Driven by mass popular resistance, the election of Movement for Socialism signals a major victory against the coup leaders and their neoliberal backers in Washington, writes John Clarke.
The final results of the October 18 Bolivian elections confirm that an inspiring assertion of popular will has taken place, against formidable odds, in a country where the majority Indigenous population has long faced racism, exclusion and poverty.
The Movement for Socialism’s (MAS) presidential and vice-presidential candidates took 55.1% of the vote, against their right-wing opponents’ 28.83%. In the parliamentary election, MAS took 73 out of the 130 seats in the lower house of parliament and 21 of the 36 seats in the Senate.
This incredible result is also a resounding defeat for all those who wanted Bolivia to re-join the so-called Washington Consensus and see its population placed at the disposal of that massively exploitative agenda.
Last year, with violent right-wing protests on the streets, the Organisation of American States (OAS) hurling accusations of electoral fraud and in the face of threats from the military, the MAS government was brought down and its president, Evo Morales, forced into exile.
A coup regime, led by ‘a US-backed group of neofascists,’ was installed to return the country to the neoliberal fold. It was fully expected that it would be able to crush resistance and win international respectability with a sham electoral process conducted under conditions where the result would be safe and predictable.
The Trudeau government in Canada played the role of junior partner to the Trump Administration in laying the groundwork for this undertaking. In 2017, with the US standing aside, Canada took charge of organising the most repressive and reactionary regimes in Latin America and the Caribbean into the ‘Lima Group.’ Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Chrystia Freeland, later justified this in terms reminiscent of US Manifest Destiny. "This is our neighbourhood," she said, "For Canadians, we have a very direct interest in what happens in our hemisphere.”
Once the coup had been completed, Bolivia was given a place within the Lima Group so as to be part of the effort to overthrow the government of Venezuela.
Washington and Ottawa have particular reasons for wanting a compliant regime in place in Bolivia. Mining companies are especially interested in having unfettered access to the country with its vast lithium deposits, which are needed in the production of electric vehicle batteries. The ‘resource nationalism’ of Evo Morales was highly unwelcome in this regard.
More than anything, however, the logic of asserting control over ‘our neighbourhood’ requires that submissive client regimes are in place throughout the region and that no country be allowed to defy that.
The leading representatives of the coup certainly didn’t lack for reactionary credentials and a deep-seated racist hatred of the mass of Indigenous people in Bolivia. ‘Interim’ president Jeanine Áñez, a Christian extremist, had referred to Indigenous cultural practices as ‘satanic.’ She and her collaborators moved to try and intimidate all opposition and ‘alter the balance of forces on the ground before allowing any new elections.’
Their brutality, however, unleashed a determined social resistance that laid the foundations for this month’s electoral victory. Massive strike action and national highway blockades were organised in the face of deadly repression. The level of courage and defiance was such that last November, people marched into the capital, La Paz, carrying the coffins of those murdered by state forces.
There were attempts to delay the election, as a right-wing victory looked ever less likely, but powerful popular pressure ensured that it had to proceed. A working class population so ready to fight back could not be rendered submissive and the attempt to create an electoral farce for international consumption blew up in the faces of those who had planned it.
It is not to understate the victory that has been won to say that very major dangers lie ahead. President elect Luis Arce struck a very conciliatory tone in reacting to the decisive result. “We are going to govern for all Bolivians. We are going to build the unity of our country,” he declared. Morales took a similar approach, assuring his foes that, “We are not vengeful” and calling for “a great meeting of reconciliation for reconstruction.”
Those who have faced murderous repression under the coup regime over the last year might not feel so forgiving. For that matter, whatever tactical posturing they go in for, there is absolutely no doubt that the coup leaders, the Bolivian security forces and the political leaders in Washington and Ottawa will not be reconciled to this bitter result. They will see any conciliatory attitude on the part of Arce as an opportunity to win concessions in the short term, as they work to destabilise his government and prepare to overthrow it. In this, they would be even more ruthless than they were when they drove out Morales last year.
Far from needing an uncritical cheering section, it is important that the new MAS government face strong pressure on the left and understand that its base of support, having beaten back the architects of the coup, will not put up with retreat or vacillation.
Morales, indeed, did face such pressure during the period he was President, such as the incredible mobilisation of disabled people that took place in 2016 to advance a demand for disability benefits. Sadly, Morales responded to this social action by setting upon the disabled protesters the very security forces that would subsequently be used to drive him from office.
In power, Arce and his government will face very real challenges that will test their commitment to a progressive agenda. Under the coup regime, 8,500 Bolivians have died from COVID-19 and the country has the fifth highest per-capita death rate in the world. This impact, along with the neoliberal course charted by the coup leaders, has led to a 5.6% reduction in the economy. Dozens of people were killed by security forces over the last year and hundreds more faced imprisonment and torture. Those responsible must be held accountable and the conciliatory comments of Arce and Morales following the election raise serious concerns in this regard.
If the forces working to reverse the great victory that was won in this election are to be defeated, it will be vital to rally the base of support in the country and unite it behind a bold and uncompromising radical agenda.
During the years that Morales was President, the rate of extreme poverty was dramatically reduced and the income of the poorest 40% of the population was brought up considerably. However, his government also retreated on its programme of land reform and this ‘was taken by many to signal its prioritization of staying in office over real change.’ In the days ahead it will be necessary for Arce to return to the roots of MAS as ‘a social movement party committed to radical democracy and far-reaching transformation.’
Billionaire Elon Musk is among those with egg on his face after this incredible election result. With access to Bolivia’s lithium deposits in mind, Musk declared recently in a tweet that, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” His challenge has been answered by millions of Bolivians and the misnamed Washington Consensus has been shown to be very far from unstoppable.
At this time of global crisis, the huge victory over the US led ‘world order’ that has been won in Bolivia points the way forward throughout Latin America and beyond.
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John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.