity. When Donald Trump charged fraud, they took heart and echoed Trump, jubilant.

On the morning of the vote, a working-class neighborhood leader told two of us who had arrived as official electoral observers, “Certain sectors took power by committing massacres and now they are leaving office, thanks to today’s election.” He was sure of it. The anger of working-class people was palpable but contained. They were finally voting after four postponements: a deadline of three months was announced by the “interim” government when it came to power, which it then pushed back to May 3, August 2, and finally, September 6. The rural and urban masses lost much, if not most, of their daily income under a government that refused to leave office.

The same community leader said, too modestly, “What we are doing today is a very difficult task.” Hundreds of community leaders had been forced into exile or underground, and the government had done its best to liquidate MAS. Left and grassroots media outlets had been violently shuttered. Over one thousand protesters and MAS leaders filled the prisons. (A handful of high-ranking officials found refuge in the Mexican embassy.) In actions reminiscent of Bolivia’s twentieth-century dictatorships, political prisoners were subjected to torture, including electrical shock; others were denied medical treatment for serious injuries or danger of miscarriage in late-term pregnancy; many were raped by the people guarding them; and some were put in close quarters for prolonged periods with fellow prisoners suffering from COVID.

Yet MAS persistently polled the highest in surveys; even elite pollsters predicted a first-round victory for the socialists. Despite suffering the bruising blows of the Áñez government, the indigenous masses compelled the coup government to finally hold elections.

Highland indigenous likened themselves to paja brava, the indestructible wild grasses of the high Andes. A political prisoner recounted the authorities’ failed attempt to infect her with COVID, and hearing this, a comrade commented that it failed “because we are strong.”

Forged Through Struggle

The unity of the Bolivian poor was forged in the epic years of the 1980s and 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers went on strike in an attempt to save their jobs; when the original peoples of the Amazon and Chaco walked across their vast country to demand territorial sovereignty and a new constitution written by the people (the one at the time was written by the US embassy); and when the indigenous Quechua and Aymara of the high Andes began the organizing that ultimately prevented Bolivia’s water and natural gas from being sold off to foreign interests.

Among these poor people were the small coca farmers who met the worst repression. Hundreds were killed, victims of a war waged by US elite troops that had set up a permanent military presence in the Chapare coca-growing regions. Working with Bolivian forces, US Drug Enforcement Agency soldiers burned homes, raped women, and sprayed lethal chemicals over the countryside.

MAS grew out of these diverse movements: intensely anti-imperialist, fundamentally indigenous, and often taking direction from the wisdom of organized peasant women. They devised a political path and won congressional seats. Before MAS secured the presidency, Washington had advertised Bolivia as a perfect model of neoliberalism.

Evo Morales in 2008. (Joel Alvarez / Wikimedia Commons)

Congressman Evo Morales Ayma, an indigenous coca farmer who his enemies called the Andean Osama bin Laden, was elected in a landslide in late 2005. He governed over a new page in Bolivian history, preferring decision-making via assemblies and the democratic practices of the peasant union that created him (the Six Federations of the Trópico, to which he has now returned). When Morales favored middle-class experts over the counsel of the social movements, his popularity dropped. (Both he and the recently elected MAS president, Luis Arce Catacora, have said that the decision for Evo to run for a fourth term was a mistake. According to the bases of MAS, they made that decision in an assembly.)

During the MAS years, class tensions were never far from the surface. The breaking point for the right wing was the Constitution that emerged from grassroots assemblies in 2009, which consecrated the reversal of privatizations of the preceding era. Bolivia possesses natural resources that are among the world’s richest, and MAS had moved to reclaim mining, natural gas, and telecommunications, distributing the resulting profits to the most impoverished.

Outraged, the old elites threw themselves into a secession struggle with direction from US ambassador Philip Goldberg (who is now serving in Colombia, launching attacks on Venezuela’s government). National MAS leaders — including the president himself — were prevented from entering half the country, under threats of death from the right-wing elite in the lowlands. When the secession strategy failed, elites turned to the task of winning over the middle sectors, with the goal of overturning the 2009 constitution and ousting MAS.

And they had an ace up their sleeve: five hundred years of virulent racism.

The Middle Classes

I had spent about three months in Bolivia in 2019, watching tensions mount. By October, the street violence unleashed by the right wing was terrifying. Paramilitary actions were ubiquitous, even as the mass media in Bolivia and abroad labeled them peaceful demonstrations. Years of preparation had generated a conservative backlash against MAS, based on media half-truths and lies.

The majority of urban dwellers were convinced that fraud was in the making. Middle-class ladies with their grandchildren would march during the daytime, followed by angry university students in the hundreds, who would then give way to the trained paramilitaries. The attacks were directed by the same well-heeled politicians that had gutted organized labor and privatized the economy during the 1980s and 1990s — Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, Carlos Mesa, Samuel Doria Medina, Óscar Ortiz Antelo.

On the tenth of November 2019, the executive branch was overthrown. An unknown senator was imposed as president unconstitutionally, and the world was told, falsely, that she stood in the line of succession. Carlos Mesa and Luis Camacho were joined by a host of elite actors who have long been neoliberal warriors. Other politicians had already changed colors: from their version of populism within MAS to alliances with conservatives. Among them were the mayors Luis Revilla of La Paz and Soledad Chapetón of El Alto, two neighboring cities that are centers, respectively, of national governance, and of resistance to neoliberalism.

Right-wing social media and outlets spun incredible lies, claiming the massacres of indigenous people in the days after the coup were the work of “savages” killing each other. It was left to a handful of leftist journalists and a few intrepid international reporters to depict the bravery of the poor, defying the coup regime’s threats to jail them. One journalist was killed. The task of challenging the mainstream media was also taken up by Evo Morales and his closest advisers, who had left the country rather than enter a civil war.

Those who still claim that MAS imposed its victory through fraud in 2019 include individuals in the highest reaches of the twentieth-century narco-economy and disgruntled magnates whose mining or gas emporia MAS had whittled down. Alongside them are the US embassy, their allies in the Bolivian armed forces and police, and the Organization of American States.

The startling crimes of the Áñez government, however, have diminished the fervor of the middle classes. Carlos Mesa lost to MAS by a much greater margin than in 2019: an additional 8 percent of the electorate gave their vote to the Left. Political analysts in Bolivia suggest these are the same people who were raised out of poverty into middle-class status by “the economic miracle” engineered by MAS, which created the healthiest growth rates in South America.

Mesa still prevailed in the largest cities with the exception of two. The first was the indigenous city of El Alto — situated above La Paz — which voted for MAS. The second was the lowland metropolis of Santa Cruz, the fulcrum of the agro-export oligarchy and home to a wrathful middle class whose rage against “savage Indian hordes” has been molded by Latin America’s ultra-right opinion shapers.

But even in the most right-wing department of Santa Cruz (which goes by the same name as the city), working-class and peasant supporters of MAS won 36.19 percent, coming in second place.

The Right Plays Foul

Among urban voters, the fears of a stolen election had been carefully stoked by the Organization of American States (OAS) and plotted by the US Embassy, with the aim of ensuring violence. Paramilitaries were trained and acted according to a meticulous military strategy. But they were outmaneuvered by the sheer organization of the poor.

Carlos Mesa tucked his tail between his legs and congratulated the new president, as did Jeanine Áñez. She had warned voters of the dangers of MAS up to the very last moment — in defiance of the legal prohibition against such speech — but was unable to prevent MAS from sweeping the polls.

The far right is an abiding threat. Creemos won 45.04 percent of the total votes in Santa Cruz. A very wealthy businessman, Camacho sends his profits offshore and holds political meetings that are effectively sobbing prayer sessions at the foot of a huge statue of Christ the Redeemer. He has spent the last two decades at the forefront of the Civic Committee of the city of Santa Cruz, which makes no secret of its racism and its fascination with fascism.

According to his own account, Camacho said his father persuaded the army’s high command to join the coup last year. The Santa Cruz paramilitary wing entered La Paz in 2019, moving in waves of “shock” attacks and beating indigenous women and anyone who lingered. On November 12, riding the wave of terror he had created, Luis Camacho escorted Jeanine Áñez into the presidential palace. In the days after the October 2020 election, the youth wing of Camacho’s Santa Cruz Civic Committee planted itself in front of army bases and police stations in Santa Cruz, demanding that the soldiers stage “another coup to save the country from MAS” — even though they had spent the last year denying they’d carried out a coup.

The right-wing youth of Santa Cruz were joined by their cohorts in the city of Cochabamba, going by the name Cochala Youth Resistance. Cochabamba’s political thugs are infamous for their pre-2019 election beating and six-kilometer forced march of Patricia Arce, a small-town MAS mayor (who had just been elected to the Senate), and their attack on a demonstration of peasant women and children. They followed with a year of motorcycle attacks on the poor who dared critique Áñez and, post-election, have refused to concede.

In the deluge of reports since MAS returned to power on Sunday, November 8, Morales asserted that the coup government and its international allies had attempted a second coup just days earlier. Among the generals charged with carrying out the coup, one of them stepped forward and refused to obey because he “belonged to MAS.” He was followed by others who said the same. The plans of the oligarchy fell like a house of cards — in a gathering of generals — eleven months of organizing by the people both within MAS and more broadly.

Neoliberal elites are unlikely to give up on coup-plotting or disband their paramilitary apparatus anytime soon, and the United States government continues to believe it possesses the right to control Bolivia’s natural resources. The movement behind MAS is under no illusion that the Right and its allies have had a change of heart.

During weeks of protest at the start of August, indigenous campesinos and the urban poor put into practice the strategies they had forged since the early twenty-first century, when social movements shut down Bolivia and opened the path to a more democratic country. Constantly across the last year, they told people not to worry, utterly confident that the presence of “the people” inside the military and police would prevail over the paid collaborators of the oligarchy. Those strategies have grown more complex through the first two decades of this century — and they are likely to be put to the test again.