Strikes and Indigenous Resistance in Bolivia

First Published: 14/09/2020

Author: David L.

Since former Bolivian President Evo Morales resigned on 10th November 2019 due to pressure from the opposition and military, there has been a conscious effort to portray what was very clearly a coup as a liberatory overthrow of a socialist dictator. Donald Trump claimed that ‘...Morales’ departure preserves democracy and paves the way for the Bolivian people to have their voices heard’ along with support for the coup. Jair Bolsonaro’s administration released a statement praising the assumption of interim president by Senator Jeanine Añez. In an interview with the New Yorker, Añez proclaimed that ‘[w]hat happened in Bolivia, she said, had been a “liberation” from Morales’s politics of class division and hatred.’ According to all those who instigated and supported it, it was a strike against tyranny and a victory for freedom. This despite the fact that Añez’s party, the Democrat Social Movement (or MDS) ‘had won just four per cent of the vote in the previous election’ and had installed her without many of the Senators from Morales party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), being present. Despite the fact that the most prominent supporters are fascists like Trump and Bolsonaro, the coup was treated as a defense of democracy. It became very clear that this “interim” government was, like them, a racist, fascist regime propped up by a coup.

It became clear very early on that this government, far from having a principled opposition to despotic governments, had a principled opposition to not being the despotic government. Even before Morales resigned, there were clear tensions and outright conflicts between ‘largely indigenous and campesino government supporters and white, upper-class dissenters’. Añez’s husband, Luis Fernando Camacho, is notorious for his racist and xenophobic beliefs. This only got worse once the interim coup government came into power. The Nation reports:

After Morales’s resignation, Camacho entered the government palace in La Paz, and placed a Bible on the Bolivian flag. The pastor by his side then said that the Pachamama (the Andean Mother Earth goddess) will “never return to Bolivia. Bolivia belongs to God.”

More anti-indigenous violence followed after this, including the burning of Wiphala flags, ‘a square emblem representing native peoples off [sic] the Andes’. Añez then deployed the police and the army. The consequences were lethal violence being used upon idigenous communities. The New Yorker reports:

Within days, the security forces were involved in two massacres of Morales supporters. On the fifteenth, a group of militant cocaleros, marching in support of Morales, approached police lines on a bridge in the town of Sacaba, and nine were killed by gunfire. Three days later, in the Aymara city of El Alto, Morales supporters blockaded a state-owned gas-storage facility called Senkata. Security forces opened fire, killing at least ten.

Amnesty International wrote up a report that noted:

The State Attorney General, Juan Lanchipa Ponce, reported on 22 November that between 20 October and 22 November, the Institute of Forensic Investigations (IDIF) carried out 27 autopsies of people killed in the context of the protests, of whom 25 died as a result of gunshot wounds and two of other causes. According to publicly available information from the Ombudsman’s Office, 35 people died between 30 October and 28 November and 8 were injured between 24 October and 23 November.

Alongside this, Amnesty and others have highlighted violations of human rights, corruption and a mishandling of the pandemic. Many key industries were privatized.The culmination of the people’s disgust with the interim government came when they delayed the election for the second time, citing coronavirus concerns. What this led to was that ‘On August 3, social movements, trade unions, Indigenous and peasant organizations and groups, demonstrated across Bolivia against the postponement of the general elections in the country.’ In order to achieve their aims, they decided to bring the country to a halt, by mobilizing on a mass scale to initiate an indefinite general strike and start a nationwide blockade through roadblocks and sabotage.

On August 12th, a victory was secured when the MAS passed a law declaring that the election must happen no later than the 18th October 2020. Kausachun News reported that in response both the MAS and ‘The Six Federations of the Tropico have voted to pause protests and roadblocks until the 18th of October, after securing guarantees for elections. They remain alert and will mobilize if the regime delays elections or refuses to leave power after their coming defeat.’ It remains to be seen what will happen in the run up to the election date.

It is here, in this political moment, that the differences the British Left has to other parts of the world become clear. In Bolivia, the resistance to the coup government has been carried out by a coalition of different organisations and movements. For example, in one march before the blockade on the 28th July, ‘the COB, the National Confederation of Indigenous Women of Bolivia “Bartolina Sisa”, the Unique Federation of Workers of La Paz “Tupac Katari” and other youth and neighbourhood organizations participated.’ The indigenous people and trade unions are working together, and Bolivian journalist Ollie Vargas noted that ‘in every region, every department of the country, the unions – workers’ unions, rural campesino unions – called their members to block the roads across the country, so therefore paralysing the country.’ The MAS retains strong links to these groups, and whilst the British Labour Party has historically been the political arm of the trade union movement and still maintains close links to unions today, in its current form it has expressed little support for political movements, and has outright distanced itself from the more radical parts of it (though in one case this approach still fell short of what reactionary opinions wanted). A broad coalition seems to be achievable if it is a coalition of organisations, rather than the coalition of directly contradictory ideologies Labour seems to want.

However, this is not to say that the Bolivian left is some hyper competent vanguard. Vargas reports that in key ways it is still similar to other parts of the world, particularly in how the MAS prefers more peaceful, electoral methods to the indigenous communities, who are prepared to offer violent resistance and self-defence to the coup regime. He explains ‘there is a very real divide between those social movements around the Movement Toward Socialism who want a peaceful route out of the current crisis, of the current dictatorship and, on the other hand, radical sections who want to overthrow the state through force’. So there is potential for the situation in Bolivia to escalate.

In conclusion, there are many things the British left could learn from Bolivia, in particular the use of tactics such as blockades. Whilst this tactic has been applied recently by Extinction Rebellion, such uses of direct action have yet to happen on a Nationwide scale as it has in Bolivia. But this can come from communicating with them. In general, the left in the Global North does very little to communicate with socialists in other parts of the world(at least, no examples could be found from initial searches for them). This is a mistake, especially because we likely have very much to learn from them. Just like the different groups and parts of the resistance movement in Bolivia coordinate with each other, on a global level communication and coordination must be a crucial part of any revolutionary strategy moving forward. Otherwise the Left, especially the larger parts of the British Left, will only ever be an impotent mass consigned to watching militants around the world gain successes.