HAVANA TIMES – The following account of events in Bolivia is by Harry Stewart, living in La Paz over the last seven years. The writer explains the complexities of the rebellion, what led up to it and how it’s being played out locally and internationally. We thank him for allowing us to share his insight with our readers.
By Harry Stewart (Gringo in Bolivia)
Bolivia is going through its worst political unrest in decades.
After nearly three weeks of nationwide protests in the face of overwhelming evidence of electoral fraud, president Evo Morales resigned and fled to Mexico. While most Bolivians responded to the news with jubilation, several overseas far-left commentators have declared this a violent coup d’etat courtesy of the right-wing elite.
So which is it, then?
An illegal seizure of power or a heroic revolution to ouster an illegitimate leader?
The answer isn’t entirely black and white, but I’ll do my best to explain why I’m leaning heavily towards the latter.
And before you dismiss me as a right-wing fascist looking to repress the Bolivian proletariat, I should mention I sit firmly on the left side of the political spectrum. I despise economic inequality, abhor racism, and detest American imperialism.
In fact, I used to love Evo’s brand of socialism and will still concede he’s done a hell of a lot of good for the country. He nationalized Bolivia’s resources at a pivotal moment and distributed the spoils among the poor. He fought tirelessly for indigenous rights in a nation with a dark racial past. And he presided over economic growth and stability the likes of which Bolivia had never seen before.
Eventually, though, his authoritarianism and self-importance became too much for most Bolivians to bear.
“Power corrupts,” as the old saying goes. And Evo Morales is absolutely corrupt.
Evo’s Authoritarian and Anti-Democratic Tendencies
Let’s go back to the earliest indications that something was amiss.
In 2009, Morales held a referendum to modify the Bolivian constitution. Although most of the amendments were reasonable, he added a questionable decree that would allow presidents to seek one term of re-election (as opposed to one term in total). And because his initial years had been so successful, he won the referendum and the subsequent election in a landslide.
By the time his second term was due to expire, Evo had already filled the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (High Electoral Court) and Tribunal Constitutional Plurinacional (High Constitutional Court) with loyalists. Although the far-left will argue the public elected these judges, they neglect to mention Bolivians had no other choice than MAS candidates. During the 2011 TSE elections, approximately 60% of the country spoiled their vote in protest.
Unsurprisingly, Evo’s court of handpicked judges was all too eager to declare he could stand for office once more. This time, they argued the third term would only be this second term under the new constitution.
Both left and right Latin American leaders have made the same move to retain power, most recently in Venezuela (and we all know how that turned out). Of course, you wouldn’t be able to pull off a stunt like this in the more air-tight democracies of the developed world.
Nevertheless, things were still going pretty well for many Bolivians. The economy was in good shape despite the end of the commodities boom, the indigenous majority were more empowered than ever before, and the worst corruption scandals were yet to hit. Thus, Evo won his re-re-election convincingly in 2014.
Now he’s in his third term and has been in power over a decade. And it’s around this time that his base, mostly working-class indigenous Bolivians, start to turn against him.
A 2015 corruption scandal involving his party saw millions of dollars siphoned off from an indigenous fund–the very people he was supposed to represent. A year later, his ex-lover was caught managing a Chinese Corporation in charge of a multi-billion dollar infrastructure contract despite having zero qualifications. Indigenous rights activists continued to criticise his backflip on the TIPNIS highway plan, and environmentalists lamented the destruction of Madidi in favour of a hydroelectric power plant.
In a 2016 referendum for a re-re-re-election, 52% of the country voted no. At the time, Evo agreed to honour the result.
Nevertheless, he continued to spend public money on his legacy as if the whole country was on side. If earlier investments such as the $300 million Tupac Katari Satellite were controversial, his later projects were downright perverse.
In 2017, he inaugurated the Museum of the Democratic and Cultural Revolution, an extravagant propaganda centre dedicated to his own ego. Next was the Casa Grande del Pueblo, an ultramodern 120-metre tower in the middle of La Paz’s low-rise colonial heart, which houses his private quarters complete with a jacuzzi, massage room, and a helicopter pad. Earlier, in 2015, he inaugurated a suspiciously large $40 million airport in Chapare, Bolivia’s premier coca-growing region where 94% of the produce ends up on the illicit market.
By late 2017, Evo still wasn’t ready to call it a day, so he got his loyalist in the Tribunal Constitutional Plurinacional to permit him to run again.
Their reasoning this time?
Now, the far-left will argue how the constitutional court legally granted him the power to run again. And that is true, technically speaking.
But to hold a referendum, ignore the results, and get your partisan cronies to change the constitution to permit another term anyway is straight out of the dictator’s handbook. None of that should have come as a surprise given Morales publicly declared admiration for Nicholas Maduro throughout his tenure.
Of course, his authoritarianism didn’t stop there. Knowing full well he’d struggle to win the 2019 election, Evo Morales decided to cook the books.
The year leading up to October 20, 2019, was tense.
Everyone had a suspicion things would get ugly, and wiser Bolivians stocked up on essential supplies. Predictably, when the election count mysteriously stopped and resumed 24 hours later with a “drastic and inexplicable” change, all hell broke loose.
Older Bolivians remember all too well what it’s like to live under a dictatorship, and the younger lot presumably weren’t too keen to find out.
Todos a las calles (everyone on the street) became the catchphrase on social media that night.
This Isn’t a Right Versus Left Issue
The far-left narrative doing the rounds online is that the event was a right-wing coup in which the bourgeoise sought to remove the downtrodden from power. But what I saw was Bolivians peacefully protesting against the election fraud of an increasingly authoritarian leader.
Miners, cocaleros, bankers, students, hippies, and businessmen marched together for a common cause. (Notably absent were the public servants who were forced to support MAS for fear of losing their jobs).
Sure, there was undoubtedly a sizable contingent of conservative protestors in the crowd.
But to declare the uprising a right-wing coup is inaccurate.
Left, right, and centre banded together with anarchists and the apathetic to fight for democracy. Even the staunch feminist María Galindo joined the fray, who is about as far removed from the right-wing elite as you can get.
More than a matter of left versus right, this uprising was overwhelmingly about protecting democracy in the face of a looming dictatorship.
The Racist Elites Aren’t Taking Over (At Least Not Yet)
Most of the argument here revolves around Luis Camacho, a formerly obscure Santa Cruz activist who became a powerful figurehead during the uprising.
Camacho, who has long been a fierce critic of Morales, declared the victory illegitimate and demanded he resign. With the bible in one hand and a letter of resignation in the other, he sought to personally confront Morales in La Paz to great fanfare from his own side.
A quick look at his Wiki page leaves little doubt the stories of Macho Camacho being a far-right radical are true. He did indeed serve as the vice president of the extremist Santa Cruz Youth Union (albeit almost 20 years ago), who are known for engaging in violent operations to oppress minorities. Critics have labelled him everything from the “Bolsonaro of Bolivia” to a “Christian Fascist” and a “Right-Wing Extremist.”
Certainly not someone I’d want running the show.
But what the far-left press will neglect to tell you is that the civil rebellion was never intended to propel Camacho into power. On the contrary, despite rising from obscurity into stardom, Camacho has stated on numerous occasions he has no intention of running for office.
Bolivia didn’t protest for three weeks to put a right-wing racist in power; they hit the streets in their thousands to kick an authoritarian leader out.
You also won’t hear the far-left press speak of how Camacho has sought to heal racial divides. Among other things, he formed a powerful alliance with indigenous leader Marco Pumari to and has called for Bolivians to respect the Wiphala flag.
Admittedly, it’d be naïve of me to suggest there aren’t any racist elements in the opposition.
Shortly after Evo resigned, a group of opposition protestors burnt the indigenous Wiphala, and police were filmed cutting the symbol out of their uniforms. Both these disturbing incidents highlight the deep-seated racism present in Bolivian society. And sadly, there’s still plenty of scope for Bolivia’s racist elites to fill the power vacuum, potentially undoing the last 14 years of indigenous reconciliation.
But this hasn’t been the crux of the Bolivian uprising.
The overwhelming majority of the opposition, many of whom are indigenous themselves, fought to safeguard their democracy in the face of electoral fraud.
NB: the far-left are now reporting on a racist tweet by the new interim president from 2013 which refers to indigenous beliefs as satanic. According to Bolivia verifica, the tweet is in fact fake.
The Military Doesn’t Seize Power
Another common falsehood spread by the far left is that Morales is the victim of a military coup.
Now, the semantics of a coup versus a political uprising is complex, which I’d rather leave to the New York Times.
But call it a coup or a revolt, there’s no doubt in my mind the succession of power was legitimate and justified.
Let’s look at the order of events:
- Many Bolivians lose faith in Evo Morales for authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies.
- The voting stops on election night and resumes with a “statistically inexplicable” change in voting trends.
- Bolivians hit the streets in protest and announce a nationwide indefinite strike.
- Evidence of widespread voter fraud appears: discarded tally sheets and votes from deceased citizens.
- The opposition radicalizes and calls for the resignation of Morales rather than fresh elections or a second round.
- The military declares they will not intervene
- Opposition protests continue for almost three weeks.
- The police mutiny against the government and march with opposition forces.
- The OAS releases a preliminary report confirming fraud took place.
- Morales makes a statement calling for new elections to pacify the country (without mentioning the OAS report).
- The head of the Bolivian military suggests the president should step down to restore order to the country.
- Evo quits and flies to Mexico.
The far-left calling it a coup stems from the military’s suggestion that Evo resign. And, to be fair, this statement was undoubtedly the pivotal moment that prompted his political demise.
But unlike your run-of-the-mill military coup, Bolivian General William Kaliman was echoing the wishes of many Bolivians in a non-violent manner. The so-called “military intervention” was done to restore peace to the country in the face of confirmed voter fraud.
Also, note how the military did not attempt to fill the power vacuum. Instead, the presidential line of succession saw a relatively obscure politician named Jeanine Añez take control until new elections could be held.
The far-left complain how the military ignored Morales calls for fresh elections. But, I ask, why on Earth should he get the chance to run again if it’s already proven he committed electoral fraud? That amounts to immediate disqualification under the Bolivian constitution, as it surely would in any reasonably democratic state.
The Opposition Didn’t Enact A Violent Revolution
An oft-repeated far-left claim is that a violent opposition overthrew Evo Morales.
But from my observations, pro-government supporters instigated the vast majority of the violence while the opposition was remarkably restrained.
Let’s take a look at the major incidents involving MAS and its supporters:
- All three casualties of the uprising (until Morales resigned) were opposition protesters killed by government supporters.
- MAS aligned coca growers attacked the rural town of Montero with firearms, killing two and wounding dozens.
- MAS supporters stormed the city of Cochabamba to attack its people, killing one and injuring dozens.
- MAS supporters attacked a group of protestors in El Alto, injuring dozens
- MAS supporters ambushed a convoy of opposition protestors en route to La Paz, causing 30 injuries and stripping young female students of their clothing.
- Different MAS supporters later ambushed the same convoy again when snipers opened fire on unarmed protestors, injuring three.
- MAS paid impoverished Bolivians 50-100BS ($7 to $14) per day to fight on their behalf.
- Reporters uncovered a Molotov bomb depository in the Ministry of Communication parking lot.
- Multiple reports of involvement from Cuban and Venezuelan agents surface.
- At least one FARC soldier has been found fighting for the government.
- MAS supporters committed widespread looting and vandalism upon Evo’s resignation.
In the interests of partiality, I should admit the opposition wasn’t entirely peaceful all the time.
- The opposition burned down several TSE offices on election night.
- The opposition publicly humiliated a MAS mayor.
- The opposition ransacked Evo’s house and burned his sister’s home down.
These are all regrettable incidents, without a doubt.
But in the weeks leading up to Evo’s resignation, the government clearly instigated the vast majority of the violence.
Sadly, the conflict is far from over, and MAS supporters will likely bear the majority of the casualties from here on in. Now that Morales has gone, his protestors have taken to the streets to express their discontent. The new interim government has ordered the police and military to restore order, which will undoubtedly result in violent confrontations.
There’s No Evidence Of An Imperialist Coup
Predictably, the far-left is declaring this a US-backed coup.
And it wouldn’t be uncharacteristic for America to be involved in some covert way. The CIA has long been meddling in Latin American affairs, after all.
Although they may well have played a role, there’s yet to be any proof to support the theory.
The Election Was Rigged
Most far-left commentators reject the OAS findings in favour of a left-leaning thinktank named CERP. The CERP report concludes the official results, in which Morales won by a 10% margin, were probable and proclaims there isn’t sufficient evidence of fraud. But unlike the OAS investigation, the CERP analysis was conducted entirely outside of the country with no access to TSE electoral system.
The far-left also claim the OAS is a biased agency on the payroll of the United States. Even if that were accurate, other institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union also expressed their concerns.
Interestingly, opposition candidate Carlos Mesa initially rejected the audit fearing that OAS would be biased towards Morales because Secretary-General Luis Leonardo Almagro is a known associate.
There’s plenty of other evidence to support the case for fraud as well.
Boxes full of uncounted tally sheets turned up in the following days and scores of deceased Bolivians were mysteriously enrolled to vote. Not long after election night, a systems engineer by the name of Edgar Villages presented an in-depth analysis of the electoral fraud on national TV. He and his associates subsequently received death threats. Then there’s Ethical Hacking, a firm hired by the government to monitor the electoral process, who declared the IT system wasn’t sufficiently secure.
And if that wasn’t enough, María Eugenia Choque of the Tribunal Supremo Electoral has now admitted she was obliged to turn off the electricity and internet of the electoral system due to pressure higher actors.
How Bolivia is perceived in the international community will influence how it can recover from these devastating events. And that’s why I’m attempting to clarify some of the misinformation used to demonize the campaign.
Bolivia may well turn out for the worse. Only time will tell. But there’s no doubt in my mind the intention behind the movement was pure.