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Commentary: Coup in Bolivia

By Sean Orr

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Chicago, IL – Today, a military coup took place in Bolivia. The first act began on October 20 – the day that Evo Morales was re-elected president by a ten-point margin against his nearest opponent, starting with violent protests in the country's urban middle-class neighborhoods. The final act was carried out by the head of the Bolivian Armed Forces, Gen. Williams Kaliman, who went on national television today and demanded that Morales resign. This followed a day of police mutinies in key cities, and in totality it was clear that the elected government had lost the support of the armed apparatus of the state. Without arms to fall back on, and fearing the slaughter of their supporters, Morales, his vice president Álvaro García Linera, and the president of the Senate, Adriana Salvatierra resigned. Morales stated, ”I am resigning so that my comrades will not continue to be intimidated and threatened, so that [the reactionaries} will stop burning their homes and persecuting the humble people.”

From the beginning, it must be clear that the street violence that led to this moment was not about “the people vs. the government.” In Bolivia, where the people live under a constitution that was popularly written and democratically approved in 2009, the people are the government. For the first time since the Spanish invasion, the indigenous masses exercised political control over their own territory – Bolivia being the only country left in the Americas where the majority of the population is indigenous. In the entire history of this hemisphere, only two indigenous people have been elected president – Benito Juárez in México a hundred and fifty years ago, and Evo Morales in Bolivia.

Before Evo came to office, Bolivia was the sole governance of a handful of families, the oligarchy whose historic roots lie in the Spanish Conquest and whose only fount of current legitimacy comes from U.S. capital. It was not long ago that the country was an apartheid state, where the indigenous were denied the right to vote and own property. A national democratic revolution in 1952 tore down this order, but the oligarchy quickly regained power in the new democratic order. It was in the mass revolt against this consolidation of power that Che arrived to fight, and ultimately die, alongside his Bolivian comrades.

Evo came to office in 2005 as an indigenous trade unionist, at the helm of the Movement to Socialism (MAS), a political alliance of left-wing trade unions, peasant unions and indigenous organizations. In the thirteen years since first taking office, his government has led a transformation of Bolivia from an economic backwater – a country without any sovereignty, totally beholden to American imperialist thuggery – into a genuinely prosperous society. The mines and gas refineries that used to be the sole property of U.S. firms were nationalized, and their revenue directed to lifting the poor out of poverty. For as long as Bolivia has existed, it has not known a period of greater collective prosperity and genuine democracy.

From day one, Evo's government has been a government of the mass movements, with indigenous workers and farmers occupying the halls of power that were built on their ancestor's backs. None of this could be forgiven by the oligarchy, nor by the social classes that benefited from their patronage system. These were the forces that have resisted MAS' transformation of Bolivia, and these were the forces that took to the streets on October 20th.

So what are these demonstrations about, if not democracy? The protesters decry “electoral fraud” without offering any proof, although that does not matter at all for the shameless U.S. media outlets that serve as the faithful loudspeakers of any rich thug. But, do they turn their attention to the seats of government in the capital, occupying Congress and demanding a new election? No. Instead, they set fire to union houses. They drag the elected mayors of cities and towns, only those that belong to MAS, from their homes and beat them, along with their family members. They drag one, a proud indigenous woman, into the middle of a crowd and forcibly cut off her hair. They set fire to the house of Evo's own sister. This was terrorism, on an organized scale and with the open support of the far-right opposition parties and the U.S. media.

What will now happen to the incredible society their movement has built is unclear. Reports are coming in that at least twenty people from Evo's government have sought asylum in Mexico's embassy in the capital. The wiphala, the flag that represents the diversity of Bolivia's indigenous people, has been taken down from government buildings in the capital. Evo, for his part, has declared that he will not leave. He and his vice president have gone to the countryside, to their base, in order to lead the grim struggle going forward.

The coup faces one of the most organized mass movements on the continent, one whose resilience and revolutionary courage goes back centuries, from the resistance to the Spanish Conquest in the 1500s to the armed miner uprisings of only a few decades ago. The Bolivian people possess in their history and in their lived experience a great bravery. Now they must use it to defend the better society they have built.

This week is a sober reminder that history does not move along a straight line. An incredible victory in one corner can be, and often is, accompanied by a terrible defeat in another. Such is the nature of war. And what we are witnessing in our continent, from Haiti to Chile, is a war. A contradiction, like any tension, can only last so long before it breaks. The Americas have broken open, and all energy must be coalesced into common struggle to cast the bourgeoisie of our countries – whose descendants consciously committed genocide and forced millions into slavery so that they could live in decadence – into the dustbin. “History is ours,” said Salvador Allende as airplanes of the U.S. backed military dropped bombs around him and his comrades, “and the people make history.” In Bolivia, we suffered a defeat today. Tomorrow, let us ensure a victory there and in every corner of our America.

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