Bolivia’s president Evo Morales Ayma has just resigned. Hours earlier, surrounded by leaders of the grassroots mass organizations that serve as a sort of “people’s cabinet,” he had called for new elections and a renovated Supreme Electoral Tribunal to oversee the process. These are political decisions since according to the Constitution he won the elections of October 20.
In essence, Morales resigned to halt a campaign of terror. Paramilitary violence is being practiced by the right-wing and it has escalated. For weeks, those who look Indigenous have been attacked, with several deaths. More recently, a spate of attacks against MAS politicians and journalists has sought to drive fear into the majority of poor and rural Bolivians who deeply identify with the changes brought by 13 years of progressive rule under the guidance of Morales.
The governing party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), also made a political decision to ask the Organization of American States (OAS) to conduct a recount before the results were known, and the OAS has just made public preliminary results saying that there were serious problems, however, Evo Morales may well have won the elections. Nevertheless, they advised that new elections be held.
Yesterday, Bolivian social movements in La Paz, the center of government, answered the calls of the right-wing for president Morales to resign with their own ultimatum: That the leaders of the right depart the city of La Paz within 48 hours and leave its inhabitants in peace. They announced that in the face of police mutinies, the social movements would form a civil police force to protect the constitution and its elected representatives. In a tradition of struggle that is hundreds of years old, they announced they would encircle La Paz, however, they would do so peacefully.
The president’s logic is clear: “Bolivia is living moments of conflict with the risk of grave confrontations among Bolivians. As president, my principal mission is to protect life, preserve the peace, social justice, economic stability, and the unity of the Bolivian family.”
The situation is dire and as always, the devil’s in the details that the right-wing press does not divulge. An anatomy of recent events reveals critical factors silenced by the mass media. These factors will unfold in the coming weeks and months in correlation with the international response.
How the coup plan has unfolded
On the evening of election day in Bolivia as votes were being counted, the rightwing candidate Carlos Diego Mesa Gisbert realized that Morales was quite possibly winning in the first round. Mesa took that moment as the opening volley in the planned coup to topple MAS. Mesa abrogated the role of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and declared himself in a run-off election with Morales, the Indigenous president who has led most Bolivians from conditions of nineteenth-century servitude to an era of dignity and national sovereignty.
Mesa’s arrogance is breathtaking. It also mirrors his faith in his funders and handlers, the old elites and the Trump administration. The usual players in the Republican right wish to boycott an Evo Morales administration in Bolivia, and U.S. operatives, in addition to those in the embassy, have been wandering around the countryside to create rightwing foci of resistance.
While the United Nations twice urged all political leaders in Bolivia to avoid violent acts and “follow the legal norms,” the United States is claiming to do the same but in fact promoting a campaign to escalate tensions and delegitimize the elections. It is a pattern that reaches back to the origins of the Movement toward Socialism. Washington gives refuge to the bloodiest of the exiles from the 2003 “Gas War,” among them Carlos Sanchez Berzain, the Defense Minister of ex-president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (or Goni for short) who killed 67 during the 2003 peaceful protests. They fled the country protected by the US embassy and are reportedly deeply involved in coup plans at present. Sanchez Berzain is leading anti-Evo protests on the turf of right-wing Senator Marco Rubio, of ultra-right fame, in Miami.
The defeated candidate Mesa was coached by the United States on creating a large urban base that is fed astonishing lies, delivered via Facebook and WhatsApp. Mesa was Goni’s vice president in the early 2000s and became president when Goni fled the wrath of the people he massacred. Moreover, Mesa has said all along that he would not recognize any outcome except his own victory, the same stance as his political ally Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, another president close to Washington.
Almost one million votes out of about 7.3 million in total had not been counted when Mesa told the world that massive fraud had occurred, an allegation he has been unable to prove. The uncounted votes on the night the polls closed were overwhelmingly from the countryside and also the exterior, including immigrant workers. Among them were almost 100,000 Bolivians in Argentina of whom 82% voted for MAS.
Mesa knows he has never been a favorite of campesinos nor of immigrant workers living abroad. He also realized that he would keep losing votes to a far-right evangelical candidate. Hence, Mesa and his sponsors wanted the tabulation of votes brought to a dead halt while he still stood less than 10 percentage points distant from Evo’s lead. A 10% point lead is the cut-off point for winning in the first round if the candidate has gained at least 40% of the vote.
Reflect for a moment on Mesa’s strategy: its absurdity, its illegality, and its novelty in the arsenal of U.S. coup strategies that have ranged in this century from kidnappings (in Haiti and Honduras) to parliamentary coups built on a scaffolding of lies (in Paraguay and Brazil). The resounding victory of MAS in the vote of October 20 includes the presidency, almost 85% of all Bolivian municipalities, and a majority in both the Senate and the chamber of deputies.
Right-wing militants unleashed violence that night, long before the rural Acts representing one-seventh of the electorate had arrived at the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. As in the past, these votes have won the contest in Evo’s favor.
Some 100 youth were paid by Mesa and his associates to wreak havoc, according to government intelligence and confessions of youth transporting explosives who were arrested at the airport, and also the deathbed confession to the family of a young man recruited to create street chaos. He was preparing an explosive projectile that misfired and destroyed his head. His family knew he was earning good money but had not known how. Bolivia’s Indigenous cardinal Toribio Ticona, a man who shined shoes and worked in the mines before he became a priest, charged Mesa with responsibility for the mayhem he has directed.
Local electoral tribunals were trashed and set on fire, forcing a person to leap out of the second-story of a burning building, while others fled the blows of the rightwing coalition. At the same time, representatives of all the parties, including Mesa’s, had people inside the tribunals verifying the vote count. It was an odd way to stop electoral fraud. In several zones of the city of La Paz, right-wing attacks against election officials achieved the theft of their packages of votes being delivered from the countryside, and one of the packages was burned. In the more well-heeled sections of La Paz, thousands of right-wing demonstrators took the streets, humiliating women in Indigenous dress and police who were protecting government buildings.
The not-so-new paramilitaries
Those who attack with violence run the gamut of opposition movements over recent years, among them a group of dissident coca growers tied to narcotrafficking; a sector of miners abandoned to their own devices in the 1980s when mass layoffs imposed by the government shook the country, and these particular miners made common cause with the mining oligarchy; a sector of La Paz teachers that has always resisted MAS from a position at the far left of the political spectrum; and a sector of doctors and medical students that has been on strike who are opposed to the progressive expansion of free health care to cover all citizens. Various right-wing civic committees such as that of the city of Potosi announced far in advance that they would boycott elections. The youth of the city of Santa Cruz organized in “shock brigades” have been trying to kill people they call Indigenous since the start of the MAS era. Often, their violence takes place in the context of secession efforts by lowland elites.
Lowland Santa Cruz is a proudly mestizo and white heartland of agro-industry whose elite attempted to break the Movement toward Socialism with the guidance of the U.S. ambassador in 2008, adopting the symbols of the crusades. The hyper-racist president of the Santa Cruz civic committee has emerged as a power comparable to Mesa. His name is Luis Fernando Camacho and in the tradition of those elites he represents, Camacho positions himself as the voice of white superiority inspired by “my Christ the Redeemer.” He looks like he has just arrived from the golf course, he is alleged to have taken part in the Panama Papers tax-dodge scandal, and his methods are fascist. Supported by the arch-conservative politicians of Santa Cruz, he is coordinating paramilitary attacks.
In 2008, the Union of Santa Cruz Youth (UJC by its initials in Spanish) gained international attention as fascists by reason of their symbols, their language and their actions, as the fighting arm of elites who tried to secede from the Plurinational State of Bolivia led by Morales. “Brother Evo,” as he is known to his peers, belongs to a people known for their courage, the Aymara of the high Andean plain. Like many, his family migrated in the neoliberal crisis of the last century, and from harvesting potatoes and herding llamas, they turned to growing coca in the subtropical stretches bordering the Amazon that gave rise to one of Latin America’s most battle-tested labor movements. The middle-class UJC youth abhor everything Morales represents, and in those early years, the president was not able to travel to Santa Cruz due to their death threats.
UJC is part of a hemispheric network of right-wing paramilitary forces and has received ample support from its international allies. Appearing to be well-fed youth if we are to judge by their physique, they fight with bare torsos and have a fondness for liquor, even according to their leader Fernando Camacho who harangued them, “We cannot disrespect our Christ by continually drinking and listening to music.” When they don shirts, they are black shirts.
Alongside that tight-knit group built on a kind of white-settler pride, the political right has been recruiting young criminals nationwide with the lure of drugs and money. For those who are university youth, often their presence is less costly: Their professors make their grades contingent on their participation. The La Paz public university is the operational center for warehousing of arms and explosives and lodging youth trained in paramilitary techniques, recalling events in Nicaragua in 2018. They enjoy the protection of the Rector, Waldo Albarracin, who controls the autonomous space of that institution.
After winning, Evo’s observations about the opposition became much more direct: “Where did they come from? The come from the dictatorships …(and) they passed the government back and forth between them from 1985 to 2003.” He asked, “Where did (Samuel) Doria Medina come from: From (implementing) the privatizations. Tuto (Jorge) Quiroga? (From being vice president to the dictator) Banzer.”
Fernando Camacho for his part oversaw the burnings of homes and vehicles, beatings and provocations, and warned at a rally that his method of punishing traitors was the same as that of the infamous Colombian narcotrafficker Pablo Escobar, charged with 5,500 killings. Camacho added that the discovery of traitors would be followed by jail sentences rather than murder. Curiously, at just about that juncture, Mesa changed his stance from that of favoring an OAS recount of the votes, now taking place, to being categorically against that recount (Mesa’s actions are detailed below).
In his latest tactic, Camacho gave an ultimatum to resign to leftist and Indigenous president Evo Morales Ayma, who just won the elections by 47.08 percent as opposed to 36.51 percent garnered by the right. Camacho reportedly plans to guide the lowland region of Santa Cruz into secession from Bolivia, and then win the civil war that he hopes to incite.
The targets of right-wing wrath
As is true anywhere, the majority of the people in the sprawling city of Santa Cruz are poor, mainly migrants from the Indigenous nations of the Amazon and Chaco or the Aymara and Quechua nations of the high Andes. One-third of Santa Cruz has always voted for the political project of MAS –the same proportion as that of the left in many other countries– and in Santa Cruz the number of MAS votes is rising. When the poor were brutalized and sent to the hospital, a crowd gathered outside the hospital shouting, “Camacho, assassin!” and “We don’t want any strike, we want to work.”
Working-class residents of La Paz expressed their fear of the impending violence when Mesa challenged the vote count on October 20. Said one woman, “They hate us” – she is Indigenous – “and everything we have won, they want to destroy. Mesa killed us with Goni, and they want to return to that time.”
Since the right is trying to shut down the country, they attack vendors and storekeepers who resist the call for a general strike and they have brought to a halt the city of Santa Cruz. There, youths enter working-class neighbourhoods known to be bastions of MAS, armed with bats, sticks and explosives. Now they are using homemade bazookas and sticks with nails embedded. Their racist epithets are constant. They destroy local MAS campaign headquarters and the offices of campesino groups. One hundred UJC youth tried to lynch journalists.
Rightwing students in Sucre, who shut down the constitutional assembly in that city years ago and badly bloodied Indigenous campesinos, this October set the electoral tribunal on fire. Others attacked the president’s home in Cochabamba. In the lowland, tropical department of Pando, at 2:00 am long after the tribunal declared a victory for MAS, 150 motorcyclists from the right-wing forces attacked the home of the governor who was forced to flee to safety with his small children and his wife.
Cabinet ministers are receiving threatening phone messages and social media calls are being made to target their homes, with vandalism committed against the property of growing a number of them. Said the Minister of Government Carlos Romero whose children are receiving threats from the opposition: “I am right here if you need to threaten someone, but don’t threaten my children.”
After days of right-wing attacks, in the city of Montero in Santa Cruz, people of the age of the parents of the youths started clearing the debris and removing the blockades. UJC leaders got word, and transported armed youths to the scene. Their leader said, “If it’s bullets they want, I’ll give them bullets.” In cold blood, two of the MAS supporters were then killed, Marcelo Terrazas and Mario Salvatierra. One of the accused killers was dressed in full camouflage gear with all but his eyes covered by a black bandana, in other words, he was dressed like a paramilitary. The alleged killers and a number of their accomplices have been arrested.
The lies of the losing candidate
Mesa is notorious for his lies, one of the most infamous being his promise of justice, made when Goni fled, for those killed and injured in 2003. Unconscionably, the turmoil he unleashed in recent weeks had the public support of none other than the Organization of American States (OAS). They seemed to be joined at the hip with Mesa. The OAS was at that point demanding a second round of elections, in violation of Bolivia’s constitution. They called for a special meeting on Bolivia at their headquarters in Washington, with an ominous representation of less than admirable politicians: The governments of Brazil, Colombia and, lastly, Venezuela, by which they mean the U.S.-installed puppet Juan Guaido, who has been in the news these past few days for the revelation of his pact with Colombian paramilitaries, in which he contracted their violent services in exchange for allowing them control of the Colombo-Venezuelan border.
The actions of the OAS are unconscionable because they declared the vote count in Bolivia had stopped, however that assertion was one of Mesa’s lies. The country of Mexico took the lead in rejecting the favoritism of the OAS mission toward the right.
The official vote tabulation never halted. What stopped was the rapid count, called the Transmission of Preliminary Electoral Results or TREP in the Spanish acronym. The prior agreement was that TREP would only tabulate 80% of the total vote. On Sunday evening, October 20, having reached 83.85% of the total vote, TREP measured a lead of 4% by Evo Morales Ayma over Mesa. Mesa said the TREP count proved there was going to be a run-off election between the two of them and demanded a TREP count of 100%. He claimed that a count of 100% had been promised. Mesa was lying, according to the highest levels of MAS leadership.
Though it was not part of the original plan, the TREP count was reinitiated and the following night, Monday, at 23:59 hours, TREP made public new results representing 95.63% of the entire vote, showing that Evo Morales had won in the first round by the necessary 10% difference over Mesa.
At that point, Mesa executed an about-face and insisted that TREP had joined a massive fraud against him. For the record, when Mesa won with Goni against MAS, the difference was just 42,242 votes, while today, MAS has won by over 640,000 votes. Clearly, Mesa would be satisfied with nothing less than overturning the elections.
At the time the polls were closed, 12 copies of the Act that sums up the votes at each polling place, signed by the representatives of each political party, were distributed among them. A photograph of the Act was also sent via the internet to the Supreme Electoral authorities. These photos are available to the public on-line and easily investigated.
But those who allege foul play are not investigating anything, they are fanning what Bolivians of diverse political persuasions are calling “a psychosis.” Mesa’s few claims of fraud in the Acts that record the votes of each polling station, presented to the authorities, have been shown to be errors that were corrected, according to evidence on the same sheet of paper that was hidden from public view when Mesa’s forces made the argument for fraud.
Middle-class militants are fervent believers in the idea of stolen elections, absent real evidence. Meanwhile, the right-wing is encouraging panic buying of foodstuffs and for those who have cars, filling their tanks. It is a recipe for inflation. The MAS government has managed to guarantee food provision in most of the country with the exception of Santa Cruz.
The OAS agreed to the request made by the winning party MAS to recount the vote. Their condition is that the two leading candidates would accept the results as binding. That recount started on October 31 and is due to conclude on November 13. Mesa is now refusing to submit alleged proofs of fraud to the OAS, claiming the OAS is a pawn of MAS.
Mesa’s lies spare no one. Most recently, he claimed that the recount of the vote requested by the winning party was arranged unilaterally with the Organization of American States. The OAS had to publicly challenge Mesa, who at that point conceded that the OAS had telephoned him repeatedly to win Mesa’s consent to abide by the recount.
The Bolivian people versus the thuggery of the right
Workers and campesinos have declared a state of emergency against the return of the “privatizing oligarchs.” They organized enormous marches in the department of La Paz, the heartland of Aymara resistance which ignited the massive protests of 2003 that brought down president Goni. Bystanders applauded them as the social movements arrived from the edge of the vast canyon in El Alto to its depths in La Paz.
The intransigence of Mesa and Luis Fernando Camacho is clear, as their militants descend into an abyss of chaos. On November 6 they attacked thousands of Indigenous women in Cochabamba who marched with their children in support of Evo Morales. The racist rage of the right-wing is there for all to see. Women in Indigenous dress were kidnapped, and MAS mayor Patricia Arce (formerly a campesino union leader), was beaten, dragged through the dirt and doused with red paint in ritual fashion. She was made to kneel and beg for forgiveness. It is a “punishment” that the right uses repeatedly. Women in the grassroots of MAS point out that it is their sons who are being paid to join the shock brigades and attack their own mothers.
Massive rejection of the right-wing violence now includes many of those who voted for Mesa, some high churchmen close to the oligarchy, and tens of thousands of women who have marched in the last weeks, first to demand respect for the rural and Indigenous vote and then to decry the cruelties unleashed against those marching women. Bolivia has one of the highest representations of women politicians on earth and putting aside political affiliations, they have urged their compatriots to abjure violence. The rationality of MAS, the United Nations, the vast Indigenous and campesino populations and their urban relatives, and millions of mobilized women is such that the escalating savagery of the right can only be explained by a single factor: U.S. patronage.
Cindy Forster is the Chair of Latin American Studies and a Professor of History at Scripps College.