by Djamila J. Chasqui and Javier Abimael Ruíz García
translated by David Milan
From the current circumstances that Bolivia is passing through and the different interpretations emerging around the “coup d’etat,” a few reflections that, far from “backing any government,” demonstrate the inherent contradictions of states, and in this case, expose the complexity of the events in progress in this Southern Cone country.
Translator’s addendum: In the 36 hours between the publication of the Spanish original and this translation, Jeanine Añez Chavez, of Bolivia’s tiny white oligarchical class, has assumed the Bolivian presidency. She is horrifyingly racist against indigenous people, as evidenced by this tweet from April 2013: “I dream of a Bolivia free of satanic indigenous rituals; the city is not for the Indians, they must leave for the altiplano and the chaco!” It is very uncertain how the conflict will continue to unfold. This article was written before these events and the writing and translation reflect that.
Comrades, chacha warmis of the communities, your vote has been respected. Your vote isn’t the problem. Red ponchos, green ponchos, they want to see you as imbeciles, as stupid peasants. Why? Because “the president of the peasant communities,” Evo Morales Ayma, wants to stay in power. The tirant who has ordered, who has declared, “go surround them, go and kill.”
Mama Gavina Condori Nina, Aymara woman from the Soras Nation
A disputed race for the 2020 to 2025 presidential seat took place in Bolivia. The elections were conducted with apparent calm on October 20, 2019, but that same day, after registering more than 86% of the rapid vote count, the TREP (Transmisión de Resultados Electorales Preliminares, Preliminary Electoral Results Transmission) and news reports were suspended for 23 hours.
Up until the moment before the suspension, the voting trend presented by the TREP as well as exit polls carried out by institutions like the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés and the ViaCiencia company (the only one with state permission to release preliminary election results) confirmed an imminent second electoral round between incumbent Evo Morales and Carlos Mesa (Bolivia’s 63rd president, in power from October 17, 2003 to June 9, 2005). Shortly before the counting ended, though, Morales said that since the votes still left to be counted were from rural areas, he was going to achieve the 10% difference needed to win in the first round.
That’s how, after the data started being released again, Morelos, from the MAS (Movement for Socialism), won with a 10.54% lead over Mesa, from Comunidad Ciudadana (Citizen Community, the “opposition” party). This meant Morelos didn’t have to go to a second round and attracted the attention of the Organization of American States (OAS), present as an election overseer, which released a statement.
Images, videos, and messages circulated through Whatsapp and Facebook, speaking of irregularities in the electoral process, miscounted votes, vote count documents signed without official delegates, etc., as a study conducted by engineer Edgar Villegas would later confirm. The study reported vote counts with irregularities that weren’t voided, people who signed as delegates from two opposing parties, and dead people who appeared as registered voters, among other things. The publication of this data on the University Channel’s “Jaque Mate” (“Check Mate”) program fueled the flames of discontent. Villegas himself, as well as the program’s host Ximena Galarza, received threats.
In the street, the first targets of groups that didn’t accept the election results were the departmental electoral courts. Many of them were burned and pelted with rocks in the departments (states) of Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, La Paz, Potosí, and Chuquisaca. Meanwhile in the city of La Paz, the seat of the Supreme Electoral Court (Tribunal Supremo Electoral, TSE)—the highest body governing electoral processes—crowds gathered to demand the judges’ resignation.
Little by little, the conflict intensified. The repression, and attacks by groups in opposition to the state institutions, increased. Days later CNN gave a new platform to Villegas, who said he had gathered more proof, making the so-called fraud increasingly tangible, undeniable, and close at hand.
The presence in the streets of the nine departmental capital cities was overwhelming. Public and private universities, the health sector and teachers—both historically opposed to the Morales government—held vigils, marches, and meetings. At the same time, in the neighborhoods, especially in the central and southern areas of La Paz, groups of neighbors started to block the streets, complementing a national civic strike called by the CONADE (Comité Nacional de Defensa de la Democracia, National Committee for the Defense of Democracy) and the Comité Pro Santa Cruz. The latter is headed by Luis Fernando Camacho, a businessman and lawyer whose figure as a civic leader, appealing to a religious discourse, has grown with the progression of the mobilizations.
After days of the same—marches, blockades, meetings—councils began to be called in the department capitals, with enormous attendance. They asked for a repeat election and the resignations of Morales and the judges of the Supreme Electoral Court, among others.
By that point, judges from several departments had already resigned. Statements from NEOTEC, the company that sold the special software for the election, showed evidence of irregularities in the technical processes that determined the election result.
MAS rallies and marches fell onto the councils convened by the civic committees of several cities. Some of the councils were aligned with Comunidad Ciudadana or other parties, and some displayed unchecked expressions of party electoralism and similar forms of conceiving of politics. In turn, accusations circulated of MAS dressing public employees up as miners and paying people to attend the marches (there are even some videos of payments and readings of lists of names and sums of money in accordance with their participation).
Drunk on power and alcohol, the shock groups defending Evo Morales, called by Evo himself to encircle the cities that observed the strike, to defend democracy and the rural and indigenous vote, unleashed cruel and indiscriminate violence on the elderly, women, and youth at the entrance to La Paz. Among the people injured was a well-known social fighter, involved in vigils for the victims of the dictatorships, who they left sprawled on the ground in spite of his ailments and advanced age.
To date, there have been three confrontations that led to fatalities. The first occurred in Montero, Santa Cruz, where a 55-year-old and a a 41-year-old were shot and pronounced dead at the hospital. The 41-year-old was a militant with the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista (Cruceñist Youth Union, UJC. Cruceñist or Cruceño refer to people or things from Santa Cruz, a Bolivian department heavily backing the anti-Morales opposition), a renamed shock group that takes direction from the Comité Pro Santa Cruz. The 55-year-old was a neighbor who got wrapped up in the altercation and later died.
Then in a demonstration by the Confederación Nacional de Mujeres Bartolina Sisa (Bartolina Sisa National Women’s Confederation) in Cochabamba, a 20-year-old man died in the middle of massive clashes that included paid protesters. The demonstration left 90 wounded and institutions burned in the town of Vinto, just outside Cochabamba, in actions claimed by the Resistencia Juvenil Kochala (Kochala Youth Resistance), a regional shock group.
Lastly, on November 10, caravans full of miners from Potosí, students, women, and others were attacked on the Oruro-La Paz highway. Men and women were humiliated, the men beaten, the women made to undress. Five people were wounded by gunfire, one of whom died, as the accusations report.
Across the country almost 400 have been reported wounded as of November 10, many of them seriously. There have been more than 200 arrests. Police repression comes and goes; it has varied widely. Sometimes they launch massive amounts of tear gas without consideration, as occurred the night of October 31 in El Prado, La Paz, where there were many children out with their families. Sometimes they just look down from the balconies, like when the miners from Huanuni entered the capital city and detonated sticks of dynamite at the feet of uniformed forces. And sometimes they protect those opposing Morales’ victory from the MAS’s shock groups, as long as the former outnumber the latter, as was the case in the city of Oruro. Here and there, demonstrators chant: “The police have two paths, unite with the people, or be their murderers.”
In the middle of this climate of clashes and tension, a heavily questioned OAS has deployed a panel of experts to audit the Bolivian electoral process, backed by the MAS and the Supreme Electoral Court and faced with an angry populace’s demand that they all leave, because what this populace wants is new elections, which one of the TSE’s judges has declared unconstitutional.
There doesn’t seem to be any agreed upon way out of the conflict, as events like those that occurred on November 5 demonstrate. On that day in the El Alto airport, MAS members surrounded a group of mostly young people that was there to make sure that Luis Fernando Camacho could get into La Paz to demand Evo Morales sign a letter of resignation. This letter has become a symbol of the demonstrations and been photocopied and put up on walls in the city center and on houses of publicly demonized members of parliament, judges, and ministers.
None of the government agencies could offer Camacho much guarantee of safety due to the huge crowd of MAS members waiting for him, so he opted to turn around and fly back to the city of Santa Cruz. On November 6, when he did succeed in entering La Paz, he was accompanied by a massive security detail that looked like a military operation.
The anti-Camacho crowd was there for his second arrival, and although he managed to avoid it, the 500 or so youths who had come to protect the Cruceño leader were forced to enter the airport and stay there for hours before an effort to evacuate them could succeed, as MAS shock groups clashed with police and destroyed convention centers and the El Alto Mayor’s office.
The unrest has also led to price increases, scarcity, and opportunism in central markets all over the country. There is generalized distrust as to which side anyone is on, if you are blockading the street in your neighborhood or if you’re marching with the MAS. Regular people are fighting one another, and the buttoned-down shirts of Camacho and Morales aren’t even specked with blood or the ashes of the Chiquitanía (a region in Santa Cruz department), with which their hands are stained.
They stand before their audiences, spotless, and never cease with their disguised incitements to violence against one sector or another, curiously enough within the framework of the same discourse, in which one denounces the racism of the other, without recognizing his own.
Anti-Morales and pro-Morales groups burn the houses of important figures from one side or the other as well as the headquarters of coca federations and workers’ and peasants’ unions that are loyal to the government.
November 10 and the so-called coup d’etat
Accusations by the “progressive” sector and their solidarity with Evo Morales in the face of a coup d’etat didn’t take long to roll in, and they began to spread far and wide. “Here before the international community and the Bolivian people, we denounce and condemn the fascist coup for its violent acts by irregular forces, who burned down the governors’ houses in Chuquisaca and Oruro, where they also burned down my sister’s house,” the president stated on Twitter the night of November 9.
At midday on November 10, in a press conference, commander of the armed forces Williams Kaliman suggested to the president that he abandon his post and to the opposition that they stop the violence, after which police forces around the country mutinied and the OAS concluded that new elections should be held. Around 4 PM, Morales announced on national television that he was “renouncing the presidency so that the opposition ceases the violence against their family members, union leaders, and the people who supported the MAS,” as the wave of resignations of representatives, ministers, and others surpassed 40 and grew by the minute. Leading the opposition, Camacho burst into the Bolivian government palace, placed a bible over the Whipala flag, and said, “Pachamama will never return to this palace. Bolivia belongs to Christ.”
A motley crowd went out into the streets, some to celebrate by tearing down symbols of the MAS and the indigenous movement, from clearly classist and racist perspectives, rejoicing in Bolivia’s liberation from a leftist dictator.
The aggressions didn’t only come from the opposition, though. It was very painful to watch MAS sympathizers forcing an Afro-Bolivian Cruceña woman to her knees, as the UJC had done in the past to the Collas (an indigenous people) in Sucre and Santa Cruz. It makes tears well up to see the valiant red ponchos of Achacachi, that nearly two decades ago overthrew the murderous Sánchez de Lozada during the Aymara insurgency, converted into a group of mercenaries at the service of power, at the same level as the fascist shock groups of the Civic Committees.
This is not about who takes power, whether one tyrant is less bad than another. And while feminist collectives and women from all over the country have proposed stepping away from the imposed polarization and war logic, up to this point no other alternative has been clearly put on the table for general discussion. So this situation seems to trend towards a resolution that preserves colonial and paramilitary logics, a stark constant of the states in this region of the globe.
Ancestors, apus and achachilas (spirits and revered elders, approximately, in Aymara) seem to be sending us coded messages to this plane of existence. Clouds of flies shield the MAS marches, a giant t’aparaku (black butterfly) alights on a wall of the government palace; all bad omens in the Andean cosmovision. Nothing would have surprised another eagle flying over the government palace, emissary of the lightning bolt that decrees the fall of the leader, as happened with Goni (a prior Bolivian president) during the gas war, but this time, Morales’ resignation was broadcast on video from another city.
What is certain is that we don’t know what will happen. We don’t accept any of the options that they’re offering us: for Morales to stay, for Mesa to come to power, for Camacho to bring the bible to the presidential palace. Nevertheless, the indigenous peoples gathered in the Court of Indigenous and Peasant Justice recently raised the idea of going on the march. The Kuraka of the Qhara Qhara nation, tata Mario Chincha, said in a declaration: “We, the original peoples, are busy in sowing seeds, in agricultural activities; this is what sustains our subsistence. We believe that looking at the situation that the country is going through, we as original peoples have seen the necessity of joining the mobilizations that the government has provoked through the elections.”
The civic-corporate-police alliance, showing a younger and more attractive face of the most rancid conservatism, is an obvious exercise in political marketing. It capitalized on the generalized discontent of a society without more concrete demands than the resignation of Evo Morales and the defense of the vote and democracy, in which people argue whether or not to call this a coup. Meanwhile, regular people fight against each other in the midst of dynamite explosions, broken windows, dam sabotage, water shutoffs, fear, and the stench of frustration.
Qullasuyu, Potosí, Bolivia, November 10, 2019