Defeats for Imperialism in South America
(Vijay Prashad was in Venezuela and Bolivia recently. He was an observer for the National Assembly election in Venezuela)
ON November 10, 2019, a coup d’état in Bolivia led to the exile of its president Evo Morales Ayma, a sustained attack – including massacres – of members of the Movement to Socialism (MAS), and the seizure of the state apparatus by the far right. Massacres in Sacaba and El Alto defined the crackdown, as the military and the police colluded with fascist groups such as the Santa Clara Youth Union to intimidate the largely indigenous population of Bolivia. When the coup president Jeanine Añez entered the presidential palace, a pastor said, “the Bible has re-entered the palace. Pachamama will never return.” Pachamama is a reference to the Andean goddess revered by the indigenous peoples of the region. The coup against Evo Morales was directed from Washington, DC, but it was equally a coup of the racist and fascist oligarchy that persists in Bolivia.
A year later, on November 9, 2020, Evo Morales walked across the La Quiaca border crossing that divides Argentina and Bolivia. He then made the thousand-kilometre journey through the country, a day after his former minister of economy and finance Luis Arce was sworn in as the new president of Bolivia. Arce, and the vice president David Choquehuanca (Morales’ foreign minister), ran a powerful election campaign to defeat the coup regime at the polls in the first round; they welcomed Morales back and have pledged to continue the resource socialism policy that has greatly improved the lives of the majority of Bolivians since Morales first won an election almost 15 years ago. The scale of their undisputed electoral triumph overturned the coup and forced even the United States to recognise the new government.
A month later, Morales travelled to Caracas (Venezuela) to offer his solidarity with the Venezuelan people as they held their National Assembly election on December 6. At a public event, Morales triumphantly pointed out that US imperialism had been defeated for now in Bolivia and that it would not be able to prevail in Venezuela. Bolivia had become the epicentre of intrigue since it – along with Argentina and Chile – is home to the world’s largest known lithium reserves (the reserve base in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuniholds 5.4 million tonnes of lithium). The shift to renewable energy has made the lithium battery a key part of the new infrastructure, which makes Bolivia’s reserves so crucial. Morales talked about how multinational firms (including Jindal Steel) had wanted to mine not only Bolivia’s lithium, but also its reserves of indium (used in computer and television screens) and of silver; they wanted favourable terms, which the MAS government – committed to resource socialism – would not deliver to them. The multinational mining corporations, Morales said, not only drove the coup against his country in November 2019, but they attempted to overturn the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela to get their hands on a range of minerals in that country (from gold to diamonds, from natural gas to bauxite, not to speak of petroleum). The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, Morales said in Caracas, would not be defeated since the people understand what its defeat will mean: the return of the subordination of the country to imperialism.
In 1998, Hugo Chávez won the presidential election that inaugurated the turn of Venezuela towards a new project: the Bolivarian Revolution. Chávez developed a resource socialism strategy by getting a better deal from the petroleum companies for the export of Venezuela’s main commodity; he turned the revenue over to build an apparatus peopled by Venezuela’s poor to enrich their social lives and to decentralise decision making to comunas (communes). The decentralisation of power and resources allowed the vast majority of Venezuelans to enjoy the fruits of the oil revenue for the first time since oil was first drawn out of the ground in 1914. Reliance upon oil exports was always going to be a risk, which is why Chávez – in haste – tried to diversify the economy and tried to build up new regional trade and development networks to prevent Venezuela’s isolation. The US attempted to overthrow the government in a coup in 2002 but failed. The Bolivarian Revolution had already dug deep roots through its projects, and it had created a constituency of chavistas who remain the backbone of the Revolution to this day.
From the very first, the United States government took a position against the Bolivarian Revolution. The failure of the 2002 coup led the US government to a range of innovations. It pushed for a range of illegal primary and secondary sanctions, which it has ramped up over the years; these sanctions prevent Venezuela’s government from selling its oil overseas and buying key goods needed for the country. These sanctions are at the centre of a hybrid war, which includes an information war, a diplomatic war, and a financial and economic war. After the death of Chávez in 2013, his successor Nicolás Maduro faced not only a collapse of oil prices but also a full-scale assault upon the country’s economy by the imperialist bloc. A spiral of hyperinflation could not be contained because the conventional tools to do so (such as dollarization or cutting government expenditures) are simply not available to the government; by 2018, according to the Central Bank of Venezuela, inflation was at 130,060 per cent. Without the end to the economic blockade of Venezuela, it is unlikely that the government will be able to reverse this severe problem. The economic war waged by the United States and its allies has seriously impacted the country, now even more so during the pandemic.
The terrible economic situation has not been able to turn the chavistas and a large part of the population against the government. Over the past several years, interactions with people in various parts of the country reveal that despite their own personal hardship they remain strongly devoted to their Revolution; they say that the cause of their suffering is the blockade and not government policy. The failure of the economic blockade by itself pushed the US and its allies to try and delegitimise Venezuela’s political system. In January 2019, the US said that President Nicolás Maduro is no longer the head of government, but that now a minor political figure – Juan Guaidó – would be treated by Washington as the new president. US allies – such as the UK – and US-dominated institutions – such as the IMF – blocked access to Venezuelan bank accounts and reserves and set out to use the Guaidó instrument to further isolate Venezuela; Guaidó was provided with $50 million in 2019 and $33 million in 2020 by the US government to prosecute the regime change project. Two attempted coups in 2019 – in January and in April – failed, as the chavistas took to the streets to defend their government, and as the military made it clear that it would not switch its allegiance. In January 2019, people on the streets openly said that if Guaidó came to power, Venezuela would return to the period of oligarchy rule. “What will happen if this government falls,” Mariela Machado told me in the Kaikachi housing complex; “If the government falls, we will be evicted. We – the Black, the poor, the working-class – will lose what we have.” It is this certainty that motivates the millions of chavistas.
The elections in December were for the National Assembly, as mandated by the Venezuelan constitution. More than 14,000 candidates from 107 political parties, with 98 of them from the opposition, ran in the election for 277 seats. The traditional opposition parties – from the right and the left - competed in the election, and none of them made an allegation of fraud. Despite this, the US government personally sanctioned the leadership of the independent National Electoral Council (CNE) and the leaders of the company that provided the machines for the election. The ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) won a majority and will control the National Assembly from January. The new Assembly mandate is to recover the lost political sovereignty of Venezuela and govern – alongside the executive branch – to overcome the pandemic and the impediments placed by the blockade.
Attempts to draw in investment to Venezuela have only been moderately successful. Without solidarity from China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and others, Venezuela would be in a much more difficult place. To protect investors, the government has had to construct an Anti-Blockade Law, which cloaks the identity of those foreign companies that do business in Venezuela; this would protect them from the primary and secondary sanctions of the US government. There has been some debate about this law with the suggestion that this law advantages private corporations since there will be less scrutiny for their actions; but the government responds that they are experimenting with new ways to allow investment into the country, which requires a burst of capital to protect the currency and to import necessary goods.
When Evo Morales won his first election in 2005, the social and economic situation in Bolivia for the vast majority of the people was abysmal. Morales, who came from the trade union movement, is a committed anti-imperialist who openly declared that his country would no longer submit to the demands of the multinational corporations. With Supreme Decree 2870, he reversed the agreement to allow mining companies to make 82 per cent of the value of the resources and leave 18 per cent for the government; now the government would take 82 per cent and the companies would be allowed to earn 18 per cent. This reversal was the first salvo from Morales. Bolivia broke with the IMF and the World Bank and departed from the International Centre for the Settlement of Industrial Disputes, which typically favours multinational corporations. The new government gave priority to the culture of the majority indigenous population, including fighting racism, adopting the languages of the people, and revering the flag of the indigenous (the Whipala).
The revenue gained by the state was then used to transform the country.In 2014, the Financial Times applauded Morales: “Proof of the success of Morales’s economic model is that since coming to power he has tripled the size of the economy, while ramping up record foreign reserves.” Two-thirds of Bolivians are – like Evo Morales – from an indigenous background. That he put the well-being of the indigenous majority first rankled the old oligarchy; they are the ones who colluded with the US to overthrow Morales. At the United Nations in 2019 before the coup against him, Evo Morales said that, since 2006, Bolivia has cut its poverty rate from 38.2 per cent to 15.2 per cent, increased its life expectancy rate by nine years, developed a Universal Health Care system, and ensured that over a million women received land tenure; by 2019, the country is now 100 per cent literate and has a parliament where more than 50 per cent of the elected officials are women. How did Bolivia do this? “We nationalised our natural resources,” Morales said, “and our strategic companies. We have taken control of our destiny.” But the coup put an end to this process for a year.
It was the success of the Bolivian socialists and the dangerous direction of the coup government that drew large numbers of people to the polls on October18, 2020 to deliver a mandate to the MAS candidates. The new government of Arce has said it will fight to eradicate hunger (which increased during the coup government’s failures in the pandemic), to increase industrialisation, to increase food production, to cancel debts, and to increase taxation. On the last point, Arce – an economist – has said that the government will tax the 0.001 per cent of Bolivia’s society (about 113 individuals out of a population of 11.5 million people) who sit on a comparatively obscene amount of cash. This would raise roughly $400 million for the exchequer. In terms of industrialisation, production of basic consumer goods would be a priority, since the import of these goods–fairly easy to manufacture–deplete Bolivia’s foreign exchange reserves. Before the coup, Morales inaugurated a new electric car produced by Quantum Motors and Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos, the state lithium company. At the time, the battery was imported from China, but these state firms plan to develop Bolivia’s capacity to process its own lithium and manufacture batteries for E2 and E3 cars. Arce said that he will put effort – likely with Chinese support – into the development of these cars, initially for the Bolivian market but then for export.
The new US government – led by Joe Biden – has said that it would be willing to talk to President Maduro without preconditions, although Biden’s new national security advisor, Jake Sullivan has said that the US would “double down” on sanctions. The regime change policy will not change, which is clear from the messages coming from Biden (including the offensive use of the term “thug” to describe President Maduro). The US policy of overthrowing the Bolivarian Revolution persists. What Biden will do with Bolivia is to be seen.