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.”
Finally, after the now-discredited OAS report was published, and just before the military announced the coup, a coordinated set of attacks took place. The personal homes of numerous key government ministers were burnt down — in some cases, their family members were kidnapped as a means of applying pressure on the ministers to resign. There hasn’t been any investigation or arrests in relation to these attacks.
All of this took place between October 20, and November 11, 2019 — the day the military announced the coup. There hadn’t been any significant destabilization before the elections. Small groups of far-right youths in Santa Cruz had initiated some attacks, but mass mobilisations were few and far between.
However, the worst was yet to come. In power for the first time in 14 years, the Bolivian right immediately launched devastating repression against Indigenous protesters who were calling for Morales’ return. Two separate massacres were carried out. The first in Sacaba, as protesters from the Chapare region trying to reach the city of Cochabamba were gunned down by military helicopters, circling at 30-40 meters above the ground. I spoke to a friend of Marcos Vargas Martinez, one of the victims; he described the moment Marcos fell to the floor: “I was running over to him, lifting him up so as to put him in a more comfortable position to rest. But to my shock, after placing him on the ground, I saw my hands covered in blood. The blood of my own comrade, my friend.” Later that day, protesters were gunned down by the military in Senkata, El Alto, while they were trying to block access to a gas plant. 36 people in total lost their life during the repression. El Alto and the Chapare represent Bolivia’s two revolutionary bastions. Chapare is where Morales himself used to be a union leader, and where MAS was originally created as a political organization. El Alto is the overwhelmingly Indigenous city, adjacent to La Paz, whose resistance overthrew neoliberalism in the 2003 Gas War. The coup supporters were delighted to watch their arch-enemies mourn their dead in these two places, while pro-government media celebrated the “pacification of the country.”
Rising From the Ashes ///
The coup broke the Indigenous-led government that the social movements had built. But that wasn’t the end of it. If anything, it triggered a renewal of MAS. The first national gathering of all the social movements that formed the party was on December 7, 2019, in Cochabamba. Whilst military planes circled above the venue, much of the old leadership was either absent, arrested, or exiled. Huge efforts had to be made to protect Chapare leader Andronico Rodriguez, the young, charismatic union leader that was being touted by many as a successor to Evo. A local engineer who organized his security that day explained to me how false transportation plans were leaked to the far-right Resistencia Juvenil Cochala (RJC), who were trying to take out one of the last high-profile leaders of MAS. The RJC fell for the decoy and Andronico made it into the venue, where he delivered a barnstorming speech calling for unity and energy against the coup, instantly restoring a sense of hope to a movement that the country had presumed was defeated.
However, beyond the personalities, a serious discussion took place at that conference that set the framework for the recovery of the movement. Indigenous representatives from every region came to speak about how MAS had been losing its organic soul, and had given way to a bureaucratic layer unconnected to the Indigenous movements that founded MAS. They explained how this had weakened the party and dampened enthusiasm amongst some that could’ve been mobilized against the coup. One particularly emotional moment was the intervention by Patricia Arce, the survivor of the kidnapping in Vinto. The symbol of a woman who refused to renounce her commitment to MAS even as her attackers were walking her to her death was certainly a powerful one. She got up and railed against the former party elites (the “invitados”) who she said had been too weak in the face of the coup, and were ultimately responsible for betraying Evo Morales.
This was an internal discussion and those of us there reporting were asked not to film. But the conclusions set the tone for the whole movement. Delegates were told to go back to their ranks, to strengthen and reunify the movements at the grassroots level. The new leaderships that emerged grew stronger. One example is the Coordinadora Popular in Cochabamba, which brought together groups in the city fighting the coup. Their communications secretary Franco Garcia explained to me: “The coordinator was created during the conflicts due to the absence of social leaders, because of the persecution that was there in that moment and the repression carried out by paramilitary groups that continue to exist on the fascist right. That’s how the coordination was born: it’s the agglomeration of numerous leading organizations in Cochabamba, including bus drivers and other transport workers, small traders, women who have their federations, the youth, the students of the San Simon university, it’s formed by them.”
It wasn’t just new leadership that emerged. Alternative media also rose to the occasion. Despite being labelled a “dictatorship” by the right, mainstream media during Morales’ presidencies were almost uniformly right-wing. The only national outlets that supported the government were state media, all of which were captured by the regime following the coup. Community, union-run media outlets took their place, in particular one outlet called Radio Kawsachun Coca.
Kawsachun Coca was originally a local radio station in the Chapare region, owned and operated by the Six Federations, the campesino unions there. They took center stage because they were providing some of the only images of the massacres, and were the only outlet of any size giving a platform to social movement leaders. The fact they were never dependent on the state meant they could continue operating after the coup. Since then, they have become a key national outlet, their Facebook page reaches up to a million users per day, and Bolivians know them to be the only national outlet left that isn’t tied to the regime. Their director, Ramiro Garcia, explained their political line to me as: “anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, with the people, highly participative. We don’t just have talking heads, we have people call in […] so we can listen to our people and their opinions. At the same time, doing this kind of work is also very dangerous because as soon as you question authority, you’ll receive threats.” The new regime is all too aware of the crucial role they play. They’ve confiscated some of their equipment, threatened legal proceedings, and far-right militias from the RJC burnt down one of their offices a day before the coup.
Nevertheless, despite the onslaught, Bolivia’s Indigenous left refuses to be crushed. The most recent poll puts MAS in first place for the 2020 election, almost 20 points ahead of their nearest rival. Getting to this point has only been possible through the strengthening of grassroots organization and supporting media outlets that are under direct control of the movements, because without a means to communicate, a movement is hamstrung. With mass rallies banned, those outlets have an even more important role in showing what the rest of the media refuses to. With these tools, the movement has proved to be resilient, even in the face of arrests, intimidation and now, the suspension of elections. The coup government has two options: hold free and fair elections that they’ll likely lose, or rule by force until the Indigenous movements that overthrew them 14 years ago do so again. ■