Bolivia Fights Back
R Arun Kumar
IN an inspiring electoral victory, Luis Arce of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), secured an overwhelming first-round win in the presidential elections in Bolivia. Arce won around 52.4 per cent of the votes according to various exit polls that were certified by the Supreme Election Tribunal of Bolivia. He decisively defeated right-wing candidate Carlos Mesa, who secured 31.2 per cent votes. This huge difference of more than 20 per cent votes has forced the opposition to accept the results. Avowedly racist Jeanine Añez, who assumed presidency since the coup against Evo Morales in November 2019, was also forced to acknowledge and accept the results. The victory of MAS is expected to have a deep impact on the political developments in Latin America.
The US backed military coup against democratically elected Morales government in Bolivia caused ripples in Latin American politics. The volte face by Lenin Moreno (who was elected on the same progressive platform of Rafael Correa in Ecuador), the victory of Mauricio Macri in Argentina and more importantly Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, indicated ruling classes determination to reverse the gains made by years of progressive, Left governments in various Latin American countries. Certain analysts announced the return to ‘politics as normal’ and an end to progressive governance in Latin America.
Emboldened by these successes attained through its brazen interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries, the US intensified its blockade of Cuba and sanctions on Venezuela. It aspired to ensure a ‘regime change’ in both these countries – touting it as the ‘ultimate prize’ for it in the region. The people of Latin America, who have experienced both the Left/progressive governments and the right-wing regimes, realised the differences between them and rose to thwart the US-sponsored right-wing offensive. The fight back in Bolivia, best epitomises this popular resolve.
The class character of the coup in Bolivia was revealed when all the progressive measures introduced by the MAS administration were sought to be reversed. Over half of Bolivians received State bonds based on need, and these have kept children in school, eased the hardships of elders, and cut infant mortality by half. The coup government axed these schemes introduced by the MAS government that ensured the distribution of food for mothers and their small children. Universal retirement benefits were halted leaving senior citizens to their fate. The famed education projects that completely eliminated illiteracy in Bolivia and provided universal, free education to its children were stopped. The health care system in Bolivia that was ramped up with the help of Cuban doctors was destroyed. Cuban doctors were targeted, attacked and sent back. Results of these actions were clearly visible during the Covid pandemic, where thousands of people died due to lack of medical attention. State subsidies for cooking gas, electricity, internet, piped water, and housing for those in need were withdrawn. As a result of these policies, poverty increased markedly, unemployment increased from 3.9 per cent in mid-2019 to 11.8 per cent by mid-2020 and the rate of economic growth fell almost by 6 per cent.
It is a well documented fact that one of the important reasons for the coup was to prevent the MAS government from nationalising the vast swathes of lithium reserves. Various multinational corporations, with huge interests in gaining access to these huge lithium reserves played an important role in the coup. As a pay-back, in the name of normalisation of relations with the IMF and the US, the coup government initiated measures to privatise the ownership of natural resources.
In order to carry out all these anti-people measures, the coup government resorted to brutal attack on democratic rights. Laws were passed granting military impunity and allowed it to use force, harass journalists and government opponents, particularly the leaders and cadre of MAS. Strong bases of MAS were targeted and women, family members of MAS supporters were kidnapped, tortured and harassed. According to official counts, more than 36 protesters were killed by the armed forces. Hundreds more were injured, thousands detained and jailed by the police. Indigenous people, working-class and poor farmers, who form the core support base of Morales and MAS, were the primary targets in these police attacks. Indigenous people and activists were abused racially, their flags burnt and cultural symbols desecrated. Anez, the coup-president led these attacks.
Undeterred by the repression unleashed by the State machinery, people of Bolivia were out on the streets protesting and resisting the right-wing offensive. Right from day one, people continued to demand the restoration of democratic rights and resisted policy changes brought about by the coup-government. Under tremendous pressure from the relentless marches, where thousands of people participated along with the MAS legislators and leaders, the government was forced to agree to remove the military from the streets. However, this decision was soon overturned, forcing people to once again take to the streets. It is due to these sustained struggles that the government was forced to ultimately conduct presidential elections that were postponed twice earlier.
All the opinion polls throughout the past year showed that despite being overthrown, MAS enjoyed tremendous popular support. Most of them predicted that whenever elections will be held, MAS would return to power. Right-wing oligarchs tried to mould popular opinion against MAS, using their control over media and other State institutions. A deluge of falsities were spread through the media and MAS was blocked to prevent its voice from reaching the people. MAS was able to overcome all these attacks through its continued presence and work among the majority poor. Using all its experience gained through its long struggle against neoliberal policies and organising, it never lost contact with its bases, even amidst State repression. Once caught unawares by the coup, it learnt its lessons – remained ever watchful, prepared to meet all eventualities and planned accordingly. Live contact with the masses and preparedness stood in good stead for the MAS.
MAS had chosen Arce, former finance minister in Morales’ administration as its presidential candidate and David Choquehuanca for vice-presidency. In a campaign that rallied the indigenous, working-class and poor campesinos, Arce had vowed to carry forward the policies of the earlier Morales’ governments. He proposed a new taxation on Bolivia’s very wealthy and stated: “MAS is the only political party that guarantees that natural resources, including lithium, will not be privatised and handed over to transnationals”. He was also unsparing in his attack on the right-wing: “The right robbed the people and have shown their inability to govern”. He vowed to restore relations with Cuba, Russia and China that were cut by the right-wing coup government.
The massive popular vote won by MAS candidates made it impossible for the right-wing to deny the results. The Organisation for American States (OAS) that played a mischievous role in delegitimising the election of Evo Morales was forced to accept the present electoral results. It is to be recalled here that OAS had alleged Morales of electoral fraud, a claim that it could not sustain with any evidence. Ten months after the 2019 elections, the OAS released its data and code, which were found to contain critical coding errors, making their entire analysis and claim of electoral fraud worthless. But the intended damage was already done. In order to preempt such attempts to ‘steal the elections’, MAS had developed its own vote-monitoring machinery during the present elections.
Morales, though exiled in Argentina, is a towering influence throughout this period of resistance and electoral campaigning. Immediately after the results became known, he welcomed the ‘resounding victory’: “Sisters and brothers: the will of the people has prevailed….We have recovered democracy”. Many have hailed this victory as a ‘triumph over money, media power, and the dominant powers’. All the Left, progressive parties and leaders have welcomed the victory of MAS, which is considered to be a shot in the arm in their resistance against US interventions.
The people of Bolivia had voted for Arce and MAS in overwhelming numbers with a belief that they would implement their transformative agenda. The new government that is expected to be sworn in November, has a gigantic task on its hands. It has to first attend to the Covid pandemic and protect the lives of hundreds of thousands of Bolivians. Second, it has to reverse the course of neoliberal economic trajectory attempted by the coup plotters and right-wing government. Nationalisation of natural resources, including hydrocarbons and lithium has to be continued and strengthened and all the withdrawn social welfare programmes, restored. Finally, it needs to resist US attempts to subjugate sovereign countries in the region and build strong alliances with all the Left, progressive governments and forces.
The defeat of right-wing in Bolivia is a huge boost to the resistance struggles carried out not only in Latin America, but also in various other parts of the world. It would boost Brazilians’ struggle against the Bolsonaro regime, Chileans’ struggle for a new constitution (for which they are voting in a referendum on October 25) and the Colombians struggle against their right-wing regime. It is also expected to strengthen the resolve of recently elected progressive governments in Argentina and Mexico to continue with their progressive policies and stand up against the US. Its message, ‘through sustained struggles against neoliberalism and in defence of democratic rights, the right can be defeated’, is a boost to the morale of all those fighting the political shift towards the right.
Arce promised to stick to the agenda of MAS and lead the country. Given the experience in Ecuador and that of Lenin Moreno who had betrayed popular trust and vote, let’s hope that Arce would not deviate from the path. Popular vigilance hence should not be slackened.