Bolivians strike against new delay in elections

By Mike Phipps

Last autumn, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, was forced from office, following protests over alleged irregularities regarding his re-election in October 2019. The Vice President, ministers and leading parliamentarians were also forced to resign after their families were threatened by opposition supporters. Many were driven into hiding.

Parliamentarians were prevented from entering the national assembly. A senator, whose party received just 4% of the national vote, declared herself president in a near-empty, inquorate chamber. Morales, his house ransacked, fled the country. Jeremy Corbyn tweeted: “I condemn this coup against the Bolivian people and stand with them for democracy, social justice and independence.”

The police used live rounds against those who protested against the coup while the military conducted air operations. In the weeks immediately after the coup, thirty Bolivians were killed. November 2019 saw more people killed by the Bolivian military than in all the preceding decade under Morales. A new report documents nearly 100 cases of police and military torture in the city of El Alto alone. Massive daily protests in La Paz ended with protestors, including children, tear-gassed.

Now new analysis of the 2019 presidential election conclusively demonstrates that no electoral fraud took place. The Organisation of American States (OAS), which receives 60% of its funding from the US, had challenged the preliminary election results, but it is now clear that the coup against Morales followed a pre-prepared script.

Of all the news outlets that supported the flawed OAS findings at the time, only the New York Times has had the integrity to reappraise its original credulity. From other newspapers that proposed the coup leaders for “defending democracy” – nothing.  And that includes the UK’s Economist – which supported the military’s overthrow of Morales last year, just as it supported the coup against the elected Allende government in Chile in 1973 – and the  Observer, which even went so far as to warn Morales, who had fled the country fearing for his safety, not to orchestrate his own coup to return to power.  All very predictable from a newspaper that substitutes simplistic caricatures for serious analysis – its leader columnist Andew Rawnsley recently referred to “senior luminaries of Corbynism” with “their little red books and their solidarity-with-Venezuela banners.”

In fact, last year’s coup was aimed at delegitimising not only Morales’s re-election, but at terrorising his indigenous supporters. “Indians out of the university” graffiti appeared at La Paz’s public university and a small town mayor from Morales’ party, MAS, was dragged through the streets barefoot, covered her in red paint, and had her hair forcibly cut.

Morales was first elected in 2006 on a wave of popular enthusiasm. He presided over the highest growth rates in Latin America, lifting many poorer Bolivians out of poverty – down from 63.9% in 2004 to 35.5% in 2017. A universal health care system was introduced and land reform enacted.  Although his enemies in Bolivia’s traditional elites also prospered, they never forgave him for encouraging greater self-confidence among the country’s poorer classes, especially its indigenous peoples, who were given more power in a new constitution.

This reactionary elite is also eying up Bolivia’s hydrocarbon reserves, worth an estimated $70 billion and is keen to attract multinationals and accelerate the extraction of its natural resources. Bolivia has over half the world’s lithium reserves, a key ingredient of batteries, with global demand for the mineral set to double by 2025. Morales himself has called his overthrow the “lithium coup”.

Despite its transitional character and a complete absence of mandate, the new regime moved quickly, privatising swathes of the economy and expelling several hundred Cuban doctors.  A former chief adviser to the US embassy in Bolivia for 25 years has been appointed the new president’s private secretary and is overseeing the country’s economic restructuring. All state development projects – including lithium manufacture – have been put on hold. One analyst called this “deliberate sabotage”.

Freedom of the press has been severely curtailed and MAS members have faced considerable repression. The government delayed fresh elections until spring 2020, then postponed them to September, due to the COVID-19 lockdown. They have now been postponed again until October 18th. Trade union and social movement leaders organised big mobilisations against this latest deferral of democracy. The leader of Bolivia’s largest trade union body issued a seventy-two-hour deadline to reverse the decision, or else a general strike, accompanied by nationwide road blockades, would start on Monday, August 3rd.

The government refused to budge, and the indefinite general strike duly got underway last week. Scores of roadblocks sprang up across the country. Protestors are demanding the resignation of the government and the restoration of democracy.  As the protests have widened, involving social and indigenous movements, the demands for economic sovereignty and an end to the privatisation of lithium extraction have been raised repeatedly. Negotiations have broken down and the government has responded by announcing criminal proceedings against the key organisers and threatening force against the protestors. Far right terror groups are also threatening to attack the blockades.

Bolivia has suffered over 2,300 coronavirus-related deaths, aggravated by the cluelessness of the new governing elite. In July, the Bolivian Senate authorised the emergency use of a chlorine solution that has been falsely touted as a cure. Additionally, the government chose to buy 170 ventilators from a Spanish supplier for $27,000 each, while Bolivian producers had said they could supply machines at $1,000 per unit. The health minister was arrested for this scandal.

US President Trump sent US Agency for International Development personnel to Bolivia to help prepare for the elections. When Trump’s legal adviser arrived in La Paz, he accused Morales of terrorism and creating instability, directly interfering in Bolivia’s electoral process. Earlier Trump himself said the overthrow of Morales was a “significant moment for democracy in the Western Hemisphere.”

Morales is banned from running in the upcoming elections but MAS candidate Luis Arce is leading the opinion polls. Unsurprisingly, the government is trying to get him banned from running. Whether these elections will be free and fair or even go ahead at all remains in doubt. It is vitally important that we show solidarity with the Bolivian people and its legitimate, elected representatives at this critical time.