International solidarity is vital - the left must unite in condemning the coup against Morales, argues David Bush
The President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, was forced out of office in a coup on November 10. In Bolivia, this egregious attack on democracy, Indigenous peoples and workers by the right wing is being resisted fiercely in the streets, despite the increasingly deadly response by the armed forces supporting the coup.
While Bolivians are taking to the streets, the coup is a serious test for the international left. The forces that have carried out the coup, Bolivia’s oligarchs and far-right, are counting on international support from foreign governments to give the coup legitimacy. The left everywhere must rise to the occasion and force our own governments to condemn the coup and call for the restoration of democracy and the return of Morales and elected Movement for Socialism (MAS) officials.
Morales’ crime: redistribution by the left
Since being elected, Morales and MAS in government have presided over the continent’s greatest redistribution of wealth towards the poor and workers. In the last 13 years Bolivia has seen its poverty rate shrink from 60 percent down to 34.5 percent, its minimum wage increased by roughly 600 percent, and government social spending directed towards the most vulnerable sections of the population increase by 80 percent in real terms. The poor, workers and the Indigenous peoples have overwhelmingly been the main beneficiaries of Morales’ time in office.
When the MAS was elected in 2006 one of the first things they did was renationalize the hydrocarbon industry. After that they proceeded to nationalize the biggest telecommunications company in 2008, the hydroelectric complex in 2010 and the leading power company in 2012. On November 4 Morales cancelled a December 2018 agreement with Germany's ACI Systems Alemania to develop lithium deposits in the Salar de Uyuni salt flats after locals voiced strong opposition to the deal. The region has 50% to 70% of the world's lithium reserves a vital component for batteries.
Indigenous peoples asserting their sovereignty is a threat to global capitalism. As Morales stated after the coup “My sin is to be indigenous, a trade unionist and a coca grower.” This is why Morales and the MAS have always been loathed by Western governments, the media and Bolivian oligarchs.
It’s a coup!
The October 20 election, which saw Morales win the presidency and the MAS win the most seats in the legislature, was followed by growing protests by opposition forces claiming Morales’ election was fraudulent. The Organization of American States (OAS), which has a long and dubious reputation as being an arm of the United States, also quickly claimed to the international community that the elections were fraudulent. With the police and the armed forces backing the protestors and the far-right targeting MAS officials, Morales was forced out.
Those carrying out the coup are of course denying it was a coup d’etat. They point to the protests and opposition to Morales in the weeks leading up to the coup. They are also quick to highlight the fact that Morales was running despite losing a referendum on rewriting the constitution to remove term limits. Though they fail to mention he won his court challenge. The presence of protests in the lead up to coups are not unusual, Allende in Chile, Aristide in Haiti and Mosaddegh in Iran, all faced protests in the lead-up to right wing-led coups.
Many governments, such as those of the United States, Canada, the UK and Russia, not only denied that a coup took place, but were quick to recognize the far-right senator Jeanine Áñez as the new president of Bolivia, despite the obvious lack of her constitutional legitimacy. Most mainstream outlets spun the story as the armed forces standing up for constitution amidst protests and a disputed election. Some on the left have even mirrored this narrative. This obfuscation of the coup is disorienting and a deliberate effort by those backing the coup to weaken solidarity efforts and allow the coup time to consolidate.
The coup has been marred by violence directed against workers and Indigenous peoples. Morales and other leading members of MAS have seen their homes attacked, MAS and trade union officials have been subjected to mob violence and the military, in a bid to consolidate the coup, has killed dozens of protesters.
The left must be crystal clear, this was a coup. The OAS claims of widespread electoral fraud to the point that the vote count should be overturned or dismissed is without merit. Morales remains the most popular political figure in Bolivia. While elements of MAS’s base may have grown critical of Morales, the protests were driven by the oligarchs and the far-right, who never had any intention of respecting the election outcome.
Some on the left may choose this as the moment to draw critical lessons about the parliamentary road to socialism or the shortcomings of Morales and MAS. But whatever the shortcomings of Morales and MAS, the international left should remember that this was a right wing coup against a left wing government. Morales was overthrown for the policies he pursued and for what he symbolized, an Indigenous socialist trade unionist.
In the middle of a right wing coup it is not the role of the international left to draw up a ledger of the government being overthrown. The focus must be squarely on opposing the coup and building movements in our home counties to stop our governments from supporting this coup. If we fail to do this, it will only encourage our governments to further intervene in other countries. In countries with a long legacy of imperial interventions, such as the U.S., the UK and Canada, the left must front and centre the right of national self-determination and sovereignty.
When socialists in imperialist countries use the coup to make a point about the limits of parliamentary socialism or the limits of MAS’ strategy, it comes off as arrogant and out of touch with the reality on the ground in Bolivia. Bolivian movements in most regards are well in advance, in both theory and practice, of the left in countries such as Canada and the U.S. This isn’t to say MAS and Morales are perfect, but to suggest that a degree of humbleness is in order, especially for socialists who live in countries that have failed to build strong anti-war movements.
Opposition to the coup won’t be built overnight. It will be the product of sustained action and agitation. The first approximations of opposition in the west may be messy and imperfect, but the key is to get the political landscape moving in the correct direction. This requires building the widest possible unity in opposition to the coup.
A number of left wing politicians in the west, such Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Jagmeet Singh, have condemned the coup. Not all of these statements are perfect, but they are moving in the right direction.
Using the coup in Bolivia to showcase the limits of reformist projects is both sectarian and a flawed way of understanding how social change happens. Politics is not taking a snapshot of the current landscape and projecting it forward. It is the art of fighting to change dominant ideas through action. The left must keep fighting to win the widest possible unity against the coup with the strongest possible political message.
We need to continue to demand our politicians and the media call this what it is, a coup. The longer governments and the media in the west hold-off on declaring the coup, the easier it will be for the right wing in Bolivia to stay in power. Stripping the legitimacy of the coup is key. This also means challenging narratives that Morales was a dictator or that the election was fraudulent.
Calling this a coup is just the first step. The left must also exert pressure wherever it can to push our governments not to recognize the new self-anointed president. We must also be calling for the safe return of Morales and MAS officials and an end to the killing by the coup regime.
For the left, this means winning this argument inside working class organizations. Getting unions to pass motions condemning the coup and our government’s support of the coup is a very valuable tool in shifting the mainstream debate on the issue, as well as providing an opportunity to win this argument amongst members inside unions. It is heartening to see the AFL-CIO in the U.S. oppose the coup. In Canada, unions and local labour councils have been passing motions condemning the coup and denouncing Canada’s role in supporting the coup.
International solidarity is not some nice addendum in the fight for socialism, it is at its heart. Our government’s foreign policy cannot be divorced from positions on domestic policy so easily. The racist and colonial actions of my government’s actions at home are interwoven with their racist and colonial perspectives abroad. The attack on Morales and the Bolivian government is an attack on democratic rights and Indigenous Peoples everywhere and must be forcefully opposed. The coup in Bolivia is far from consolidated as the people are continuing to resist. We can do our part by pressuring our governments to oppose the coup.