Bad things have been happening lately in Latin America. But the worst to date is the right wing coup in Bolivia that has forced president Evo Morales to resign and flee into exile in Mexico.
There is a stupid argument, involving even some on the left, over whether this actually was a coup.
Morales had been accused of fiddling the recent presidential election. This was allegedly to avoid going into a second round against the main right wing challenger, Carlos Mesa.
As opponents mounted increasingly violent protests, Morales backed down and offered another election. Mesa rejected this and refused to negotiate.
The police went on strike and the chief of the armed forces “suggested” Morales resign. There hasn’t—yet—been the kind of bloodbath associated with Latin American coups in the 1960s and 1970s, but that’s a coup.
What makes this situation so tragic is that Bolivia in 2003-5 represented the high point of what lay behind the so-called “pink tide”.
Centre-left governments took office across Latin America after the turn of the century. They represented a popular rejection of the neoliberal economic policies that had impoverished vast swathes of society since the early 1970s.
In Bolivia this took the form of a series of mass risings. First came the “water war” of 2000 over the privatisation of water in Cochabamba. Then there was the “gas war” of October 2003 over the privatisation of natural gas. This forced out president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.
Finally there was the second gas war of May-June 2005, which brought down Sánchez de Lozada’s vice-president and successor—none other than Carlos Mesa.
El Alto, the working class city above the capital La Paz, was central to the two gas wars. Mass mobilisations, general strikes, and blockades disrupting key transport routes organised from El Alto were decisive in bringing down two presidents.
The victory of Morales and his Movement for Socialism (Mas) in December 2005 was an expression of these enormous struggles.
The sad truth is, however, that in office Morales and the Mas have not fulfilled the hopes raised by this tremendous movement. Their government did reduce poverty, but its ambitions were limited.
Vice president Álvaro García Linera wrote that socialism wasn’t on the agenda in Bolivia and the objective was “Andean-Amazonian capitalism”.
A Marxist critic, Jeff Webber, argues that the Mas in office mainly used state power to build up the export-oriented agrarian capitalism centred on the eastern province of Santa Cruz. Peasant movements were essentially subordinated to this alliance of the state and capital.
These limitations don’t make the coup any less dangerous. “In Bolivia, social class is only understandable and is visible in the form of racial hierarchies,” writes García Linera.
There is an almost colonial division in which the descendants of the original inhabitants are subordinated to those perceived as white or of mixed race.
Morales was the first indigenous president. In 2010 the Mas steered through the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth. This promised a sustainable development and appealed to indigenous ideas of Mother Earth as sacred.
But once Morales faltered, the right mobilised to reverse the advances made by indigenous people, workers, and peasants—very much overlapping categories in Bolivia. This means not just defeating the mass movements that brought the Mas to office, but taking class and race revenge.
This is explicit by the now notorious tweet by the self-proclaimed acting president, Jeanine Anez Chavez, “I dream of a Bolivia free of indigenous satanic rituals.”
This is the language used by the 16th century Spanish Conquistadores when they sought to destroy the indigenous societies they had conquered.
The same class racism is also at work in Brazil under Bolsonaro and in the right wing opposition in Venezuela.
Morales and Garcia Linera have abandoned their posts. But let’s hope that the mass movements that lifted them up in the first place can find the strength and unity to defeat the coup.