In the first of two articles in the run-up to new Bolivian elections on October 18, Mike Gonzalez analyses the mass movements of 2000-2005 which led to Evo Morales becoming the country’s first indigenous president – and the right-wing coup which ousted him late last year.
Bolivia faces into new elections on October 18. For the first time since 2002, Evo Morales will not be a candidate. He was driven out of office by a right-wing coup after the original presidential elections in October 2019, and is currently in exile in Argentina.
The justification given for the coup was an allegation of electoral fraud by observers from the Organization of American States. This was then picked up and repeated by Washington and the Latin American right, for whom Morales was the last bastion of the ‘pink tide’ that began with the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1999.
The Coup in Bolivia
The immediate allegation arose out of Bolivia’s complex electoral system. A number of candidates stood the first round of voting in 2019; there would then be a second round fought out between the two leading candidates – unless there was already one with 40% or more of the total votes and at least a 10% margin over his rival. When the first unofficial result was announced, with 84% of votes counted, Morales had well over the 40% and was 7.4% ahead of his opponent.
There was then a 36 hour delay before a final tally was announced, giving Morales a 10.4% margin. This result was challenged and Evo began talks with opposition candidate Carlos Mesa, accepting a re-run with Adriana Salvatierra, the leader of the Senate and a member of his MAS party, as his replacement.
But a police strike and major protests in La Paz and other cities then precipitated a coup and Morales was “invited” to leave by the head of the armed forces, with the military already deployed in the streets. Evo, his vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera, and several of his closest associates, clearly under threat, went into exile in Mexico (and later in Argentina).
Jeanine Añez, a senator from the Amazonian department of Beni and fifth in line to assume the post, took over the presidency with the support of the right and in particular from the east of the country, whose largely white bourgeoisie had always been the centre of opposition to Morales’ “government of the social movements”.
The coup was obviously well prepared, and its intentions rapidly became clear when Añez produced a large white Bible at her inauguration – an obvious signal to Morales’s mainly indigenous supporters. She announced a new Cabinet, eleven of whose thirteen members were white, and banned the Wiphala – the multi-coloured, chequered flag of the Aymara nation which symbolised the ‘plurinational’ nature of the Bolivian republic under Morales.
In its place she flew the flag of Santa Cruz, the main city in the eastern provinces known as the Media Luna or Half Moon. It is the wealthiest region of the country, dominated by export agriculture, gas, oil and cattle-raising interests linked to multinational capital; it is also the heartland of the white racist opposition to Morales.
Añez’s first presidential decree gave the army carte blanche to pursue members of the MAS and repress protest; the immediate consequence were two massacres of indigenous supporters of Morales at Sacaba and at Senkata, where demonstrators were massing outside a natural gas facility. To the toll of 30 dead were added a 1000 or more prisoners as MAS supporters were pursued, beaten and arrested. Shortly afterwards 700 Cuban doctors participating in government health programmes were thrown out, together with Venezuelan diplomats and others working with the state.
The coalition around Añez represented the old ruling order – mainly white and virulently racist. They had campaigned to bring down the Morales government from the moment of his election as president in December 2005, but the passing of a new, plurinational constitution in 2008, in the teeth of their opposition, meant that their campaign had momentarily failed.
Their hostility was driven by a hatred of indigenous Bolivia, which Morales represented, and hostility towards the new government’s commitment to taking over the gas and oil industries and redistributing their profits through social programmes to the benefit of the poor and the indigenous populations.
Water wars and the road to Red October
It was a mass movement that began in Cochabamba in 2000 and became a popular insurrection, known as Red October in 2005, that carried Evo Morales to the presidency of his country – the first indigenous person to hold that office in its history.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Bolivia was seen as a laboratory for the testing of neo-liberal strategies devised by the International Monetary Fund. These centrally involved the privatisation of public assets and the rolling back of state involvement – it would mean privatising health and social provision and undermining the advances won by the trade unions from the state.
Under successive presidents, the education system was privatised, and later the state electricity and telephone companies, the national railways and most importantly of all Bolivia’s national oil company. Its rich mineral resources, its land, and finally even its water would be surrendered to multinationals. The impact of declining public spending, unemployment, poor health, etc. would fall on the poor, the indigenous population in the cities and in the rural areas, workers and peasants.
Despite an extraordinary history of militant trade union struggles led by the miners through the Bolivian Trade Union Congress, the COB, the unions were weakened by the decline of the mining industry and the assaults of neo-liberalism. But when the government announced the privatisation of the water company supplying the city of Cochabamba, under IMF instructions, it was the last straw.
Bechtel, the US-based multinational that later made huge profits out of the Iraq war, bought this water company and insisted that even the rainwater collected would be theirs to sell. The population erupted, joining protests that brought together workers in local factories, students, market traders, and the population of the local poor barrios, for whom raising the cost of water would force them to choose between drinking and eating.
The government sent in troops and the people fought back; they were joined by the indigenous communities outside the cities whose traditional water rights were also being taken away. After three months of resistance, the government backed down and the water company was returned, to be run by an elected local committee. It was a famous victory, the first successful struggle against privatisation.
This was more than a protest – it was the rebellion of a people fighting back, not led this time by political parties or trade unions but mobilised by a range of local organisations, many of them rooted in the historic traditions of the indigenous communities. Led by an anarchist factory worker, Oscar Olivera, they called themselves the Coordinating Committee for the Defence of Water and Life.
The Cochabamba water war turned a tide (if the mixed metaphor can be forgiven). Two years later the city of El Alto, high above the capital La Paz, was also faced with the privatisation of its water supplies, sold to a French-based multinational. Of the city´s million inhabitants, over 80% described themselves as indigenous. They organised and built an extraordinary fightback that mobilised workers and students, indigenous groups and the urban poor.
In the process lessons were learned from Cochabamba about how to build struggle through collective decision making and open democracy.
From water, the movement turned its attention to the nationalisation of Bolivia’s huge gas and oil reserves, whose profits would then be used for the benefit of the majority population. The year was 2005. The attempts by the then president, Lozado, to sell off the country´s oil and gas to global capitalists was met by a mass insurrection, with Lozado eventually resigning. His replacement, Carlos Mesa, proposed only raising the taxes and royalties to be paid by the corporations, but he could not bring himself to legislate even that.
On October 16th 2005, half a million marched through La Paz demanding nationalisation. Mesa resigned and new elections were announced for December 2005.
Evo Morales Comes to Power
Evo Morales is an Aymara. Like many of Peru’s indigenous population in the high Andes, his parents worked in the tin mines, but by the late sixties the mines were in decline and his family, like many others, took advantage of a government grant to take over a small farm in the Chapare region to grow coca – a legal crop in Bolivia because of its traditional use and symbolic significance for the indigenous people who chew the leaf.
The miners brought with them their traditions of combative trade union organisation, and in Chapare organised a trade union for the farmers, the cocaleros. Evo Morales became its president.
In the face of neo-liberalism the indigenous struggle continued, but there were divisions over how to conduct it. The cocaleros were one arm of the resistance, another was the organisation around Felipe Quispe, El Mallku, with a greater emphasis on Aymara nationalism and on the fight for land by the indigenous peasants.
It was also a battle between visions of the nature of the struggle. For Quispe, and the militants of the water and gas wars, what was being laid were the foundations of a different kind of society. As Oscar Olivera put it,
“the nation must self-govern through autonomous structures of participation that socialise responsibility for public life”
But another current in the movement, to which Morales belonged and which was expressed in the formation of the MAS (Movement towards socialism) party, had its eye on reaching government in the existing state.
Morales was now the public face of the mass movement that had grown up between 2000 and 2005 and whose demands were revolutionary. But in the two days between the mass demonstrations in La Paz and the announcement of presidential elections, Morales and the MAS politics shifted the emphasis back to elections.
In 2005, Evo Morales won the presidency with 54% of the vote.