How the US War on Drugs Subverted Bolivian Democracy

Juan Ramón Quintana

It’s been two years since the right-wing coup against Evo Morales’s socialist government. One of his former ministers tells Jacobin about how the US war on drugs helped create a Bolivian military free from popular control.

Bolivian soldiers conduct anti-cocaine operations with US support, July 26, 1986. (Rafael Wollmann / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Interview by
Anton Flaig

This week marks two years since Bolivian president Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party were overthrown in a military coup. The army’s actions in November 2019 were backed by the Organization of American States, the Trump administration, the European Union, and much Western media, each claiming that Morales had stolen the 2019 presidential election. Their fraud allegations were instantly and thoroughly discredited — but did lasting damage to Bolivian democracy.

Over the months that followed the coup, right-wing forces backed by paramilitaries formed a new regime under transitional leader Jeanine Áñez, seeking to undo Morales’s legacy. While today celebrated by the EU Parliament as a champion of human rights, Áñez’s regime in fact massacred dozens of anti-coup protesters while also driving Morales and many of his colleagues into exile. Yet this was not enough to cow popular resistance, and after massive rallies and strikes demanding that repeat elections go ahead, MAS candidate Luis Arce won a huge mandate in the October 2020 contest.

Juan Ramón Quintana was minister of the presidency in each of Morales’s three governments. A former high-ranking career soldier and a learned sociologist, philosopher, and political scientist, Quintana is considered Bolivia’s most important anti-imperialist intellectual. This August, he published La contraofensiva imperial (Imperial counteroffensive) under the pseudonym Ernesto Eterno, a work whose subtitle promises to examine the coup through the “anatomy of violence and looting” in Bolivia.

Quintana spoke to Anton Flaig about imperial interests in Bolivia, the role of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in politicizing the Bolivian military, and the challenges for MAS after its return to power.

Anton Flaig

What was your experience of Áñez’s regime?

Juan Ramón Quintana

I spent almost a year in the Mexican embassy, a very difficult time. I was without my family, which was relentlessly persecuted. Meanwhile, the coup regime took action against our comrades and carried out the massacres in Senkata and Sacaba.

At the embassy, we were besieged by snipers, the telephones were tapped, and the hills around the building were occupied by police. The aim was to intimidate us and break our will. Practically all international norms were broken. The ambassador, the administrative staff, and the service staff were themselves persecuted. The coup regime showed all its cruelty. Almost all of us were denied safe travel to Mexico. A few comrades were still able to get out, including Luis Arce, who went to Mexico, then to Brazil, and later from there back to Bolivia. My strategy was to approach the situation rationally, stay calm, and focus on my writing.

Anton Flaig

You were a high-ranking officer, trained in the School of the Americas. But years later, as a minister under Evo Morales, you became the most powerful voice of anti-imperialism in Bolivia. How did you become a convinced anti-imperialist?

Juan Ramón Quintana

The decision to adopt an anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, and anti-capitalist position was not easy. From a young age I read a lot about my country’s history, including foreign authors who had a different view of Latin America’s history. Slowly I began to understand that the life of the peoples of the “Third World,” the poor, is shaped by the hegemonic centers of capitalism.

I read a lot about military nationalism in Bolivia. That’s how I found out about presidents who opposed the mining oligarchy, fought for an independent, developed Bolivia, and were murdered. The military socialism of the 1930s; the military nationalism of the 1940s, which later became the national revolution, but was then swallowed up by US imperialism; and then the 1970s resurgence of this earlier military nationalism — they were all defeated. I learned that to build the Bolivian nation, you must oppose the financial system and imperialist rule.

Later I left the army and dedicated myself to studying the armed forces, the police, and relations between the United States and Bolivia.

When I entered Evo’s cabinet as a minister, I had a clear idea of ​​the enormous challenges our government faced. For fourteen years, we managed to resist imperialist interventions, with great effort. That is why the media, which are part of imperialist rule, acted ruthlessly against us. That is why right-wing politicians who are puppets of US imperialism, and the US government itself, attacked us.

Anton Flaig

In the 1990s you proposed a reform of the military. What was this about?

Juan Ramón Quintana

The aim was to cut the armed forces’ prerogatives and privileges to limit the political autonomy they’d gained since the fight against drug trafficking. The “war on drugs” doctrine came from Washington. The enforcement of US security policy in Latin America required the armed forces to be able to suppress the population and exercise power over politicians, the judiciary, and all society. Under all neoliberal governments there were massacres, assassinations, forcible disappearances, and torture.

During the government of Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga (2001–2002), a mercenary force called the Expedition Group was created — like the paramilitaries in Colombia today. It was created to fight the coca farmers in Bolivia. But the legislature did nothing to control the loss of state sovereignty and rule of law. Political actors gave up their responsibility. What democracy can you speak of when the armed forces have political supremacy over the government and its structure, the national parliament, and the judicial authorities?

I suggested that parliament should exercise more power over the armed forces, so that they’d be accountable for their corruption, their links to drug trafficking, their human rights violations, and the ill-treatment within the army. But mainly because of their dependence on the US Southern Command, our armed forces looked more like colonial forces intervening in a colonized area. The rule of law can’t exist if generals are substituted for politicians and the US military is ruling much of the country. So, unlike the reforms that we would propose today, the reforms back then had to take a different course.

Anton Flaig

What reforms would you propose today?

Juan Ramón Quintana

There are three basic problems with the army. The first has to do with the political authorities’ weakness in controlling the armed forces. There has been a seditious, conspiratorial culture in the armed forces since the nineteenth century. Bolivia is the Latin American country that has had the most coups. The armed forces believe they are meant to stand above public authority.

But there is also a weakness in society. The population pays its taxes to support the military but has absolutely no knowledge of the military, its doctrine, its weapons, its mentality, and its history. In our fourteen years in office, we [MAS] failed to fill political offices with defense personnel who would democratize knowledge of the armed forces. This left the armed forces exempt from accountability to society.

Second, there is a colonial culture in Bolivia. This has to do with the consequences of more than a hundred years of military service. Rural farming communities assume that their sons have to pay a blood toll to become citizens. Abolishing compulsory military service is unthinkable, because, as a society, we have not created any alternative spaces for exercising citizenship.

The army believes that it has a license to be the “guardian” of society. How come? Its contact with society is contact with the indigenous, rural world. There is no contact with the middle class, with the sons of the oligarchy, because the sons of the oligarchy do not go into the barracks. Those who do go are the indios, the peasants, the workers. The armed forces’ contact with marginalized layers gives them a feeling of cultural superiority. Still today, they have not understood the concept of the plurinational state. So it is necessary to work on decolonizing the armed forces. They must understand that ours is a state that recognizes diversity among nations, coexisting in a complementary way.

The third problem is foreign interference. For seventy years, Bolivia’s armed forces were ideologically ruled by the United States. The appearance of their uniforms, their weapons, their doctrine, their training, their trips to the United States made the armed forces lose its identity as an institution dependent on the Bolivian state. You are proud to be an ally of the most powerful army in the world, even though the relations between you are colonial. According to the colonial armed forces, local criollos are an invincible power.

Today, they realize that the US armed forces can be defeated. The US empire is in decline — and suffering historic defeats. It left Afghanistan in worse conditions than it left Saigon in 1975. So the idea is starting to arise in the armed forces that they don’t automatically have to be aligned with the world’s greatest military power.

What war will you win with an army that has a colonial mentality? The only battle it has won in the last seventy years is the war against the Bolivian people. The armed forces’ doctrine stems from US anti-communist ideology: the people are the enemy, we cannot be a modern country because most Bolivians are miserable, ignorant, indigenous people, and so on. In this idea of ​​modernity, indigenous peoples can only achieve social value if they meet the conditions for living in a civilized society: They have to speak Spanish. They have to have Western urban customs. They have to mimic the US way of life.

That’s why we have to change this nineteenth-century defense model to a twenty-first-century one.

Anton Flaig

What would a twenty-first-century model be like?

Juan Ramón Quintana

The doctrine of having a professional armed body, plus the military service of part of the people, is a model from the last century. A twenty-first-century model would be the doctrine of the people in arms. In the face of all threats to state security, such as institutional and democratic collapse, it is the people in arms who defend democracy, territory, and sovereignty.

Ultimately, this is what makes the state invulnerable. That is the model that they developed in Vietnam. That is the model that the Taliban have in Afghanistan, the Chinese with Mao Zedong, the Cubans have it, and large parts of Venezuela have it too. Giving arms to the people guarantees national integrity and the defense of sovereignty. The relationship of spiritual, intellectual, and cultural dependence on the United States has to be broken, and the armed forces brought under the state’s control.

Today much of the armed forces around the world have become practically private services. Logistics, food, clothing, and weapons are provided by military companies. There is also a trend toward privatization in the military field itself. The soldiers who have gone to Afghanistan and Iraq are largely mercenaries hired in other countries. They simply respond to the interests of the large corporations that are waging war to loot oil, gas, and minerals. Even US soldiers are not necessarily professional soldiers — it’s cheaper to hire mercenaries.

Anton Flaig

When Morales proposed that militias should be formed like in Venezuela, the press reacted very negatively, and he immediately had to withdraw his proposal. So there are certain concerns — even among parts of the population that voted for MAS. How could the people in arms be controlled?

Juan Ramón Quintana

In this model, an armed people with a [sufficient] educational level and political awareness takes on the military defense of the territory, but also of the nation itself.

The media condemn Morales for this proposal — but why? I remember that from 1960 to 1964 the constitution recognized the army, the air force, the navy, but also the militias. The national revolution from 1952 to 1964 coexisted with armed militias, workers’ militias, peasant militias, and armed women. But now this is supposedly a scandal.

The United States is the most armed society in the world and its civilian population is the most armed population in the world. But now it turns out that it is a scandal to think that there can be militias.

That is a conception for the revolutions of the twenty-first century. It is not just a matter of suppressing coup threats. For sure, there is no coup against a people in arms. But the concept does not stop there — it is a wider concept of self-defense. Today the empire, the United States, is being defeated, and defeated by an armed people [in Afghanistan], the poorest in the Middle East. This is the greatest military defeat for the Western powers in the twenty-first century — and will make the United States and NATO think twice.

Anton Flaig

You mentioned imperialist doctrines like the fight against communism. What’s behind these doctrines?

Juan Ramón Quintana

The US has fought three wars in Latin America over the past seventy years: the war against communism, the war on drugs, and the war on terror. These imperial wars serve as a pretext for geopolitical rule over Latin America — and other parts of the world, too, but I’ll focus on Latin America.

The war against communism was a farce. It was about US expansion around the world under the pretext of curbing the advance of communism. With McCarthyism, they created the Red Scare in American society. They used this to criminalize communism, but only to maintain the internal cohesion of the US people.

This was a pretext for building the power of the military, which came to Latin America with anti-communism. There were sixty communists in Bolivia and [the anti-communists] had an army of thirty thousand men. The Communist Party in Bolivia was a peaceful party and never declared civil war. It took part in democratic election campaigns. But the armed forces in Bolivia were set up according to anti-communist doctrine. Because the United States said that the workers, peasants, indigenous women, miners, etc. were communists, the army fought the miners, workers, peasants, etc.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the anti-communist war was replaced by the war on drugs. They said that drug trafficking corrupts and destroys society. But for what? To create the DEA and have it interfering in Bolivia’s domestic affairs.

But let’s look at two cases. In 2001, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, there was twenty times less opium production than today. What fight against drugs are we talking about? There are seven US bases in Colombia and a large part of the US Southern Command. Colombia is a US-occupied country and the largest net producer of cocaine. Where is the fight against drug trafficking there? Where are the DEA and the US soldiers?

Today they have the war on terror. They called us seditious and terrorists, a narco-government, etc. But where are the terrorists?

Anton Flaig

While the DEA was expelled from Bolivia in 2008, according to various reports, drug trafficking activities increased with DEA support. What do you think about that?

Juan Ramón Quintana

Historically in Bolivia, the DEA was part of the drug trafficking problem and never part of the solution. I’ll give you three clear examples.

The DEA was involved in exporting drugs from the Serranía de Caparuch to feed the financial system and purchase weapons for the civil wars in Central America under the command of Oliver North. In both cases, the CIA was involved in the export of cocaine. Here in Bolivia, there are two cases in which the DEA was involved in the export of four tons of cocaine that left from El Alto and was then detained in Peru.

In addition, you have other cases of DEA agents being involved in drug trafficking. It’s not just me saying it. There are books by former DEA agents who confess that the DEA was involved in the protection of drug trafficking, in the production of cocaine, in the protection of international cocaine routes. Michael Levine wrote about it. He is an ex-DEA agent who worked in Bolivia and Argentina. He reported that Luis García Meza’s military coup in 1980 was financed with the support of the CIA and drug trafficking.

Who believes today that the war on drug trafficking is achieving victories? Quite the opposite. It’s been a resounding failure.

Anton Flaig

It’s interesting that in Evo Morales’s cabinets there were union leaders, academics, ex-guerrillas along with you, a high-ranking former soldier. Why did Morales create such a diverse government, including certain tensions?

Juan Ramón Quintana

Previous governments didn’t reflect society. Evo pursued the indigenous Andean logic of weaving together relationships. For Evo, power is not the predominance of one man’s decision but knowing how to weave things together. In the cabinet, there were miners, workers, indigenous women, artisans, ex-soldiers, and middle-class intellectuals.

On any political decision, you had the possibility of hearing an opinion from any of these different social actors. There were always discrepancies, there was always debate. But the political decision was enriched by the plural combination of everyone’s thinking.

Anton Flaig

There were strong criticisms when you said, a few days before the coup in 2019, “We are going to be the second Vietnam for the United States.” Why did you say that?

Juan Ramón Quintana

The right wing will use anything the government says for their own political ends. If we say that [my speech] contributed to a climate of social tension, that was due to the Right’s manipulation of my simple statement that “My greatest wish is that Bolivia will be a Vietnam against the empire.”

But what revolutionary doesn’t want his homeland to be another Vietnam? If not, what is the point of being anti-imperialist?

Today the greatest threat to humanity is Western European and US imperialism, allied in NATO. This is the imperialism that has destroyed Afghanistan, which is destroying Iraq, which is destroying Yemen, which is destroying the Middle East, which is destabilizing the region.

It is also an imperialism in crisis, unable to stand on its own two feet. Imperialism sustains itself by exploiting society, looting natural resources, exploiting the labor force, concentrating wealth in a few hands. We have 1 percent of society ruling 50 percent of the world’s wealth. Do you think this is rational?

This armed imperialism is the expression of a global capitalist system — as Vladimir Lenin said, in the higher phase of capitalism. It can only survive through war. Our proposal is the defeat of the logic of the war industry, the system based on war.

To say that Bolivia can become another Vietnam — well, politically, I believe that this is what any progressive, humanist, solidaristic citizen of the Left aspires toward. It’s the minimum we should be proposing. When you think of Vietnam, you think of a nation in arms, a poor and battered people invaded by the greatest power in the world, which showed it could defeat the empire.

Obviously, this is going to generate a lot of controversy on the Right, which defends the empire. The media in Bolivia are transmission belts for the project of imperial domination. They are defending the destruction of humanity, whereas we defend humanity and Mother Earth. That is why we are anti-imperialists. Because we want peace. Because we don’t want supremacy but equality and justice. So what I said was not a militaristic position but political opposition to imperial militarism.

Some people didn’t believe that a coup would take place in Bolivia. But when you have a political project of emancipation, of independence from the empire, a coup is inevitable. Because the United States cannot accept any country in Latin America not obeying its strategic and geopolitical interests. All the countries that have opposed the United States in the last hundred years have suffered imperial punishment or military invasion, coups, assassinations, or the destruction of the government.

Anton Flaig

You are a controversial but also popular figure, and recently you published your new book. What do you see as your future role in Bolivia’s “change process”?

Juan Ramón Quintana

I am trying to make young people aware of their responsibility toward humanity. I want to see them have an ethical, political, and moral conduct that is anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, and anti-fascist. So my work will focus on political education.

Capitalism is an exhausted project. So we need to think about an alternative. To think about this philosophy of living well (vivir bien), an anti-imperial thought that also has a global projection. I see myself as a humble teacher of this generation of young people, to try to make them understand our history.

We need to push back against the history we’ve been taught for 180 years. The nineteenth century saw the indigenous movement fight to preserve their lands against the siege of big mining and the big landowners trying to expropriate them. If you expropriate the lands of a community, you are also destroying their culture, their language, their customs, their ancestral memory.

That history has always been hidden from us to deny the leading role of the worker, the farmer, the peasant woman. My greatest wish is to teach this hidden history. If I can have that job in MAS, then I will be truly happy.

Anton Flaig

If you could give advice to any member of the government, what would it be?

Juan Ramón Quintana

I don’t usually give advice, but I’ll make a simple recommendation, for MAS and the government especially. If power is not understood in the right way, we are doomed to defeat.

The Right wants power and is willing for people to be massacred — as in Senkata and Sacaba — so it can have it. This power has no morals or scruples in imposing dominion over others.

But our power is not the Western concept of power, a concentration of privileges. Rather, it is a tool for liberation. Power is not a means to usurp what others have. It is doing everything possible so that others can live well. Power is not about command from the heights of public office but obedience to the collective will — guaranteeing collective interests.