Bolivia has a particular place in the harrowing record of how Europe came to dominate much of the world after history was split in two by Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean in 1492. In 1545 the Spanish started mining silver, with slave labour, in Potosí in what is now the southern highlands of Bolivia. Eduardo Galeano wrote: “You could build a silver bridge from Potosí to Madrid from what was mined here – and one back with the bones of those that died taking it out.”
The mines produced previously unimaginable wealth for the Spanish crown – in a single year more than 200 tons of silver were shipped to Spain from Potosí. The sudden abundance of silver in Europe weakened the gold markets in West Africa, strengthened Christian Europe against the Islamic world and enabled investment in further colonial expansion and enslavement.
In 1979, June Nash opened We Eat the Mines, and Mines Eat Us, her now classic account of the lives of indigenous workers in a Bolivian tin mining town, by noting that although Bolivia, at that point the poorest country in Latin America, was “the second country in the world production of tin, with big deposits of iron and zinc as well as bauxite, lead, copper, magnesium, gold and whatever silver was left by the Spaniards, it has the lowest indices in per capita income, literacy levels and life span.”
In a text left unfinished at his death in 1984, René Zavaleta Mercado, the great Bolivian intellectual of the second half of the last century, stressed that the settler states established in Latin America are “countries and societies constructed against the Indians”. In the case of Bolivia, which has an indigenous majority, he described the temptation among some to “locate the viability of Bolivia in the whites” as “a kind of schizophrenia”.
Bolivia was dominated by Europeans and their descendants for 500 years, with 14 coups between 1899 and 1980. The wheel of history began to turn in late 1999 in the central city of Cochabamba, which sits in a valley in the Andes. The Bolivian state had been in the grip of the World Bank since 1985, and had pursued the usual programme of austerity and privatisation. The privatisation of municipal water resulted in rates being increased, and those who could not pay being disconnected. In Cochabamba, this was met with a general strike and road blockades. Evo Morales, then a senator with his political base in the Coca growers’ union, joined the protests, which turned into a more generalised rebellion, and were eventually successful in reversing the privatisation. Protests, often taking the form of road blockades, continued to gather strength in the next few years. In 2003, an attempt to privatise the country’s natural gas and sell it to American interests at vastly less than its value escalated the rebellion.
Morales had founded the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) [Movement towards Socialism], a socialist party that sought to “Indianise” Marxism, in 1998 and, in 2005, on the back of the popular revolt, he won the presidency. His deputy president, Álvaro García Linera, was a former guerrilla and a major Left intellectual. After taking office, the salaries of politicians were cut and the oil and gas industries nationalised. In the years to come massive investments were made in social programmes, there was land reform at significant scale, and indigenous languages, practices and symbols were affirmed. Extreme poverty declined from 38% in 2006 to 17% in 2018.
Morales, like other Left-leaning leaders elected across Latin America at the time, faced intense opposition from the United States from the start, as well as a deeply racist white right- wing at home, including explicitly fascist elements. In 2008, as tensions escalated, he took the bold step of expelling the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which has frequently been implicated in coups and attempts to undermine elected governments.
The MAS initially described itself as a political instrument for the popular movements that had bought it to power, and encouraged popular movements to retain their autonomy and power outside of the state. But, after some years in power, some critics on the Left began to argue that the state was starting to instrumentalise the movements. It was also suggested that, as inevitably happens when political transformation is not revolutionary, some compromises had been made with entrenched interests in Bolivia. A plan to construct a road through the Amazon led to controversy, and protest, which peaked in 2011. In 2016, Morales narrowly lost a referendum that asked Bolivians if they would like to do away with presidential term limits. The courts later ruled in support of doing away with such limits. Critics argued that while Morales had a legal right to stand for another term in the 2019 election, political power was becoming overly personalised.
When the general elections arrived in 2019, Morales remained the most popular politician in the country. Nonetheless, he was facing some popular protest and criticism from parts of the Left, as well as protest and criticism from the often deeply racist Right. Leaked audio recordings have shown that key figures on the Bolivian Right, along with significant figures in the military, had planned for a coup in advance of the election.
How the coup played out
The trigger was pulled after the election when the Organisation of American States (OAS) claimed there had been electoral fraud. The OAS is largely funded by the United States, and openly supported the 2004 United States-backed coup against the elected government of Haiti. No evidence was provided for the claim that there had been fraud, and, at the time of writing, there is no evidence of electoral fraud.
Following the statement by the OAS, Williams Kaliman, commander of the Bolivian armed forces, asked Morales to step down. Kaliman is a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which has trained a very long list of Latin American soldiers who have gone on to torture activists, repress popular struggles and lead death squads and coups.
Following the military coup, Morales and Linera flew to Mexico, and Jeanine Áñez, a leader of the white Right with strong links to corporate power, declared herself president with a dramatically oversized bible in her hand. In 2013, Áñez had described indigenous spiritual practices as “satanic” and declared, in high Verwoerdian style: “The city is not for the Indians.” Following her assumption of the presidency, the Wiphala, the flag of the indigenous people of the Andes, has been removed from public spaces and buildings, and official uniforms, and often desecrated. There have been numerous racist attacks on indigenous people. There have also been significant protests in support of Morales, especially in the city of La Paz, high up on the Andes’ Altiplano plateau. The situation remains tense.
An all white cabinet
Late on Wednesday evening Áñez, surrounded by cheering military leaders, announced her new cabinet. It did not include a single indigenous person. Four of the eleven people appointed to her cabinet are members of the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, an organisation which is regularly described as fascist, and which has a well documented history of violence against left-wing activists.
Unsurprisingly, the coup has been welcomed by right-wing leaders such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson, and condemned by left-wing leaders such as Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Lula da Silva. Here in South Africa, it has been condemned by forces ranging from the African National Congress to trade unions and grassroots organisations opposed to the ruling party.
As always in these situations, it will take some time before all the details come out. But when a military leader insists that an elected leader must resign, there is no doubt there has been a coup. The fact that there are popular organisations and critics on the Left who are independent of the MAS, and some who are critical of Morales, does not change this fact. It is equally clear that this coup has returned the Bolivian state to the control of a deeply racist white right-wing.
If the coup can sustain the hold that the white Right now has on the Bolivian state, the lithium required for the electric cars of the future, which Bolivia has in abundance in Potosí, will, like the tin and the silver before it, continue to generate great riches in the cities of the North and desperate impoverishment in Bolivia. And in a country with a recent history of extraordinary popular mobilisation, the restoration of a 500-year-old system of racial domination and exploitation will only be possible with sustained violence and other forms of repression.
In South African terms, a useful analogy with recent events in Bolivia could take the form of imagining a future in which an elected ANC president, facing significant criticism and protest at home, as both Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma did, was removed from office by a white general trained in the United States and replaced with an unelected president from the Vryheidsfront Plus.
The coup in Bolivia is an attempt to bring another country into the orbit of the far right international headquartered in Washington, and with notable redoubts in Brasilia, Delhi, London, Warsaw and Budapest. It, and its defenders who misrepresent the armed restoration of white authority, unelected white authority, as a “democratic” initiative, must be opposed with all the fury entwined with the grief for the dead whose bones could build a bridge from Madrid to Potosí. As Walter Benjamin famously wrote, in the shadow of European fascism, “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”