Bolivia: right wing threatens the recovery of democracy
Francisco Dominguez writes: After a full year of racist and repressive horror perpetrated by a by a de facto government resulting from a coup, the people of Bolivia went to the polls on October 18, 2020 and stunned their own country and the world by giving Evo Morales’ MAS-IPSP party candidate, Luis Arce, a landslide. The coup d’état that installed a racist regime led by Jeanine Añez, was engineered by OAS secretary General, Luis Almagro, carried out by fascists in November 2019, and of course, supported by the US.1
The specifics of the landslide reveal the size of the defeat of the de facto extreme right wing regime: the MAS-IPSP won the presidency with a 55% of the votes cast, against 28% of right-wing Carlos Mesa, and 14% of extreme right-wing Luis Camacho. This was a much improved performance compared to the election in November 2019 when their candidate, Evo Morales won with 48% against right wing Carlos Mesa’s 36%.
Not only that, the MAS-IPSP won in 6 out of the country’s 9 departments (with 68% in La Paz; 65% in Cochabamba; 62% in Oruro; 57% in Potosí; 49% in Chuquisaca; and 46% in Pando), with the right wing winning in 2 (with 50% in Tarija, and 39% in Beni) and the extreme right wing being victorious only in Santa Cruz (by 45% with the MS-IPSP getting 36%). The 6 departments where Arce was victorious contain nearly 7 million of Bolivia’s total population of 11 million.
It gets better: MAS-IPSP candidates obtained 75 out of the 130 seats of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, and 21 out of 36 in the Senate. The MAS-IPSP presidential candidate also won in 314 municipalities, the extreme right in 21, and the right wing in 18.
This was a very robust electoral victory indeed, all the more impressive given that it took place against the background of a year of systematic political and judicial persecution against the MAS-IPSP, its leaders and cadre (Morales himself was charged with terrorism that forced him to flee the country), including brutal repression against the social movements associated with it; the illegal imprisonment, harassment and exile of its leaderships and the spirited use of lawfare. All in a context of well-organised and very well-funded racist violence unleashed specially against indigenous women, by fascist paramilitary groups, the police, and the armed forces who perpetrated massacres against social movements defending their rights and fighting for democracy. To top it all, the mainstream media nationally and internationally was at best seeking to whitewash, and at worst supporting, the golpistas and Añez’ regime’s brutal violation of human rights.
Añez’ economic policies, in line with extreme right wing ideology and that of its foreign mentors, deliberately aimed at both demolishing what had been achieved for the nation in the 14 years of Evo Morales’ administration and brutally reversing all the social policies that had benefited the people. Not a small undertaking given the rather amazing progress and transformation that Bolivia and its people had undergone in that short period of time. Below we list some of the most important achievements of the MAS-IPSP government during the 2006-2019 period:
- Bolivia’s GDP went from US$9,574 bn in 2005 to US$40,000 bn in 2013 (an increase of over 400%), that is, an annual average of 4,6%, the highest in the region, thus from 2006
- Bolivia had a fiscal surplus in 2006 for the first time in its history; and by 2018 it had US$8,946 million in international reserves
- Extreme poverty was reduced from 38% in 2006 to 16% in 2018 (a historic low)
- Infant mortality declined by 56%
- Social bonuses (the elders, primary and secondary school pupils, pregnant women) benefited 5,5 million people (more than 50% of the population)
- Domestic savings in the period 2006-2018 increased from US$4,361 million to US$27,123 million
- External debt went down from 61% of GDP in 2004 to 23% in 2018
- Number of health centres went from 2,870 to 3902, and 49 new hospitals were built that were well equipped by the state with the latest medical technology (public health is free of charge)
- With the collaboration of Cuban doctors, Operation Miracle conducted over 3 million ophthalmological visits and 742,000 surgeries leading to many Bolivians having their eye sight restored (Añez expelled the Cuban doctors) – the budget for health went from 2,5 million Bolivianos (national currency) in 2005 to 18, 805 million in 2018
- Illiteracy, with the use of Cuba’s Yo Si Puedo method, was eradicated by 2014.
- Between 2014-18 the nine-lines metro-cable in La Paz (completed in 2014), had transported 174 million passengers
- Drinking water by 2020 reaches 9,7 million people out of total population of 11 million
- The end of the latifundia system led to the redistribution of about 1 million hectares of land to peasants and peasant families
- In 2005 only 18% of the parliamentarians were women, by 2018 they have increased to 51%
- Under decades of neoliberalism only 1,098 km of motorways were built but between 2006-18 new 4,796 km were added to existing motorways
- All of the above was financed by the renationalization of the energy industry (Bolivia is rich mainly in gas but also has oil; and it is extraordinarily rich in minerals, especially lithium)
- Bolivia placed in space the Tupac Katari satellite and renationalised ENTEL (telecommunications company) granting Internet access to millions of Bolivians free of charge, as a fundamental right
- With a world historic decision, 36 indigenous nations were recognised special cultural and ancestral land rights, for the first time in 500 years that are enshrined in the new Constitution of the Plurinational State
- No wonder, in 2018 the World Human Development Report, classified Bolivia for the first time a “high human development country”
- The MAS-IPSP under Morales affirmed national sovereignty by eliminating foreign (US) interference with the expulsion of the DEA, USAID, CIA and even the US ambassador
- And much, much, more.
The Añez regime adopted policies that sought to wreck all these advances, something she nearly achieved in less than one year. Nothing too surprising here, a popular refrain among activists in Latin America goes like this: ‘whereas Ecuador’s Lenin Moreno took 3 years to wreck both the achievements of the Left government and the country’s economy, Bolsonaro did it in Brazil in 2; but Añez did it in only 6 months’. Thus, one of Añez’ first measures was a wave a mass lay-offs of public employees, compounded by a total lack of state support to companies, business, and workers in trouble due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
With regard to the pandemic, instead of taking extra measures of support, just as contagions and deaths raged, the de facto government not only expelled hundreds of Cuban doctors who were in Bolivia as part of Cuba’s collaboration with Evo’s government –literally days after the coup d’état – it also refused point blank to allocate extra resources to health so as to strengthen the fight against Coronavirus, and, for good measure, it reduced expenditure on health. But, when, forced by the pressure of mass mobilization, to make available extra resources to purchase health inputs, the minister in charge engaged in gross corruption leading to his resignation but not to a serious investigation or trial. The new authorities of Arce’s government have already instigated investigations in ‘emblematic’ corruption cases such as the overcharging in the purchase of ventilators; the hiring of cronies to work in state companies with huge salaries or unjustified stipends; millionaire ‘emergency’ contracts in YPFB (state/gas oil company) without due process or public legal tender thus massively defrauding the company; millions paid in ‘ghost’ contracts for public housing; and so forth.
Worse, by the end of 2020, the de facto government did not yet have a list of the companies that had closed down business caused by the pandemic, nor a clear idea of how many jobs had been lost in the country’s economy, even though the information was available. According to the Centro de Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario (Labour and Agrarian Development Centre) not only had poverty massively increased but unemployment had jumped from 4,3% to 9,6% in a country where the informal sector of employment has reached 80%.2
The neoliberal response of the de facto government to poverty, unemployment and the biting economic crisis was not policies but repression, thus thousands literally went hungry. A report at the time (May 2020) informed that about 1,7 million Bolivians were unable to cover the costs even of a basic food basket. The total neglect and lack of measures by Añez and Co allowed the pandemic to wreak havoc among the poorest with hundreds of thousands being infected and thousands dying. Thus, as Añez’ ‘interim government’ added illegitimacy to illegality, brutality to incompetence, and neoliberalism to corruption, the consequences of such a terrifying ‘Bolsonaresque’ cocktail the situation had created nearly 2 million new poor. And invariably their explanation to any criticism of such messy governance was to blame everything on Evo Morales and the MAS-IPSP government. And, as night follows day, Añez’ neoliberal ‘urges’ led her to end up requesting unnecessary financial emergency assistance from the IMF, which immediately obliged by issuing a loan of US$327 million with the customary onerous conditionalities undermining Bolivia’s hard-won economic sovereignty.
By 2020, the economy had shrunk by about 10% causing further unemployment, hardship and hunger, leading to mass protests, and, of course, more repression. Añez’ by now infamous minister of interior, Arturo Murillo, in response to this mass political opposition, said, “firing bullets [on protestors]would be what is required politically”. This was not idle rhetoric; the repressive forces had already perpetrated two massacres in November 2019, in Senkata (La Paz) and Sacaba (Cochabamba), about which a human rights organization reported 36 people dead and over 500 injured, describing the situation with the eloquent title “They shot us like animals’3.
As Añez’s government was only temporary with no constitutional or legal authority to change anything since its only task was to organise national elections, the extreme right wing coalition holding the reins of power used the pandemic as an excuse – about which it was doing very little – to postpone the elections, which it did four times. Thankfully, through mass pressure, political discipline, intelligent unity in action of the MAS-led mass movement, and the use of a few positions in the existing political edifice, the people managed to persuade (actually force) Añez’s de facto government to accept a legal decision by Parliament to hold elections on 18 October 2020, with the extraordinary above-mentioned results.
When the newly elected president, Luis Arce, who had been Evo’s minister of economic policy and architect of Bolivia’s impressive economic performance in the 2006-2019 period, announced that as his first political decision he was restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, it sent shivers down the spine of right wingers from Patagonia all the way to the Klondike.
Arce’s first economic measures were as interesting. First, there is the Bonus Against Hunger of 1,000 Bolivianos (US$150 / £100) aimed at the most disadvantaged (disabled, pregnant women, the elderly, the poorest, etc.) that will benefit about 4 million people. Secondly, a reduction of the tax on credit card payments from 13% to 8% and returning the difference (5%) to the customer, the return of VAT to low income people, and a tax on large fortunes over their assets on real and non-real estate, and income. Thirdly, to enter into negotiations with multilateral bodies (World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank) to obtain credit without economic or political conditionalities attached, and including a moratorium and condoning the country’s debt and the interest on it. Fourthly, if at all possible, avoid devaluation of the national currency so as to encourage economic growth, and foment import substitution among other reactivating policies. Fifthly, strengthen domestic economic demand so as to help reactivate economic activity via subsidies to the poorest and other segments of society. Sixthly, professionalization of the judiciary through merit and qualifications not by political quotas determined by the relative strength of existing political forces, a method Arce characterised as “useless”. And seventh, in the medium and long term to continue with the industrialization of lithium and iron, coupled with a programme towards food sovereignty, promotion of domestic tourism, export of electricity and the industrialization of gas, all within the context of keeping all these activities broadly under state control and ownership.
State expenditure on health and education to be increased to 10 and 11 percent, respectively. A crucial factor will be public investment, which is to be increased so as to bring about a rate of economic growth of 4,8% for 2021 (Añez had destroyed or dismantled all the ongoing public works, which Arce intends to retake and bring to completion as another plank for the reactivation of the domestic economy). In this connection, prompted by Arce, the MAS-IPSP majority in parliament has already passed legislation to ensure the implementation of all these urgent measures. To be noted is Arce’s decision to return the IMF loan contracted by Añez in 2020.4
Furthermore, Arce has developed a comprehensive strategic plan to combat Covid-19 involving rigorous methods to stop contagion, biosecurity measures at the workplace, strengthening existing medical facilities and furnishing them with appropriate equipment and health inputs, the carrying out of mass tests so as to substantially improve detection, the mass use of ancestral herbs to aid prevention, and mass vaccination. For the latter, Arce has secured the mass supply of vaccines from Russia and China (Sputnik V and Sinopharm respectively), and mass vaccination has already begun.
However, the decision by Arce to decree a law of sanitary emergency, thoroughly justified in the lethal context of the Covid-19 pandemic, is being used by doctors in the private sector to launch a national strike which has very little to do with their ostensible objection to the law as being ‘punitive’. A racist ultra right plot seems to be rearing its ugly head on the back of this clearly orchestrated destabilisation ‘mass action’ by reactionary forces. In support of the doctors, extreme right wing leader, Luis Camacho, on 20 February 2021, totally opposed the law of sanitary emergency, and called on the government to respect the health professionals, in effect threatening a (another) coup d’état.5
We should expect Bolivia’s right and extreme right to cooperate in unleashing anti-government mobilisations of ‘middle class’ groups such as doctors, lawyers, non-indigenous elite women, university students, commerce, private enterprise and the like. In other Latin American countries these groups are likely to receive millionaire subsidies funded by the US taxpayer and distributed by the US interventionist machinery through USAID, NED, and such like, as they did in Chile under Allende, and have done also, for example, in Nicaragua and Venezuela. This means that in the coming period we should expect all sorts of provocations, fake news, false flags, international demonization campaigns, with the almost guaranteed fervent support of the national and international mainstream corporate media (including not corporate, BBC and ‘progressive’ The Guardian in the UK, which at the time ‘editorialised’ that the coup had been Evo’s fault).6 In other words, the robust electoral victory of 18 October 2020 has taken Bolivia on the way to recuperate their democracy, reactivate their economy, restore all people’s social, political, economic and cultural, but the MAS-SPSP Arce government is not yet out of the difficult terrain: the road ahead is likely to be a tortuous and uphill battle.
This brings our analysis to the crucial matter of solidarity with the people of Bolivia and with the progressive transformation of that nation that begun in 2006 under the presidency of Evo. The key principle of solidarity with the people of Bolivia must be the unconditional defence of their right to self-determination and national sovereignty, thus opposing, rejecting and condemning any external interference especially coming, as it has done for so long, from the United States and its allies. Secondly, the full recovery of the economy, despite the formidable economic base built by Evo’s government in 2006-2013, will not at all be easy. The additional difficulty stems from the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a protracted world economic crisis of rather gigantic proportions thereby depressing demand for raw materials and minerals, the strength of Bolivia’s economy.
This means that Bolivia’s right wing will use any economic complications or difficulties the Arce government may face, by mobilising –especially middle class-– discontent to oppose it thus, as Wiphalas Across the World has correctly stated: international solidarity played a fundamental role in helping the people of Bolivia to fight for a full year against the racist and fascist regime of Jeanine Añez, but this solidarity must be maintained for at least the next five years of reconstruction. It must be borne in mind that the explicit aim of the racist right wing opposition to the current MAS-IPSP Arce government, as it was with Evo’s government, is not to be a loyal opposition that respect the rules of the game, but to inflict a political/electoral defeat, and use every opportunity to capitalise on any problems that may arise seeking the violent overthrow of the democratically elected government. Furthermore, the persistent golpista threats from Bolivia’s reactionary forces are driven by an intensely racist hatred of the country’s indigenous majority.
Given this context, the full recuperation of democracy will present similar complexities. Among the many tasks there is the unavoidable one of bringing to trial all those guilty of corruption, law breaking, unconstitutional acts, and human rights atrocities. The latter raises the delicate but unavoidable matter of reforming the armed forces and the police to ensure they do not participate in supporting coup d’état in the future as they did in November 2019. Thus the road ahead will be littered with traps, provocations and dangers. In this connection, the solidarity movement must not rush to draw ultimatist, purist or doctrinaire conclusions from any difficult decision or tactical move the Arce government may be obliged to take.
More importantly, given its gigantic geopolitical significance, it is vital to continue organising solidarity to defend and help preserve the electoral and political victory of October 2020. Furthermore, the heroic triumph of the Bolivian people has dramatically contributed to changing the continental relation of forces in favour of progressive politics. The victory obtained in October 2020 is immense and precious, but precarious. We must do everything in our power to preserve it, defend it, and protect it.
Cuba Support Group Ireland will work with all those who support the Arce government and thank Francisco Dominguez for his wonderful article explaining the basis of our solidarity.