Good news from Bolivia

By Mike Phipps

“Exit polls suggest a decisive victory for the left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) in Bolivia, with Luis Arce Catacora set to become the country’s next president. After a year with an unelected government which has presided over massacres, vicious political repression and corruption scandals, the election heralds a dramatic return to democracy,” reports Novara Media.

If polls are accurate, Arce will win a clear majority in the first round, with his closest rival Carlos Mesa from the right-wing Comunidad Ciudadana (CC) party on 31.5%. Faced with a 20 point deficit, Mesa has already conceded defeat.  Unelected President Jeanine Áñez, who took power after ex-president Evo Morales was overthrown in a well-prepared coup, had earlier withdrawn from the election to help maximise the vote of the main right wing challenge. The results also give MAS majority control in the Senate, as well as in the Chamber of Deputies – ample power to govern and pass legislation.

Áñez’s interim government, which seized power nearly a yearago, promised to hold new elections within ninety days. These were repeatedly postponed. Meanwhile her government enabled anti-indigenous racism to run riot during the months it held power. Its neoliberal policies caused an 11% contraction in the economy and unemployment jumped from 4% to 12%. Additionally, the government’s handling of the COVID pandemic was incompetent and scandal-ridden, with the health minister arrested for his role in buying over-priced ventilators which didn’t work.

It is nearly a year since former president Morales was forced to flee the country and the police and military carried out brutal attacks on protestors, killing at least 32 and injuring many hundreds.  

Morales was first elected in 2006 on a wave of popular enthusiasm. He presided over an economic boom – the highest growth rates in Latin America – that lifted many poorer Bolivians out of poverty.

As we argued at the time, “His enemies in the country’s traditional elites also prospered, but they never forgave him for encouraging greater self-confidence among the country’s popular classes, especially its indigenous peoples, who were given more power in a new constitution shaped by Morales. The reactionary elite has its eyes on Bolivia’s hydrocarbon reserves, worth an estimated $70 billion.”

Speaking recently, Morales said: “Our sin is to have nationalised the natural resources and changed the economic matrix of Bolivia.” Elsewhere, he explained how deals for the industrial production of lithium that had been signed with China and Europe had not included the US, which may have also precipitated the coup against his government.

He was ousted after the 2019 election, which recent evidence belatedly demonstrates to have been conducted fairly and freely. This contradicted a deeply inaccurate report by the Organisation of American States, whose unfounded allegations of malpractice were seized on by the Trump Administration and others to justify the coup against Morales. Jeremy Corbyn was much vilified in the UK media for supporting Morales a year ago, but his stance has been proven absolutely correct in hindsight.

Despite its transitional character and a complete absence of mandate, the new regime privatised swathes of Bolivia’s economy. All state development projects – including lithium manufacture –were put on hold, policies which one analyst called “deliberate sabotage”.

Fresh elections were only called after a general strike and popular blockades that shut down six of the country’s nine departments, many organised by the Aymara communities of the western highlands around La Paz.

The election result reaffirms the resilience of MAS, which is much more than an electoral vehicle. It emerged during the mid-nineties as the organised political wing the land workers’ union, and played a key role in the uprisings of the early 2000s. It draws its support above all from Bolivia’s peasantry and coca growers, and the COB, the powerful miner-led trade union federation which led the struggle for democracy during the dictatorships of the seventies and eighties.

Luis Arce, who will be Bolivia’s next president, got an MSc in economics from Warwick University 23 years ago. He served as finance minister under Evo Morales, overseeing the nationalisation of Bolivia’s mining, gas and telecommunications industries.

Top priorities for the new government will be rebuilding the economy and providing justice for those persecuted by the illegitimate coup regime. The economy is expected to contract further and in the long run Bolivia needs to escape its dependence on extractive industries.

As for dealing with the legacy of the coup, its perpetrators and those responsible for the subsequent massacres of unarmed demonstrators in the weeks afterwards must be brought to justice and the full role of foreign interference will need to be exposed.

MAS’s victory, in the most difficult conditions of repression and persecution, will have a profound impact in Bolivia and beyond. It will strengthen the left and inspire progressive social forces in other countries across Latin America.