Bolivia’s Indigenous Left: the Movement That Refuses to Be Crushed

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Reporter Ollie Vargas unravels the events that ousted former president Evo Morales and lead to the rise of a far-right government in Bolivia. He uncovers the violent resurgence of the anti-Indegenous movement that pervades the country, and sheds light on everlasting Indigenous resistance. 

On November 11, 2019, a coup in Bolivia shattered the institutional strength of the country’s social movements. This has been particularly the case for the Indigenous movements that formed the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and that had, for the last 14 years, mobilized the power of the state to take back control of natural resources, land, and national culture. The detractors of the party led by Evo Morales would say that these links between the state and grassroots movements were clientelist relationships that would dissolve without access to power. However, the energy of the movements and their party shows that they were resilient enough to fight the 2019 election campaign that had MAS at around 20 points ahead of candidates who later supported the coup. Though official discourse framed the far-right putsch as a peaceful uprising, it surely was not. This is how Bolivia’s Indigenous left fell, and then rose to rebuild itself. 

When It All Came Crashing Down ///

The speed with which the coup took place shocked everyone. The fall of social movements in power began after Evo Morales won his fourth election with 47% of the vote, on October 20, 2019. The Bolivian right knew they’d fail to win a majority, so they declared that there had been electoral fraud. Once the victory of MAS began to look inevitable (even while votes were still being counted) far-right militias launched coordinated attacks across the country against local electoral courts. The attacks were the first act of violence in what we now know as the post-election conflictos. They followed a call from the losing candidate, Carlos Mesa, asking his supporters to take to the streets if Morales won — they came out in larger numbers shouting “Second Round or Civil War!”

Despite Morales winning clearly by over 10%, the Bolivian right refused to accept their defeat. They declared electoral fraud — an accusation disproved by expert studies later published in the Washington Post in February 2020. Following weeks of middle-class uprising, residents in wealthy areas such as the Zona Sur of La Paz and inner Santa Cruz, blocked the roads in their districts. Working-class areas, such as the city of El Alto, the Zona Sud of Cochabamba, Plan 3000 in Santa Cruz and all of the rural areas played no role in this “resistance” — what the United States embassy unironically called the ‘courageous defence of democracy’. 

During this “courageous defence of democracy,’ Indigenous people who were trying to move past these roadblocks were assaulted. In Cochabamba, the violence was particularly intense as middle-class youths on motorbikes (Resistencia Juvenil Cochala, RJC), armed with clubs, enforced the blockade through terror. All manners of extraordinarily violent acts took place during the so-called “Pitita revolution.” Workers at the state media outlets in La Paz were frog-marched out of their offices after right-wing protesters told workers that their lives would be “at risk” if they continued broadcasting. The mayor of Vinto and member of MAS, Patricia Arce, was kidnapped and tortured by these militias. A report on her experience described how “they said they were walking her to her death. Along the way, someone doused her with red paint and gasoline. Then a woman rushed up to her and chopped off clumps of her hair, at one point slicing a chunk of her scalp off.”